Hearing Voices: Point of View in Fiction Writing

The Midwife’s Confession is written from five different points of view, and I’m here to tell you, that was a challenge! Every one of my twenty novels has had multiple points of view, but never before have I had to balance five female voices in one story. Want to know the hardest part about multiple viewpoints? Giving each character her own distinct voice. Since this topic has come up with every bookclub I’ve spoken to, I thought I’d share my thoughts about it on the blog. (By the way, bookclubs, if you’d like me to chat with your group by speakerphone, fill out the form on my website and we’ll try to work it out).

Here’s how I handled the voices in The Midwife’s Confession. The five point-of-view characters are:

Tara: fortyish, middle class, college educated, North Carolinian.

Emerson: fortyish, middle class, college educated, North Carolinian

Anna: fortyish, middle class, college educated, Virginian

Noelle: fortyish, poorer, more rural background than the others, college educated, midwife, North Carolinian

Grace: 16 year old daughter of Tara

Hmm. Notice anything? I had a problem. I had four fortyish, college educated southern women on my hands. How was I going to differentiate one voice from another?

As usual, my first draft was devoted simply to getting the story down on paper. I’m not one of those polish-as-you-go writers. I started out that way with my first novel, but soon realized that my characters were inevitably going to change the story on me and I would only have to go back and rewrite what I’d spent hours polishing, so why bother? In my second draft, though, I began to notice subtle differences between the voices of each of my characters. Those differences emerged organically as each woman came into her own, but between Tara, Emerson and Anna, the differences were way too subtle for my liking.

Tara, Emerson, Anna and Grace are all written in first person. Since Noelle kills herself in the first chapter, I wrote her scenes in third person. It was, therefore, easiest to differentiate her voice from the others. And Grace, being sixteen, was a snap. But those three women–Tara, Emerson and Anna–were my real challenge. My goal is always this: if a reader familiar with the characters picks up the book and flips it open to any page, she should be able to tell whose point of view she’s in without looking at the chapter heading (where I’ll have that character’s name). I’ll be the first to admit that with these three characters, I may not always have met that goal. Particularly with Tara and Emerson, who not only had similar backgrounds but who were also college roommates and have been best friends living in the same neighborhood all their adult lives. Of course they ‘sound’ very similar. Still, I wanted to do my best to make each of them distinct.

The routine I follow as I near the final draft of a book is always the same. I take a printout of the book and pull out all the chapters written in the point of view of each of the characters. So in the case of Midwife, I had five chunks of chapters. Then I go to the Opium Den, settle into my comfy chair, and read only the chapters belonging to a single character as I tweak her voice. I do this with each character, one at a time, until I’m satisfied with the differences between their voices. For example, Tara has a slightly more formal-sounding voice than the others, in keeping with her personality. The sentences in her chapters are a little longer. A little more stilted. Emerson is more relaxed and colorful in her language, while Anna is a bit irreverent.

Here’s a taste of their voices. The easy ones first:

Noelle: Once all was in order she came out to the porch to watch the moon and feel the satin air and fill her eyes and lungs and ears with the world one last time.

Grace: Omigod, it had been so good! Cleve kept saying, “Holy shit!” after it was over. He was holding me and kissing my hair it was just the most amazing night.

And then the tough ones:

Tara: Sam and Grace had been two quiet souls with no need to speak to each other to communicate.

Emerson: The woman crossed the room like a drill sergeant, all sharp edges and quick movements, jutting her hand toward me for a shake. I felt like a balloon she could pop if I let her get too close.

Anna: I’d have to talk to him about it at some point. It was really pissing me off that he acted like he could waltz back into our lives without consequence.

I actually love this part of the writing process. I love spending ‘quality time’ with each character in turn. They deserve it, and so do my readers.


  1. Nikki on July 20, 2011 at 6:23 am

    What a fastinating insight!
    After reading those tiny extracts I could just read the book all over again and I only finished it just over a week ago. Such a brilliant book!

  2. Margo on July 20, 2011 at 7:58 am

    Diane, while reading this book I thought about the challenges you must have faced trying to keep your characters separate from each other…I think you did a fabulous job and I was never confused about who’s point of view I was reading. You were excellent at giving each woman their own distinct personality so I felt like I knew each individually. While you worked on this novel, I dont recall any blogs where you were stressed or upset during the writing process so I think you just knew ahead of time how you were going to present this story…and you did it very, very well. (-O:

  3. Sheree Gillcrist on July 20, 2011 at 10:01 am

    Hi Diane. Tara, Emmerson and Anna might have come from a similar backgrounds but you captured their individual voices like a master. I am constantly amazed how two women can come from a similar background and yet project themselves to the world in such a different way. I think family dynamics make a valuable contribution to this. My best friend in junior high and I would be a case in point. Similar demographic socio-economic and education wise but our families might as well been living on opposite sides of the moon. My home with a family of four children was noisy and dinner was a time for each of us to have often heated discussions about our current beliefs which was always tempered by my fundamentalist Baptist mother and ‘ the forest is my cathedral’ father. Discussion though was not only expected but encouraged and so at fourteen I was already an outspoken advocate for my beliefs and was ready to take on the world. Born a rebel is what my mom used to say. My friend Judy’s house was always silent. No radio blaring, no singing, no mess. Her mom slide silently through rooms and never missed a thing. If we baked in Judy’s house, we washed each spoon as we used it. My mom was too busy to do the one on one thing well whereas Judy’s mom would make over Judy’s room once a year until it was magazine perfect to the point of distressing furniture and making bedspreads, curtains and rugs to match. So Judy was soft spoken, nervous and thought every discussion was an argument to be avoided. We dressed similarly, loved the same music and each had a crush on each other’s brothers and so to the outside world we appeared to be much the same but we weren’t and there in came our point of view on , well everything. Dare to be different. You betcha:}

  4. Diane Chamberlain on July 20, 2011 at 11:39 am

    Thanks, Nikki and Margo. Sheree, mine was the quiet house and my best friend Linda’s house was like yours. I always envied how the kids in her house were encouraged to think for themselves and debate at the dinner table. You were fortunate to have that experience.

  5. Laura on July 21, 2011 at 7:46 am

    I just finished reading The Midwife’s Confession and all I can say is wow! The story is amazing as always but what I realised more than anything is how much I grow to love your characters as I am reading and this particularly true for this title. Each character is given such depth and I find myself relating to little bits of all of them; they feel real, with their own faults and misgivings. Tara’s relationship with her daughter, for instance, felt very realistic – Being ‘the quiet one’ I related with Grace and could see why some of her Mother’s behaviour would have irked her: trying to get her to join Drama group in an attempt to ‘bring her out of herself’, the small but insensitive gestures surrounding the father’s clothes and mug – argh! – And yet it didn’t make me like Tara any less, because she is who she is too.

    I’m wondering now if I have noticed this depth of character more in this book with the different points of view; I think that is probably the case, but I will have to go away and read another to compare. I would never have guessed that it was a new approach for you though, so congratulations for pulling it off so well!

    Best wishes,

  6. Diane Chamberlain on July 22, 2011 at 10:47 am

    Laura, I’m so pleased you could empathize so easily with these characters. The multiple points of view is not a new approach for me at all. What was different in this book was having so many characters with similar backgrounds. That’s what made it challenging. I’m delighted it worked for you.

  7. […] book is narrated by one of the central characters. Diane Chamberlain has written a very interesting blog on this writing style, where she summarizes the challenges of keeping the various characters […]

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