Monday, July 5, 2010

Project! The Art of Voice in Fiction

I’m eyeball-deep in a writing challenge, a sort of shark tank for the ever-developing writer. I’m writing in four—count ‘em!—four voices. My greatest fear is making them all sound alike. And so, I’ve been studying the topic of voice, reading The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass and Write Away by Elizabeth George, and listening to a podcast with Anne Lamott. Allow me to share what I've gleaned from these skilled teachers.

Elizabeth George defines voice (how brave of her) like this: “The narrative voice of your novel is the point-of-view character’s defining way of speaking and thinking.” Voice is the tone that comes through the narrative, and tone is the product of knowing my characters better than myself.

Before I started writing my current work in progress, I knew all about Lucy, Ada, Mercy, and Pete. I'd created very detailed backgrounds for each. Their voices were determined by their level of education, formal or acquired. And even though they are American-born, they have positions in society and family histories wrought with material. They're nice, of course, to a point (no anti-heroes this week), but the better I get to know them, I discover their prejudices and biases, their inclinations and desires, their bad habits and poor hygiene habits. Each of them has a well-developed belief system, even if they can’t express it. It's my job to know this about them. Once my characters are fully developed, they have unique, powerful voices.

Maass is especially adamant that characters must offer strong opinions to have a voice worth appreciating. This made a little light glow over my writer head. A character who makes judgments about her world is far more engaging. Consider the importance of opinion in your narrative, your story. Perhaps you've walked past a window of mannequins and thought something like this: Good grief, ugly must be the new black this year. No one older than eight could squeeze into that skirt. They must be selling fashion design diplomas on QVC.

Seeing in your head is fun, interesting, provocative. We give that same thrill to our readers by sounding opinions through our POV narrator.

I’ve rambled on. Indulge me another point.

Donald Maass also has this to say about details in relation to voice: “Even the most ordinary people have a life that’s unique. The details that make it so are a secret source of what critics glibly refer to as voice…Details are an automatic voice all in themselves.”

Here’s an example of details fueling voice from Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See:

Three days before my wedding, I began the ceremonies associated with the Day of Sorrow and Worry. Mama sat on the fourth step leading to the upstairs chamber, the women of our village came to witness the laments, and everyone went ku, ku, ku with much sobbing all around. Once Mama and I finished our crying and singing to each other, I repeated the process with my father, my uncle and aunt, and my brothers. I may have been brave and looking forward to my new life, but my body and soul were weak from hunger, because a bride is not allowed to eat for the final ten days of her wedding festivities. Do we follow this custom to make us sadder at leaving our families, to make us more yielding when we go to our husbands’ homes, or to make us appear more pure to our husbands? How can I know the answer? All I know is that Mama—like most mothers—hid a few hard-boiled eggs for me in the women’s chamber, but these did little to give me strength, and my emotions weakened with each new event.

I walk each morning while listening to a podcast called Pen on Fire (highly recommended). The hosts interview the most amazingly talented storytellers, like Anne Lamott. In a recent podcast, the host asked Lamott what advice she had for new writers on the topic of voice. Lamott is the perfect writer to ask. She has a distinctive voice and isn't afraid to give opinions--some that make me wince.

Lamott answered with typical honesty that nothing comes easy for her, including voice. If her writing sounds "conversational and natural," this only happens by writing "draft after draft after draft." Also, she sees improvement with her writing as she ages. What her pride demanded she keep in as a younger writer, age allows her to jettison. I found this encouraging. By the time I'm as old as Methuselah, I should have the voice thing down.

This is only an opening discussion on voice, but these fine authors and writing teachers have offered great pointers for developing voice for our characters. First, know your characters. Second, allow your characters to voice opinions. Third, add details that ground your character's voice in a culture. And last, be prepared to work for voice...and welcome birthdays.

Details of a story line may fade, but the voice remains forever in our memories. Share a story you have read with a distinctive voice. Any ideas about how the author achieved this? What helps you develop a unique voice in your stories? Is it okay to use yourself as a model for voice?


Wendy Paine Miller said...

I recently read The Art of Racing in the Rain. Very fresh voice. POV of a dog. Now that can't be pulled off often. I enjoyed it.

I love this topic of voice.

I'm hoping I'll have the voice thing down by the time I'm old as Methuselah in dog years.

If that doesn't make sense, no worries. I'll be okay. I'm just screwing my brain back on still after being away on vacation for a week.
~ Wendy

Patti Hill said...

Wendy, you made perfect sense. Welcome back.

I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime recently. The narrator is a boy with autism. The author provides an amazing view into the mind of autism all through voice. Very powerful.

Lori Benton said...

Patti, I read The Curious Incident recently too. I agree, powerful and unique voice. In fact that's the reason I read the book, I wanted to hear the voice of such a person, to be inside his soul. The book didn't disappoint.

Thanks for the reminders from Maass. Characters stating an opinion makes them come alive to me, so I must remember to do this!

Voice is a craft issue I came late to trying to grasp and master. In my last WIP I paid special attention to it (compared to earlier novels), and found the only way I could capture one character's voice was to write her scenes in first person. They've since been converted to third, like the male POV in that book, and they retain her voice. But I could not capture it in third to begin with. So one tip I now have to offer is is if third person isn't working to nail a character's voice, try first. Or the other way around. Or switch it to present tense for the first draft. I often do that too.

Patti Hill said...

Lori, I so appreciate your practical craft-building points. I'm going to try that. Thanks.

Patti Hill said...

Isn't anyone going to mention Black Beauty? That was the voice--of a horse!--that captured my reading heart. I'm so grateful.

Bonnie Grove said...

I totally agree that voice is a craft learned over a lifetime.
There are so many layers to the notion of Voice in fiction. There are character's voices (which we are discussing today), then there is authorial voice - the way you interject your unique spin, your take of what it means to live well, how you soften the blows, and harden the edges. They blend together to create something fresh, as well as something so familiar to the reader. easy, eh???

Nicole Amsler said...

Probably the biggest writing challenge I have ever faced was writing a book, Holiday Cards, which had ELEVEN (!!!!) voices. I hope to revisit it someday to rework but it certainly helped me practice voice.

The book was set at a family Christmas Eve card game and each of the 11 years was narrated by a different family member. Just when you thought you had the family nailed down, you met another family member who saw things in an entirely different light.

One of my challenges was Leroy, the patriarch of the family. He was decidedly rough and crass, who LOVED to use strong language, especially Christ's name in vain--as he knew it irked his wife, Bernice.

I really struggled on letting him swear and curse but it was so much a part of his personality. He does come to Christ in the end but his needling of his wife though passive-aggressive word choice was crucial to his character development.

IF I ever chose to try to pursue publication, I am not sure how I would address the vulgarity. Since it was a practice novel, I allowed him to rant.

One thing I did practice in voice was notice factors. Leroy was sensitive to hypocrisy--believing himself to be free of it. Darlene was obsessed with children as she faced infertility. She noticed pregnant women everywhere and it angered her. Bernice was especially sensitive to smells and their memories.

All of these factors helped me hone their voice.

As for an example of pitch perfect voice, I just finished The Help yesterday and her three voices were ideal. You didn't need to read the chapter heading to see who was talking.

Thanks for the post!

Anonymous said...

What a great post, Patti. And what a great subject. Voice is crucial to a novel. When I open a book and immediately find the character's voice I'm drawn into the story, like being welcomed into a friend's home. Likewise, when I begin reading a novel and can't find the voice, or if the voice seems contrived, those typically are the ones I never "get quite into." I love to read a novel barely whispering the words so that I truly hear the voice of the characters and the voice of the story, whether through dialogue, internal dialogue, or narrative. It puts me into the story. Of course I only read a novel that way when I'm alone -- which is probably why I love reading alone in the living room long into the night, after Rick has gone to bed.

I love the voice in Jamie Langston Turner's novels. There's a great deal of introspection, and much less dialogue. That's one of the things I love about her novels. Because I really get inside the head of the protagonist when I read the introspection. I love when I pick up the syntax of the character. That's when I really feel as though I've stepped into that character, as if it's my story being told. Elizabeth Berg does that same thing for me.

Patti Hill said...

Nicole: I feel like a piker compared to you. Eleven voices! But what an amazing exercise. And you've hit on the strength of multiple POV characters. Each will see their world a bit differently, enough to ease the reader into a comfort zone with ambiguity. Not an easy task. I listened to The Help. I didn't need any cues as to who was speaking either. Magnificent use of voice. Opinionated? Oh boy! Strong? Like nails. The Help is also a great example of what it means to have tension on every page without planting a bomb. Love it.

Sharon: That contrived voice is all too common. It seems to show up most often when the writer hasn't taken the time to develop their character or spend time with someone similar, like me trying to write a biker dude story.

Anonymous said...

Patti, I'd read your biker dude story in a heartbeat!

Latayne C Scott said...

I've set myself what may be an impossible challenge-- having the first-person narrator actually change her voice toward the end of a novel. There's a reason for it. Wish me luck. Or bury me deep enough that I won't stink.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

Excellent look at voice. This is definitely a keeper. In fact, I'm on my way back to Chip MacGregor's site to leave a comment about this (voice was his topic today too).

I wrote a fun post about voice in dialogue last month, sparked by an article Kay Marshall Strom wrote. There's a little quiz if anyone's interested.


Patti Hill said...

Latayne: I'm breathless with anticipation. And you are hands down the funniest lady I know.

Rebecca: The quiz was fun! You managed to develop character/voice with one piece of background.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

You're my new hero, Patti. Juggling four balls in the air is past me. :P

Megan Sayer said...

KerCHING! Wow, this is absolute genius! It's never before occurred to me that the portrayal of a strong voice is so enhanced by that voice's OPINION.
The strongest narrative voice in all my years of reading has to be Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. Now I can see it was because he was so incredibly opinionated about EVERYTHING! People with strong opinions tend to take others with them, or they create CONFLICT - the other necessity in good storytelling.
Wow. Thanks Patti!

Kathleen Popa said...

Patti, me too. I love that little revelation about a character's opinions. I have a character whose defining trait is that she avoids opinions, but I can see now that I'm going to have to give her a strong opinion about not having opinions.

Christa Allan said...

I define a "great post" as one I want to print and tape to my laptop. This is one of those.

Anne Lamott is one of my favorite people. And maybe it's because of her voice that I forget I know her only as a writer. She jumps off the page with authenticity.

As a high school English teacher, I often want to poke my eyes out with a red pen reading student essays because, initially, they read like they were written by drones.Boring drones.

The easiest way for me to get them to an initial idea of voice is to have them read their journals (freewriting they do almost daily a la Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones). And when I ask permission to read some of them aloud, without identifying the students who wrote them, they know the their voice.

Voice is one of the reasons I loved THE HELP...and A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY.

Susan Cushman said...

Excellent post, Patti. In my current (fiction) work-in-progress, I'm trying to use a kind of stream-of-consciousness stlyle to reveal the characters' interior monologues...changing voices with each chapter, which features a different character. (There are 3 main characters.) Tricky business, but an exhilarating challenge! (Loved Michael Cunningham's "The House.")

I think of how Harper Lee used Scout's voice as a child for some of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and at other times spoke through her adult voice, looking back. Also tricky business, and most of us probably can't pull it off!

More recently, Kathryn Stockett did a great job of capturing the very distinct voices of the characters in "The Help," even to the point of changing the dialect of the maids when they were speaking with their white employers vs. speaking with each other or their families. Very authentic.

I also love Ann Lamott's voice and thanks for the link to the podcast. Mary Karr is also a master at this.

So many great models.... back to work!

Susan Cushman said...

Oops, meant to say "The HOURS," not "The HOUSE." I knew I should have proof-read that comment before posting it!

Mayowa said...

Great post

What do you think of the distinction between the writer's voice and a character's voice?

Should the writer's voice be invisible in the face of a character's voice? Or should writers have a recognizable voice/style separate from their characters?

Julie Musil said...

What a great post! And I appreciate the referral of Pen on Fire. I've never heard of that.