Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Confession time. I’m finding this subject very hard to post about. Probably because I’m still working the issues out in my own mind. My struggle as I write each new book is to figure out how to balance my own author voice (AV) with individual voices for each character in narrative passages. I don’t have trouble characterizing through dialogue—I can make people sound different when they talk. But when they think, as they perceive the world—that’s another matter. That’s when my own AV wants to take over.
To some degree, no matter whose POV I’m in certain aspects of my voice are going to come through. This is fine to an extent. It’s not fine when my own AV is used so much that (1) all the characters sound alike in narrative, or (2) a character sounds stilted—in other words, you as the reader know he’s sounding false to the background, experience, education, socio-economic level, age, etc. that I’ve given him.
In the Crimson Eve first draft, I overwrote in my AV. Here’s a sample from a scene in the bad guy’s POV. Now this guy, Tony, is a hit man, a street-wise guy around 40. But he’s also a father and husband who’s dedicated to his family. (Yeah, yeah, so he tells his wife he works for the CIA—what choice does he have?) He’s cleaned himself up after literally living on the streets six years ago; he’s learned some refinement skills. (For example he was able to pull off with much panache playing the part of a cultured and rich English businessman, right down to the accent, in order to lure a victim.) Now he works for some big-time people. Here, he’s broken into a home at night to check out a few things about his intended target:
Tony sidled from dark kitchen to living room to hall toward the bedrooms, his heightened senses attentive to his environment. He could tell a lot about a woman from the house she kept. When he’d first slunk through the house—during daylight hours—he picked up a feeling of order, one without rigidity but bordering on coolness. Each room flowed into the other, creating an aura of space in the compact home. Everything seemed in its place, no dishes in the sink, counters free of clutter. A few plants could have warmed up the room considerably. In the living room he saw a light blue sofa and matching chairs grouped around a white-tiled fireplace, three magazines stacked on a glass-topped coffee table. Built-in shelves held knick knacks and books, but few photos. The only pictures on the walls were art prints. Nothing commemorating the life Carla Radling had lived, her hobbies, her travels, her dreams.
Tony couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was, but something about the place reflected the sass that he’d seen in his target. Maybe it was the brazenness of the scattered bright solid color pillows—scarlet against the blue of the couch, sunny yellow on the chairs. Or the bold fluidity of the house, as if walls were an encumbrance to be avoided. Now passing through a second time, Tony was struck by the difference between this house and the one his wife, Robyn, kept. What a difference a child’s presence made. Their home was warmed by familiar clutter—Timmy’s shoes askew on the kitchen floor, toys on the crushed knap of the carpet before the TV, the smells of cookies and peanut butter and grubby socks...
Now really. Here Tony is thinking to himself as he perceives his surroundings. He’s also moving through a house at a fairly rapid clip. He’s not playing the part of a British gentleman any longer. This guy was a down and out alcoholic on the streets. He’s picked himself up, but he’s hardly gone to college. Would he think such words/phrases as creating an aura, askew, encumbrance, warmed by familiar clutter, bold fluidity? That’s borrowing way too much from my AV. With some characters this may be fine, but on Tony it just sounds stilted. In addition, although this is another topic, there are just too many words. But in rewriting, I didn’t have to concentrate on cutting words. When I fixed the voice, the extra words went away.
Here’s the version after the rewrite (and remember, this may still be refined in two more editing processes):
Tony moved through the dark kitchen, senses prickling. He could tell things about a person from her house. This one had a feeling of order and coolness. Everything in its place, no clutter. In the living room sat a light blue sofa—in the daylight he’d seen its color. Matching chairs grouped around a white-tiled fireplace, magazines stacked on a glass-topped coffee table. Knick knacks and books on built-in shelves. No photos. Art prints on the walls. Nothing commemorating Carla Radling’s life.
Who was this woman?
His own house was homey. Timmy’s shoes on the kitchen floor, toys in front of the TV. The smell of cookies and peanut butter...
Looking at these two versions out of context from the whole book, I can understand my temptation to write it the first way. I just sound so much more cultuhed, don’t you think, dahling? I have a better way with words, a more eye-catching turn-of-the-phrase. Look at me, the skilled author.
Notice something? I, I, I. This ain’t my POV, folks. It’s Tony’s. And Tony’s no writer.
Here’s a paragraph from Carla, the protagonist, as she drives at night, running for her life from Tony. First, the original:
Why was this happening now? The question swirled in her mind like a gathering storm, with no answers to calm it. Carla couldn’t think of one thing she’d done to instigate this.
After the rewrite:
Why was this happening now? She hadn’t done anything.
Again, the first is just too formal. Carla’s a realtor, she’s educated and does well in life. She’s also feisty. She can have a rather acerbic wit. Here she’s scared to death, driving who knows where to save herself. But still a bit of her argumentative nature needs to come through. She wouldn’t have such formal thoughts as: [she] couldn’t think of one thing she’d done to instigate this. She’d simply think: I haven’t done anything. (Besides, that’s a showing sentence rather than a telling one.)
I realize these examples are harder to follow out of context. They stand out much more within the whole story, paired with the distinct ways in which each character talks and moves, gestures, etc. But I hope I’ve made some sense of the subject. Bottom line—in your writing, do you allow each character to perceive the world in his/her distinctive way?