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?