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How to Write a Freaking Cool Novel: Step 11: Protagonist and Voice, Give them a Test Run

novel writing tipsThis article is part of a series. To get the most out of this article, start by reading article 1 in the series.

Every story comes at you with its own voice. On a plate of foot, if plot and character are the meat and potatoes, voice is the seasoning. Meat can be seasoned mildly with a little table salt, perhaps some paprika and a dash of cumin just to add some interest. The same meat can be seasoned with hotter than Dante’s 9th circle of hell habanero flakes, horseradish, and a pinch of cayenne. The meat remains the same, but the experience of eating the entree is wholly different.

Voice: An Extension of Character
Any single story can be told many ways. Voice is the perspective from which the story is spun. Each story should have its own overlying voice. Each major character must also have his own perspective of events transpiring in the story.

Voice comes directly out of the context of character. In what way is a character involved in the story? What events in a character’s back-story affect that character’s perspective? A laid back character who allows life to happen around him has a different perspective than an anally retentive character who teeters on the edge of obsessive compulsion. The nuts and bolts of the story might be absolute, but voice has the ability to drastically change that story’s flavor. The same story can be blazing hot; it can be mild; it can be over-salted; it can be runny and weak.

Say someone dies in the family and the story of that person’s death comes out in an obituary in the local paper. It might read like this:

Arnold Kinman, born March 11, 1948 in Salt Lake City, Utah, passed away at age 63 peacefully in his home after fighting lung cancer for 2 years. Arnold lived a full life. He served 2 tours in the Vietnam War as a master sergeant. He will be buried with full honors at the Lakeside Cemetery, located at 7th and Greenwood. Arnold often said, “honor: respect it, love it, live by it.” His credo has been passed down into the next generation. Arnold is survived by his 3 sons, Arnold Jr., William, and Tracy “Brick” Kinman, all serving active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps. Goodbye father; we’ll miss your stories.

Lets take the same story and tell it using the voice of Arnold’s oldest son, Arnold Jr., as he sits in a bar with friends 2 nights after his father’s death.

They finally put him in the ground. I swear my old man was going to live forever. Funeral was nice, I guess, if you were one of his army buddies. As for me, I just stood in the background, the place I’m used to when they’re around. All of his old army blow-hard friends, with their tattoos and filthy minds, are dropping like flies. Most of them go down just like Big Arnold, the mighty cigarette taking them one by one like some kind of serial killer. You know, he’s a murderer; not in the first degree or anything, but my old lady died 3 years ago of lung cancer and she didn’t pick up even one of those death sticks. I can’t forgive him for that. He killed the only thing in my life that I loved. So here’s to you Dad; this drink’s for the gipper.

Here’s the way Arnold’s second son might tell the story of his dad’s death to his wife as the two of them lie in bed talking just before going to sleep.

I guess I should be sad about it. I guess I should cry. But I just don’t have any tears. You know, after a whole life lived right out on the edge, he left me nothing. I guess I’m used to it. He always took care of Arnold Jr. Did you know that he actually bribed that Ohio State baseball scout to come watch him play? And then there’s Tracy with his baby face and his ability to take a fly off a cow’s ass from 100 yards with that damn rifle of his. Arnold and Tracy are getting everything: the jeep, the house, Dad’s pittance of a 401K. And I’m getting jack. I guess I should have been nicer to him, but what comes around goes around; he should have respected my decisions rather than shoving that hooah crap down my pipe. I’m just not going to be one of those mindless Jarheads like my brothers. And if Dad can’t accept it, who cares; he’s dead now. I’m up to enlist again in three months and you know what I’m going to tell them? Go screw yourselves.

Finally, lets read the same story using the voice of Arnold’s third son, Tracy “Brick” Kinman. This is how he might discuss his father’s death with a couple of good friends out at the shooting range.

I can’t think about it, man. I can’t believe he’s gone. You know, he was the only rock in my life. Since Mom died, he’s had to pick it up. Did you know he worked three jobs just to keep bread on the table and to keep my loser of a brother, William, in collage? I’m just glad my unit was called up so he could finally have a son who is an actual combat veteran. I know what we did in Afghanistan wasn’t nothing compared to the crap Dad had to wade through in Nam. But I think of my whole tour as a gift and tribute to him, a sendoff of sorts. I can’t believe he won’t be in my life any more. Best I can do, I suppose, is try to be like him as much as I can.

An astounding amount of character about Arnold Kinman Sr. can be derived from these three voices. Although they all tell the same story, they all have their own way of telling it.

Voice and Point of View
There are many narrative options to choose from when writing your story.

You might use first person perspective (I want to kill him). You may opt for second person (You want to kill him)–although this is not common. You might choose the most common narrative form, third person perspective (he wants to kill him).

You might take on an omniscient god-like point of view and write scenes inside and outside of your protagonist’s viewpoint.

You can use a limited omniscient viewpoint, employing the third person perspective, but limiting your scenes to those in which your protagonist is present.

You may choose to use a third person subjective viewpoint in which you describe your characters’ intentions, thoughts, and feelings.

You might opt for a third person objective approach like a screenplay where you merely describe what happens devoid of character viewpoint and sentiment.
Any of these approaches is valid. But make sure you choose a narrative point of view that best reflects the voice of your story and the voices of the main characters tied into your story.

Testing Out Voice
Many novelists claim that the voice of their novels doesn’t come to them until they are nearly complete with their first drafts. Sometimes it takes that long for your characters to speak to you. Until you discover your novel’s voice, that novel remains in danger of laying flat and never getting up.

You have spent a lot of time developing your characters. To establish voice, dig into your character sketches and find what seems important to your story. How does your protagonist communicate? Is he easily angered? Is his logical? Is he educated? These factors weigh heavily in how your character tells his story, whether you choose to write in first or third person.

Rather than discovering the voice of your novel after wading through the horrendously long process of putting down a first draft, why not take a short cut. Start with a short story using your protagonist. Write the same story or other stories using different narrative forms until you feel comfortable with your story’s voice.

Gus the Plumber: A Voice Test
Below, I have pasted a short story about Gus the Plumber, the ongoing novel example that I have been working on throughout this article series. I view Gus as a never flustered, always pleasant man. As I have written his character sketch, I have come to know him as honest, loyal, and average looking. He takes his business seriously and does everything he can to do the job right.

I have used a 3rd person subjective point of view so I can describe his inner feelings as he works through the conflict of the story. I have also decided to stick to Gus’s perspective and keep scenes that don’t feature Gus out of the story. Although I have decided to use 3rd person, the story will feel almost like a 1st person experience. I want to explore Gus. I want readers to get to know him—to get to like him.

By the way, I have taken the liberty of recording this story and releasing it as part of my podcast. You can subscribe for free on iTunes. Just visit the iTunes store and search on my name, Craig Nybo. By subscribing, you can listen to many of my stories.

As I finished this story, it occurred to me that this might be a great way to begin Gus’s novel. It just might make it into the manuscript as the first chapter.
No more blabbering. I now present to you, The Integrity of Gus the Plumber: a Short Story and experiment in voice.

by Craig Nybo

Gus, a good plumber by any standard, usually dealt in pipes, fittings, and congested clogs, not in contending with creatures from alternate universes. When Gus used his number 6 razor to cut a hole in the drywall behind Mrs. Brickwell’s clogged kitchen sink, he expected to see acorn-head supply tubes, a copper tailpiece and, he hoped, a swivel P-trap. The trickiest part of installing a sink and faucet is getting the drain right, Gus had said over dinner to his girlfriend, Dierdre, the night before, that’s where a swivel P-trap really earns its keep.

As he made a circular cut in the drywall, using a swivel bracket, he thought about the way Dierdre had slurped up her spaghetti the night before, about how it had smacked her upper lip and left a dab of sauce in the hollow just under her nose. He hadn’t told her about the little stain; the small imperfection was endearing to him.
Gus’s blade sliced easily through the wall; the drywall had been bathed in leaking water far too often to maintain its original strength. He drew a flat-head screwdriver from a loop in his utility belt and stuck it into the circular groove to work the piece free.


“Dad blam it,” he said. He dropped the screwdriver and fumbled for his cell phone. He checked the caller ID; it was Dierdre. He flipped the phone open and put it to his ear. “Hey, sugar-bomb, I was just thinking about you.”

“What you doin’? I thought we were on for lunch,” she said. Gus imagined her holding a phone to her ear, a small dab of marinara sauce on her lip.

“I’m on the job, peach. I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

“And I had my hopes up too.”

“Tell you what, let me put on my blue tooth and I’ll talk you through how to fix a leaky sink.”

“Sounds like fun.”

Gus rifled through his toolbox until he found the small ear apparatus he had bought a couple of weeks ago. He hated wearing it; the thing made him feel like he was on the bridge of the Enterprise. He screwed it into his ear and sat his phone down on the counter. “Can you hear me, sugar-bomb?”

“Loud and clear.”

Gus picked up the flathead screwdriver and pushed its tip back into the circle-cut he had made in the drywall. “I would have gotten right over there, except for Mrs. Brickwell’s such a sweet-heart. I couldn’t just leave her in the lurch.” He thumped the back of the screwdriver with the hammer end of his fist. It penetrated the last millimeter of uncut drywall. He began working the screwdriver around the cut.

“We still on for dinner and a movie?” Dierdre asked.

“You bet your sweet apple.” He finished working the screwdriver around the cut and pried back. The drywall disc fell into his hand. “What the…” Gus squinted and gazed through the hole.

“What is it?”

“There’s nothing under Mrs. Brickman’s sink–not so much as a faucet supply tube or a waste-line.”

“I don’t want to talk about plumbing; we always talk about plumbing.”

“Sorry, peach, it’s just that I’m stymied here.” Gus fumbled through his toolbox for a small, LED headlight. He snapped the elastic band over his head, straightened his horn-rimmed glasses, which made his eyes look larger than they actually were, and clicked on the juice. He shined the lime-colored light into the hole and leaned up close. It seemed he had cut into some kind of a cavern; darkness extended back as far as his light could penetrate. Dank air, squalid and swampy smelling stuff, oozed from the opening.

“You still there?” Dierdre asked.

“Yea, I’m here. I got something really strange going on, sugar-bomb.”


“It’s like some kind of alternate universe hooked right up here under Mrs. Brickwell’s sink.”

“That’s impossible.”

“I don’t know, I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff on this job. I can’t rule anything out.” Gus rifled through his toolbox until he found a short, sickle shaped knife he usually used to remove silicone calking. He cut away at the little opening, making it large enough for his head. He cursed as pieces of drywall fell into the cabinet; cleanup would be a bear. He’d have to go out to his utility truck and get a wall patch and spackle. He’d probably take a bath on this job, but the truth was, he hadn’t found the leak yet. He hadn’t even seen so much as a bushing or a ¾-inch nipple.

He crouched on all fours and rocked forward like a bloodhound pointing out a felled goose. He pushed his cinderblock sized head through the hole and almost puked at the rancor that met him. He remembered from back when he was a boy, Screech, his cat, had gone missing. His mother had told him that Screech had gone to kitty heaven and that Gus should be happy for the little tabby. But Gus knew better. Screech had probably been hit by a truck and tossed to the side of the road like a dirty towel. A few days later, when the smell of rotting flesh rose from under the front porch, Gus had belly-slid underneath the slats to investigate. There was screech, bloated and crawling with flies. The smell inside the hole behind Mrs. Brickman’s sink reminded Gus of what he had smelled when he had found Screech.

“What’s going on?” Dierdre asked

“I can’t find any plumbing at all, not even a slip nut or a strainer basket. I’m afraid I’m going to have to bring this to Mrs. Brickwell’s attention.”

Gus heard something below him, a splash, slurpy and reverberating. He trained the beam of lime-light from his headlamp downward towards the sound. Something shifted, wet and churning. He squinted, trying to adjust his eyes to the lack of light. Something touched him on the forehead, a sleek finger. The sensation reminded him of seaweed washing up against his skin. Before he could pull free from the hole, a tentacle closed around his neck, cinching his esophagus to a pencil-sized tube. With both hands he clenched down on the writhing mass. It felt about as thick a human thigh, its surface slick and bumpy like the body of a snake.

“Gus, are you alright?” Dierdre’s voice said through the earpiece. He tried to say something, but the creature had choked off his ability to speak. The light from his headlight flicked back and forth as he struggled, kicking and fighting for air. The beam passed over something else, a mouth perhaps, round, more like a beak than a maw.

Gus realized that he still had the sickle-shaped knife in his hand. He slashed at the tentacle. He felt its grip ease more with each cut. A guttural hiss slurped out of the beak, which moved toward Gus’s head. With a long, lengthwise slash, Gus finally pulled free. He jerked backward hard enough to fall on his butt out of the sink cabinet altogether.

“What’s going on?” Dierdre asked.

“I think I’ve found Mrs. Brickman’s problem.”

Chattering and hissing erupted from beneath the sink. The tip of a wounded tentacle shot out from the darkness and slammed the cupboard door wide open. Gus crab-crawled away from the tentacle until his back pressed against the opposite wall. He trained his light on the hole he had cut. The creature’s mouth appeared, a beak at the end of a stalk that was about the size of a 1-½ inch schedule 40 PVC drain pipe. The beak opened and shut, hissing and spitting clear liquid.

Gus stood up, put his hands on his hips, and watched the tentacle slurp and curl back and forth across the kitchen floor, leaving trails of guck and spider-web slime. He scratched the graying hair at his temple then stroked his unshaven chin. An idea hit him. He wheeled around and walked out of Mrs. Brickman’s house.

As he moved along the concrete path that split Mrs. Brickman’s yard, he spotted Mr. Updike, the nice old man who lived next door. Mr. Updike sat on a brand new John Deere GX85 riding mower. With a lawn of less than a 2,000 square feet, Gus figured Mr. Updike probably didn’t need a big mower. But Mr. Updike was getting a little long in the tooth. Maybe he no longer had the strength for a push-mower.

Seeing Gus, Mr. Updike smiled and shut down the big machine. “I thought that was your truck.” Mr. Updike said, nodding towards Gus’s utility vehicle. “Mrs. Brickman still having trouble with her pipes?”

“Seems so.”

“Is that Mr. Updike?” Dierdre said in Gus’s ear. “Say hello for me, why don’t you?”

“Dierdre says hello.”

Mr. Updike smiled, barring a set of tobacco stained veneers. “She’s a wonderful catch, Gus; don’t let her get away.”

“I don’t plan to.”

Dierdre giggled in Gus’s ear.

Gus raised the back hatch of his utility truck and opened a drawer of fasteners and clamps. “That a new grass-whacker?”

“She’s a bute. Got a bad knee from the war, you know. I expect I won’t be walking at all in the next piece.”

“Sorry to hear that.” Gus took a few items from the drawer then, as an afterthought, drew a long squeegee from a PVC pipe shaft he had bolted to the side of his truck. He started back up the path toward Mrs. Brickman’s front door.

“Mrs. Brickman home?” Mr. Updike asked.

“Nope, but I expect to see her any minute.”

“You know, when you get that fixed, I was wondering if you might come over to my place. I’ve been having some problems with my sump pump. She spits up sometimes and I swear I can hear something down there: rats I figure.”

“Could be rats, could be something else,” Gus said. “Tell you what, when I finish up here, I’ll stop by and take a gander.”

“You’re a gentleman.”

Gus stepped back into the kitchen. The tentacle writhed and jittered: a mindless organ. The thing must have smacked against a cupboard of dishes while Gus was talking to Mr. Updike; glass and silver littered the floor, scattered like jacks across the faux wood laminate. He hoped he wasn’t looking at the remains of Mrs. Brickman’s china; she’d be furious.

He placed the items he had brought from the truck on a counter then finagled the long squeegee through the kitchen entrance. He held the squeegee, shaft side up, and watched the tentacle writhe, waiting for the right opportunity to act. The tentacle thwacked back and forth, slamming against counters and cupboards. It back-struck a food processor that sat on one of the countertops. The appliance soared across the kitchen and crunched into a wall-clock shaped like an owl, its eyes tick-tocking back and forth from corner to corner. Both devices crashed to the floor, ruined.

After a prolonged fit, the tentacle settled down. Gus stomped down hard, landing with his steel-toed waffle-stomper on the tip of the leathery mass. The little beak, still poking out of the hole Gus had cut beneath the sink, chattered and hissed. The tentacle jerked left and right, trying to free itself from the rubber sole of Gus’s boot. Gus positioned the squeegee over a larger section of the writhing appendage and forced it down. He worked the squeegee handle up against the kitchen ceiling and trapped the feeler under the rubber blade. With two good pounds of his forearm, Gus fixed the shaft in place.

“I thought we’d go out for Chinese tonight,” Dierdre said. “You picked the restaurant last night and, as much as I like Italian, you can’t do better than a plate of kung pou pork.”

“Sounds peachy to me,” Gus said, picking up the items he had brought from the utility truck and moving across the kitchen to the sink. He crouched down and gazed at the beak, still screeching and spitting through the drywall hole. He figured it had about a 2-½ inch span at its most open position. He took a pair of channel-lock pliers from his toolbox and adjusted them to their open-most setting. After two unsuccessful jabs, he snagged the beak with the pliers and clamped down, forcing the thing to open up like a snapdragon. He reached to where he had put the items he had brought from the truck and picked up an eighteen-inch length of 2-½ inch schedule 40 PVC. Careful not to release his hold on the pliers, he pushed the plastic pipe into the creature’s open snapper. It screeched again and pissed a yellowish liquid into the pipe. But it remained otherwise motionless under the grip of Gus’s channel locks.

“I thought we’d go to the classics theater. They’re showing Citizen Kane tonight; you know, it’s supposed to be the best movie of all time,” Dierdre said.
“Orsen Wells made that flicker, didn’t he?” Gus slid a 2-½ inch trap adapter and slip-nut along the schedule 40 PVC and over the struggling beak. He twisted the slip-nut, cinching down the threads. The hard, bony lips of the beak cracked under the strain, going flat beneath the trap adapter.

“Orsen Wells, that’s right,” Dierdre said.

“Didn’t he also write that radio drama that terrified everyone into thinking that aliens were attacking?”

“That was H. G. Wells,” Dierdre said with a chuckle.

“I always get those two mixed up.” Gus grabbed the end of the 18-½ inch schedule 40 with one hand and released the channel locks. Though the beak fought and sputtered, it couldn’t free itself from the girth of the pipe, which now acted as a shaft straight down the creature’s throat. “Mrs. Brickman, you’re going to owe me a big tip for this one.”

“What was that?” Dierdre asked.

“Nothing, sugar-bomb, just talking to myself.” Gus picked up a metal can of extra strength Drano crystals. He worked the lid off with his thumb then dumped the entire bottle down the pipe in one pull. A crackling sound came up through the pipe, followed by a shrill whine. Gus felt a little bad for the creature; but Mrs. Brickman’s interests had to come first. The creature buckled and jerked. Gus had to drop the empty Drano can and clamp down tight on the pipe with both hands to keep the beak from pulling free and reeking havoc on the interior finish of the sink cabinet.

The tentacle, lying across the kitchen floor, flexed and bucked afresh, still trapped under the lodged squeegee. It wrenched back and forth, looping and curling. The squeegee slipped a few inches. Gus gasped. He reached to try and reset the squeegee, but he couldn’t both hold the pipe and reach the squeegee’s shaft at the same time.
“Maybe we should try Vietnamese instead of Chinese,” Dierdre said.

“It’s all the same to me.” The tentacle recoiled back then shot forward with adrenal force. The squeegee slipped free and clattered to the laminate floor. The feeler back-reached towards Gus. He fell on his butt, still holding onto the pipe, and snatched up the little sickle knife. He slashed at the tentacle as it ducked and bobbed, trying to clamp down on him. Twice he gashed the slithering limb. It withdrew, regrouped, then came at him again.

“There’s a world of difference between Chinese and Vietnamese food,” Dierdre said, “A new place just opened down town called Duck Dow. I hear they serve an excellent hu tieu kho.”

“Hu eau what?” Gus said. The tip of the tentacle bullwhipped down and grappled onto his ankle. He grimaced as the feeler cinched down on his boot. He slashed at it with his little knife. Its grip loosened as he inflicted a half a dozen wounds. Just when he thought he could pull free, the tentacle cinched down again. Its hold shot a stabbing pain up his shinbone to his knee. He winced.

“It’s a braised rice noodle soup dish,” Dierdre said.

“Sounds as good as anything, peach; I’d be happy with a chili burger.” A white, milky liquid oozed from the mouth of the pipe. The syrupy substance ran over Gus’s hand, causing a recent nick in his knuckle to burn. Probably a mixture of Drano and alien stomach bile, Gus thought. He repositioned the pipe in his hand to avoid the acidic syrup.

While his attention was diverted to handling the creature’s snapper, the tentacle clamped down on his ankle. Gus yelped in pain. The sinewy feeler yanked him upward, away from the sink. His head and shoulder blades slammed into the ceiling, leaving a deep indentation in the drywall. The impact sent bits of dried paint and dust curling to the floor. Gus’s senses reeled for a moment as the tentacle whipped his body left and right like a damp towel.

The feeler settled as if it its strength had ebbed. It lowered Gus down within reaching distance of the floor. He twisted and kicked, trying to free his ankle from the thing’s grip. Just when he thought he would break free, the tentacle bucked upward for one last throw. It over-whipped Gus’s heft and released him at the zenith of its swing. Gus flew through the kitchen entrance into the living room, spinning, disjointed. His glasses snapped off his face and spun away. Gus couldn’t see without his specs. He squinted, trying to make out the water-colored miss-shapes of the room around him, trying to best position himself for impact. He collided against the front door of Mrs. Brickman’s house and crumpled into a pile on the shag carpet.

“What happened? Did you drop the phone?” Dierdre’s tinny voice asked.

Gus looked himself over. Other than a torn pair of bid-alls and a king-sized goose egg on the back of his skull, everything checked out; no broken bones, no open lacerations. “Sorry, sugar-bomb, I just let the job get away from me for a second.”

The front door pushed against him; someone was trying to open it. Gus worked himself up to his feet, rubbing the back of his head. Mrs. Brickman came in from the sun, holding a half dozen plastic bags of groceries, her gray hair sprayed into an up-do and covered by a plastic bonnet. She smiled at Gus then noticed the long tentacle that lay across her newly washed living room carpet. “Oh dear.”

“Can I help you with your groceries?” Gus took the plastic bags from Mrs. Brickman and led her into the kitchen.

“Is this what was clogging my sink?” Mrs. Brickman asked, pointing down at the tentacle.

“Truth is I couldn’t even get to the pipes. You have some kind of alternate universe under your sink; could be a string theory thing; might even be hell; I’m not sure.”

“What is this creature, some kind of octopus?” Mrs. Brickman crouched down and poked at the limp feeler with a bony finger.

Gus scratched his head. “Not sure, I’d say it’s pretty much unnamable. If you want, I could call animal control. They’d probably come by and collect it. I could come back tomorrow and take another gander at your sink.”

“That’s gracious of you,” Mrs. Brickman said.

“Is that Mrs. Brickman?” Dierdre asked.

“She just walked in,” Gus said.

“Oh, she’s the sweetest thing. Say hello for me.”

“Who are you talking to?” Mrs. Brickman asked.

“It’s Dierdre, she says hello.”

Mrs. Brickman smiled and patted Gus on the back of the hand. “You need to marry that girl; that’s what I say.”

Gus smiled, blood flooding his cheeks.

Gus checked his watch as he loaded his tools back into the back of his utility truck. It was 4:30. He’d have to hurry home, shower, and change if he hoped to pick up Dierdre in time for dinner. He waved at Mr. Updike, who was just finishing up his front lawn. The old man looked almost regal sitting on top of his new John Deere riding mower. Mr. Updike smiled and waved back.

As Gus got into his utility truck, he thought about Mrs. Brickman’s advice. He thought he might take her up on it. After all, a Vietnamese restaurant seemed like as good a place as any to pop the big question.

The End

Your Turn
Time to get some writing done. Take a minute to think about what type of narrative form best fits with your story. Test drive your story’s voice by writing a short story, something between 1,500 and 10,000 words, using your protagonist.

Get extra credit by writing a second or third story and experimenting with different dichotomies of point of view and voice.

Good luck. See you soon.

-Craig Nybo