Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What Did You Say?

The book club I participate in just read Havah by Tosca Lee for our January selection. It's a remarkable novel about Adam and Eve, before and after the fall, from Eve's perspective. Tosca did an amazing job of filling in the gaps and telling a story of how it might have been to be the mother of all mankind. We all enjoyed the book, and gave it an A, but early in our discussion my daughter Mindy said, "I ended up loving the book, but it took me a while to get into it because I couldn't find her voice." Sometimes we just don't click with a story but we're not sure why, so I'm glad Mindy was able to identify the problem, and then to continue reading until she did find the character's voice, because ultimately she really enjoyed the novel.
Voice is such a vital element of fiction. Without it a story can be flat and one dimensional. We may see the words, but they don't come to life in our heads and hearts. As readers, we all bring something of ourselves to a character's voice. I may hear Harper Lee's "Scout" differently than you hear her, but there's no question that we'll hear her voice, because it's written with such texture and clarity. I could already hear Scout's voice by paragraph two of To Kill a Mockingbird when she said, "I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out. I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson."
Who couldn't love a girl who talked like that? Who couldn't wait to hear the whole story? There's a wonderful cadence to her voice, and certainly an accent. And my very favorite "voice" is going to have a southern accent. Maybe it's my family roots (I'm California born and bred but my parents and grandparents were from the South) but I can get lost in a southern accent and forget entirely to come up for air. If you ever watched Ken Burns' Civil War series, I fell in love with author and historian Shelby Foote, who I could have listened to for hours on end, even if he was merely reading the dictionary. That's just me. So while we all bring something different to a reading experience, we as authors have to give our readers something to work with, and that's where cadence, word choice, sentence structure, etc., come into play.
We agree that some writers books can be hard to understand, way too subjective, conflicting, and even elitest, but there are some exceptional ones we recommend (see our Resources page), as our Roundtable discussion this week bears out. Elizabeth George, in Write Away, says, "The narrative voice of your novel is the point-of-view character's defining way of speaking and thinking. Mind you, I'm not referring to the point-of-view character's style of dialogue, however. I'm referring to the tone that comes through the narrative itself ..." Case in point, the excerpt I used from To Kill a Mockingbird above is not a passage of dialogue; rather it's narrative. But it's as entertaining as dialogue thanks to Scout's distinctive voice.
In The Help by Kathryn Stockett, it takes only a few chapters to be able to identify the three POV characters, even without the chapter headings, by their voice alone, because Ms. Stockett has given each her own distinct characteristics. Elizabeth George says voice comes from background, education or lack thereof, position in society, distinctive use of language, vocabulary, tone and "most important ... attitude. More than anything that you can do to illustrate voice for your reader, the character's attitude will differentiate one character from another."
Jim Scott Bell, in Plot & Structure, says, "No two characters should sound exactly alike ... the words they use should tell us something about who they are." Think of the people you know. Most of the time you don't have to ask who's calling if they fail to identify themselves on the telephone. You know them by their voice. Characters should be as easily identifiable a good deal of the time. To accomplish this, you have to know your characters. They must be distinctive in your mind if they're to be distinctive to your readers. I've learned over time the value of writing character profiles before I begin writing a novel. Some writers create profiles of a character's life from cradle to grave, that go on for pages, even for minor characters. I have no doubt there's great benefit to that, but my profiles tend to be leaner, which allows me the great pleasure of learning new things about a character as I go along, but that new thing should enhance what I already know about that character, and not detract from it.
Here's an exercise for you: Write a half-page passage that includes dialogue and narrative from a POV character. Don't use attributes or character description. Then write a similar passage for an entirely different character. Maybe someone of the opposite sex, twenty years younger or older, or who comes from a different part of the country or world. Ask someone to read the two passages and tell you what they know about the each person. How close are they to describing the character you created?
What favorite fictional character springs to mind when you think of voice? Have you read anything lately that lacked voice, and if so, how did that impact your reading experience? (You don't have to name names.)


Latayne C Scott said...

What a great reminder, Sharon! I'm going to go through my WIP today and give it a sharp shaving regarding voice.

I'm in the middle of The Help and couldn't agree more. But I'm experiencing it on audio, and what a rich experience that is -- the voice actors are terrific. Not just the physical voices, but the "voice" distinctions you are talking about.

I just finished Grisham's The Confession and it has very distinct voices. Especially the perp. (*shivers*)

Lori Benton said...

I listened to The Help as well, and couldn't agree more. Another audio book as well read is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

When I was learning to get a handle on voice, something I did was write a page in first person from each character who had a stake or agenda in the novel, as if it were a diary entry where they spilled their hopes, or their bitterness, or their fears as they pertained to the story events. That not only helped me find each one's voice (though some of these weren't POV characters, I still wanted a better sense of them), it helped define their motivations and kept the story on track.

Thanks for a great post on voice, Sharon. It's one of my favorite writing topics. A southern voice is also a favorite of mine, having grown up with grandparents and a mother from the border of VA and NC. Though I sound mid-Atlantic, I can fall back into that voice quick as anything if I meet a southerner.

Anonymous said...

Lori, what a great way to get to know your characters. Wonderful advice.

Latayne, I'm a Grisham fan. I must add The Confession to my next book order.

Nicole said...

Favorites: Lance Michelli in Kristen Heitzmann's trilogy Secrets, Unforgotten, Echoes. Loved him.

Sister Mary-Margaret in Lisa Samson's The Passion of Mary-Margaret

Mitch Rapp in Vince Flynn's novels.

It's been so long and I don't want to look up his name right now, but the main male character in Dogwood. Amazing.

The Bug Man in Tim Downs' novels.

Michael Hosea in Francine Rivers' Redeeming Love

Joey Parr in The Famous One

Can you tell I prefer male characters? In all genres, I might add.

A lot of standard issue males and females in my reading in the past year, lacking any real "special" attraction for me.

(Funny, Sharon, I've got a post in progress for tommorrow on the blog which also deals with this--before reading this.)

sally said...

I loved Grady's voice in Jonathan Rogers' latest book, The Charlatan's Boy. He has a wonderful southern voice.

I have read something lately with great voice that kept me reading even though the story was not compelling. I have also started several books recently with characters that did not have distinguishable voices. They all have had impacted my reading experience positively. I have happily set the books down and moved on to experiencing something more enjoyable.

l said...

My favorite type of voice is when the character has an Irish or Scottish accent. :0)
I just finished Kirk Outerbridge's Eternity Falls last night, and the main character there, Rick Macey, had a very distinctive, old-timey-hard-boiled-detective type of voice. I liked it!

Megan Sayer said...

I recently finished John LeCarre's The Constant Gardener. He switches POV characters a great deal throughout the piece, and each character has such a distinct and unique voice and slant on events that you can tell who's "talking" just by flicking to a page randomly. I've always shied away from switching POV, especially mid-scene, but I learned so much through that book.

BTW Lori that's a brilliant idea - gonna try that soon : )

I've just started The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga and am constantly amazed at how he's captured so perfectly the rhythm and expression of India in his narration (it's first person, written in the form of a letter). Awesome book.

Sharon I have to tell you too, the reason I bought Lying On Sunday in the first place was because I read the first few pages on Amazon's "look inside" feature. Abbie just started talking to me as if she'd known me for years, and although I navigated away and browsed through a few other books she was stuck in my head. I couldn't let her "conversation" go, and felt compelled to go back and buy it. Now THAT is the power of voice.

Anonymous said...

Megan, I so appreciate your comment about Abbie and Lying on Sunday. It means a lot. Thank you.

Nicole, Tim Downs' Bug Man series is a favorite of mine. I love Nick Polchak's voice and sense of humor.

You've all given me more books to look into. I value your recommendations.

Megan Sayer said...

Latayne I also just finished The Confession...what a chilling story! One of the things that really stood out to me (aside from the seeming insanity of combining justice with politics) was the Voice of Place. Grisham managed to convey a sense of Texas in a different sense to that of Kansas.

This is a bit tangental but I've really wanted to ask someone. Have you been to Texas? Was that an accurate portrait of the culture there?

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I love coming here. Just had to write that.

Scout. One of my favorites!

I'm reading a memoir with an amazing raw voice--Mary Karr's Lit. But you said fiction, so I'll go with Mudbound. The voice in that was terrific (I believe 6 POVs).

Great assignment and I've done what Lori mentioned, the diary entry. It really helped me at some sticking points.

The one I'm 1K shy from finishing has four POVs and I know it's going to take me a long time to edit. I want to nail this aspect.

~ Wendy

MandyB said...

As I continue to learn about the art of writing - I am always grateful for guidance, knowledge and 'tricks of the trade'.
Voice can be a difficult skill to master and your piece has helped me.
Thank you

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

The character of Jack in "Room" by Emma Donaghue. He's a five-year-old boy, and the book is written in his voice. Incredible. The author absolutely nails it.

Latayne C Scott said...

Megan, not only have I been to Texas, I'm so close in eastern New Mexico that we're practically there (at least in some of the rural towns, for sure.)

Yes, Grisham definitely nailed Texas culture and dialect. But he's from the South, I believe, so a lot of that would have been natural for him. Texas culture is kind of a blend of wild west and southern gentility.

Kathleen Popa said...

Lori, those are two of my favorite audio books! They were a joy. I cleaned more house when I listened to those, just to hear a bit more.

One of my favorite literary voices is Chaunticleer in The Book of the Dun Cow. I mean, just look at this passage where he scolds a hen:

"You! You! You! Sleep on my straw. Eat my grain. Hide from he wind and dry from the rain. And how do you repay my great goodness to you? YOU WOKE ME! How do you like that? And what's more, you woke me UP!"

Such, such a voice.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I think a great way to develop individual character voice is to try a little playwriting. Or to read a play by one of the masters. I was a playwright before a has been VERY helpful!

Megan Sayer said...

Latayne thanks so much. I'm still digesting that. It came across as so foreign, at times like I was reading fantasy fiction. Wow. (Hi to anyone from Texas, please don't be offended!)

I read a lot of Grisham and I've developed a strong sense of place when I read about Tennessee, Mississippi, places like Jackson, Mobile and Biloxi. They feel like "home" in a weird kind of way.

You know, Latayne, one of the unexpected joys of reading Latter Day Cipher was "visiting" Tennessee with a female voice. I could have spent heaps longer there! Funny, when I've never been anywhere near there apart from in books.

Latayne C Scott said...

Megan, thanks for the compliments on Latter-day Cipher. I'm so glad you liked that voice.

I have to tell you that our SIL once lived in Australia and developed a taste for Vegemite. A friend from your fair country sent him a big bottle of V today for Australia Day and he couldn't wait to get home -- stopped and bought a bagel to put in on. Then he made a sandwich for his 18 month old daughter and she LOVED it!

So happy Australia day to us all!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Latayne, that's awesome! LOL. Don't know how the rest of the world lives without Vegemite. I've always wondered, what DO you put on a piece of bread if you don't feel like something sweet?!
(I know this has nothing to do with anything - sorry Sharon!) :-)

Latayne C Scott said...

Karen (answering in my best Tennessee voice):

Why, sugah, ain't nothin better than a big ole slab of cheese on light bread. And tuna, that's larrapin', too.

Meg Moseley said...

A great subject and a challenging bit of craft to master. I hate it when I read my manuscript to myself and my characters sound alike!

I haven't read Barbara Kingsolver's "The Poisonwood Bible" in years, but I remember admiring the way she gave her characters such distinct voices although they were part of the same family.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

LOL! I can just hear you saying this, Latayne! Well, it was a profound and important question, and I thank you for shedding light on it. ;)

Megan Sayer said...

Latayne I keep laughing at the funny cultural dichotomy of vegemite on a bagel. I didn't know what a bagel was till I was in my 20s!

Karen I'm with you, no idea how the rest of the planet does life without vegemite. Too weird.

And...larrapin'? I'm sorry, pardon?

Anonymous said...

At the risk of sounding completely ignorant, what is vegemite? And, gulp, what is larrapin?

Megan Sayer said...

Sharon...LOL!!!! That made me laugh so sorry, not laughing at you, I just had no idea that not everyone in the world knew what vegemite was.

It is, in short, the Australian National food. We've all been brought up on it since birth pretty much. Comes in a jar, like peanut butter, looks like tar. Apparently the rest of the world can't stand it (which is why the fact that Latayne's son-in-law and daughter like it is so profound), but the truth of the matter is down here the question is not DO you like it, but HOW do you like it? (thick, thin, with or without cheese or lettuce).

Here's a link to the classic Vegemite ad. Learning this song allows you to be automatically classified as an honorary Aussie
: )

Megan Sayer said...

Oh, and it's a yeast extract spread.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Megan, that was a great explanation of Vegemite. I'm impressed. I probably would have gone with "black salty stuff in a jar."

You're so right about the whole vegemite-on-a-bagel thing. That did make me giggle. But hey, kudos to Latayne's family for appreciating our national icon! =)

Megan Sayer said...

I've got a question for anyone out there who's still listening (I know this is old now, but my question fits here):

Do American Christians read The Catcher In the Rye, or is it still "taboo"? Is it the kind of book people will read but not tell their pastor, or has everyone just forgotten about it?

Thanks in advance...answers will be helpful : )

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I read Salinger. "Catcher in the Rye" is not my favorite of his writings...however, I wouldn't find it taboo anymore.

It probably depends on the kind of church attended. But I think it's a perfectly fine book to read...unless reading it makes you want to do bad, bad things.

But you probably shouldn't take my word for it. I've been called controversial before. And, yes, I'm kind of proud of it.

Megan Sayer said...

Susie thanks heaps : )

I was trying to describe the feel of my WIP the other day, and came up with "Holden Caulfield meets Jesus in a pub".

Except the only other time I've mentioned Catcher to American Christians I've been met with silence, which led me to wonder a)had nobody read such a classic work of American literature or b)I'd gone into taboo territory.

I read a Christian book recently with a similar theme to mine, but the treatment and handling was much gentler and sweeter than mine will ever be (or try to be). It was obviously written for an older, gentler audience, but it made me wonder about other cultural sensitivities. I'm also known for being controversial at times, and the annoying thing is not knowing when I'm being controversial!!!!!

Anyway, thanks again.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I'd probably think that the silence was because they hadn't read it. I think many people believe that it's a bad book...and therefore have never read it. And that is unfortunate. But, as my Lit/Creative writing prof once said regarding people who judge literature without reading it, "They don't deserve it".

I'm extremely intrigued! "Holden Caulfield meets Jesus in a pub"? Sounds interesting!

Megan Sayer said...

Hmmm. I'd forgotten about the John Lennon connection. And it was banned for a while back in the 60's or whenever, so I can imagine it retained that sense of taboo for a couple of generations after.

When I read it first I didn't know anything about either the book or its history. I can only imagine it was much easier for me to read than people who come to it with all its baggage.

It sounds like it's not the book itself that's so worriesome for people, but what it represented. No wonder JD Salinger became a recluse.

So much to think about!