Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Voice--Part 2

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.

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?


Sheryl said...

Thank you Brandilyn. That really helps me to see what you mean by authors voice, and the examples were excellent (even out of the context of the book).

Thanks for the time & effort you take to help us grow in our craft :-)

Kristy Dykes said...

Great post.


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.

Kristy, here: I think the FIRST one sounds LESS formal. The second one is formal, to me. If, as you said, her argumentative nature needs to come through, the first one is more argumentative.

Ah, but everything's subjective.

As far as trying to write each character's voice distinctively, I think we DO need to do this, but we also need to celebrate OUR voice as the author and not let this need get us all tangled up in our thought processes and writing.

What I mean is, I heard Famous Secular Author Who Makes Big Bucks speak, and this very question was put to her, in fact, a question of WHY her characters sometimes sound alike. She saucily answered something to this effect, "I write like me, and ME comes out, and that's just the way the story and characters come to me, and so I create them this way and don't worry about it. Next question?"

I think we of course need to create memorable, unique characters.

I think you should just write your stories the way they come to you, B., and not stew over this. You sound like you, and that's distinctive.

Just my opinion.

Over at Charis C., Karen Ball said, in answer to a question of mine, "You need to write like Kristy, I need to write like Karen. Who we are, what stirs our hearts, needs to come out in our writing. Don't worry about sounding as good as someone else. Sound as much like YOU as you can. I have people tell me all the time they can "hear" me in my books. Whatever you do, make sure your heart is heard."

Sorry for this long post. This subject stirs me, as I, too, am working through it.

~michelle pendergrass said...

I don't know if my goal is what it should be, but when I sit down, I try to not be present.

Phil calls it my "zone" When he calls and I'm writing, no matter what I'm writing, he says he can instantly tell that I'm working because I sound so far away and its as if he has to pull me back to get to me. I didn't know this happened until a few months ago.

Writing like me means forgetting me and telling the story. So I guess that means that by moving back, the character steps forward and has no choice but to perceive the world in his/her distinctive way.

Anonymous said...

Great comments, Brandilyn. I have a question regarding POV. My WIP is in first person. My sixteen-year-old herione's story is being told by her AFTER all the events have happened, which would make her at least five years older than that. In the narrative parts, when the 'older' heroine is telling the story, she uses bigger words than when the 'younger' heroine is being quoted. Does that make sense? I used the word "incongruous," which seems just right for the POV voice, even though the young girl doesn't speak that way in dialogue. When she actually speaks, her sentences are shorter and her words are simpler. How does that resound with you?

eileen said...

BC, we had a body found in a hot tub here in San Antonio! Do I need to give the police your number??

Great voice discussion. Thank you!

Winter Peck said...

I just had this pointed out to me in a critique of my MS by Donna Fleisher. Ironic that you're talking about it here the past two days. It appears I like to hear my AV so, I have something to work on.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. It helped me quite a bit.

Anonymous said...

I doubt a writer can escape his voice. Some are just quieter, more nuanced.
BC is an overt, in your face, personality--and I mean that in a good way. A still or nuanced voice, although I have no doubt she could do it--isn't who she is as a person or as a writer.
Those of us with, ahem, stronger personalities tend to show up with a straightforward, discernible, and probably sometimes too well defined voice in our stories. But, I think we also tend to write well-defined characters, even if it occurs in the editing process.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Andee: Congratulations. You have chosen the hardest form of first person POV to write. :] This form is a real challenge, as you must transition back and forth between the older, wiser narrator and the character "back then." You might check out this post in the F&F archives (Feb. 23, 2005):

This is talking about the various kinds of first person POV, and gives an example from of my Bradleyville books, all three of which were written in this form of first person.

Eileen: Thanks for the warning. I'm on my way to Mexico now.

All: I'm glad for the various comments/opinions. This is a hard topic. The best I can do is get us all thinking and more aware of these issues when we write. At least then we can make more conscious decisions as to our approach regarding voice.

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

Good post, Brandilyn1 That gave me a reality check about my characters voices.

Reading what you wrote from that male point of view drove it home. It was good writing, but I'm thinking to myself...Who is this man? I don't know a single male that has that kind of attention to detail! husband can't even see the cheese wrapper on the kitchen floor, that he stepped on four times before I bent down and picked it up!

btw...New Blogger caught me! *sigh*

Kristy Dykes said...

Wayne, you're sweet too. Thanks for the compliment.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

Question, Brandilyn. My characters, all of them, are more informal in their thoughts than they are in their speech--well, except for my protag who is already very informal in his speech, being a SoCal guy.

Here's the question. Is that OK or will the change from their external voice to the internal one throw readers off?

Here's my thinking. When we talk, even with good friends, we often put a filter on our brains--trying to find the right word, phrasing things in a way not to hurt someone's feelings, or in a way to make us sound less scared or more knowledgable. We don't necessarily do it intentionally or overtly. But in our thoughts--I think the filter is pretty much gone. Wouldn't that be true of our characters, too?

Thanks for this. As someone on the ACFW SFF forum said, Voice must be in the air. Seems like a number of people are exploring the subject. GOOD! Needs some exploring. ;-)


~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Could be. But you don't want to have too much of a disconnect. Remember that story is a metaphor for life--not life exactly. For the same reason that we don't show everything the character does--get up, brush teeth, wash face, etc., neither do we have to go the full route in showing the difference between talk and thought. Or, when a character has an accent, we first show it, but then don't have to write every word he/she says in that accent. The reader begins to get the picture after a number of uses at the beginning.

So I'd say in the same way, use this techniqhe some, here and there--enough to show your reader the difference without making him/her say, "I don't quite get this character; he's all over the place."

Pam Halter said...

hi Brandilyn ~ thanks for inviting me. I'm enjoyed your posts on voice. That is SO important. I think people don't like certain books because the characters don't seem true to their personalities.

We writers certainly have a lot to keep in mind!