Ozzy Osbourne, Narrative Voice, and Vince Neil Fronting Slayer

For the last couple of days, I have been on a Black Sabbath kick – the old Ozzy years in particular. It is interesting to think that the music I am listening to now was written and recorded long before I was born, and yet still manages to sound powerful four decades later.

There is something to be said about Ozzy Osbourne’s singing. Even in the days when he was known for being the Prince of Darkness rather than a confused, incoherent reality TV character, he was never technically the greatest singer to ever grace the planet. If anything, his voice on its own might be an acquired taste, unique and instantly recognizable for sure, but hardly conventional.

But does it ever fit the music!

As an aspiring writer, this is an observation I took to heart. A story tends to require a specific voice that works right for it. It encompasses things like sentence structure, point of view, method of narration, narrative tense, and just about everything else one can think of. Dan Abnett’s “Know No Fear” works well precisely because it is written entirely in present tense, painting a picture of an unfolding disaster. The same narrative style would not have worked in most other books, just like Ozzy’s voice would have sounded a bit out of place fronting Queensryche or Metallica.

One of the hardest tasks in creating a story, at least for me, is to find the right kind of voice to tell it with. I have experimented with first person narration in “Samael”, third person in most of my other works, and a mix of two in “The Keys of Death”, in which one particular character’s pieces are told in first person. But it goes far beyond the mode of narrative, since each character must have a unique voice that makes him or her distinct from the others. Just like the best known singers are instantly recognizable, characters must feel right and different from one another with respect to their manner of speaking, consistency of actions, descriptions, and other defining characteristics.

The hard part is, therefore, deciding on those factors from the beginning, or letting them develop on their own.

Here, I must defer to my experience of singing in bands. I doubt that Tony Iommi and company set out with the knowledge that they had to have a singer sounding exactly like Ozzy Osbourne. Although Iron Maiden and Judas Priest were defined in part by the vocals of respectively Bruce Dickinson and Rob Halford, both bands had written their early material with other singers. While some bands such as Queen or Megadeth had specific vocalists incorporated into their sound from the very beginning, many others did not find the definite voice behind the microphone until later in their careers.

Characters and narrative voices are like singers. Some are decided upon before an author puts a single word to paper. Others just force their way into the story, ignoring all reservations and making the writer pay heed to their demands. In both cases, the challenge is to make them fit the story, to make the characters likeable (or despicable, if that is the goal), and to make the narrative voice flow just right.

After all, as fascinating as it would have been to listen to Vince Neil front Slayer, it just would not sound right.

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