FAQ #9 (I think?): Questions About Voice

I'm continuing to struggle with writing my talk on voice--which is charming since I have to give it in five days. Sigh. Anyway, I decided I'd try to answer some of the questions in the comments on this post to get my brain going on the subject, and voila! Blog post!

the difficulty of making the first-person voice something--anything--other than my own inner voice. Occasionally it just clicks and suddenly you're speaking out of another person's head, but some concrete ideas about getting from Point A (my character is a mini-me) and Poing B (my character has her own voice) would be helpful.

This is all about going deep within your character, actually. Where does she live? How long has she lived there? How long have her parents lived there? Where are they from? What are they like? What books does she like to read? What is her personality and energy level like—is she open and voluble, or closed-in and secretive? What words would she use to describe herself?

Some concrete ways of doing this: Make up a character playlist, collage, or commonplace book of things that remind you of that character—voices that sound like hers, songs she’d love, images that look like her or of colors she’d love. Listen to/look at/read it before you start writing and use it to tap into her essence. Develop a list of words she’d use; read writers from her area or time period, or writers who might have influenced her style of thinking, and steal words or phrases from them.

A question I've been pondering about voice: when you write in the third person, how much does your voice, especially when you're voicing the protagonist's thoughts, have to match the age and ability of the character? I just read Kevin Henkes's Bird Lake Moon, and kept being irritated by what I thought of as an unbelievable voice--words and constructions that didn't make sense for young boys. But probably it's fine for the third-person voice to "speak" in a somewhat higher-level than the characters--right?

A third-person voice doesn’t have to match the age and ability of the character at all; it should be calibrated to the age and ability of the intended reader. In children’s fiction, these two usually match up, because we expect books starring 11-year-olds to be read mostly by 11-year-olds or wannabe 11-year-olds—that is, 9- and 10-year-olds—and so the writer usually pitches the vocabulary, diction, and content to appeal to that age. But sometimes they don’t, and that can create weird disjunctions that can be used to good emotional effect but often just alienate readers. . . . This is why John Updike was so annoyed with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close a few years ago: He had no interest in being talked to by a ten-year-old. Or my own beloved Book of Everything is a book about religious doubt, which most American kids wrestle with as teenagers, and the style was magical realism, almost abstraction, so we considered it a YA novel. But it starred a nine-year-old, and so it struggled to find its audience, as incredible as it is. And then there is Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, another book for adults in the voice of a ten-year-old (or thereabouts) . . . It’s been years since I’ve read it, but if I remember it right, what made it an adult book to me was that it was as much about the adults as it was about Paddy: The underlying theme of the book was how their world and actions affected him, how powerless he was before them, while in children’s fiction, we give the kids power and centrality.

I'm currently writing in first person and feel very comfortable in the voice of a character who is not at all me. My problem? Striking a balance on how much to tell of the character's thoughts and feelings. Too little and the character is blank, too much and their inner monologue drags and slows down the action.

This is tricky, because it depends on the kind of book you’re trying to write and the style of your writing overall. Two good rules of thumb: 1. Start out writing everything that comes to mind—all the backstory, internal monologue, etc., you want. Then you have it all laid out before you and you just have to choose what’s truly necessary and cut the rest. 2. To do that choosing, take a hard look at the bones of the book and scene—your plot, whatever dialogue you have—and let that show you what backstory and commentary you need. For instance: If we readers are going to see your protagonist stomp a kitten to death first thing, then you need to add a paragraph (or more likely a page or two) of backstory justifying that action if you still want her to remain sympathetic. Or if your character is going to lie to his parents about acing the spelling test, and this is an important plot point, but the reader doesn’t know that he’s lying, then you need a line like Thankfully, they’ll never know my real score. But if it’s not an important plot point, and/or the reader already knows he’s lying, then you don’t need that line of internal monologue. Does that make sense?

JK Rowling may write Harry Potter felt ashamed or frustrated, but then she backs it up with one or more full paragraphs describing his emotions, his past and present experiences, and provides the answer to the vital question - Why? So as I write this response, I realize it's not just about the character thinking something, it's getting the reader to understand why. Any shot at reader empathy with the character hinges on it.

Yes, exactly. Getting the reader inside the character’s thought processes and staying there is key for certain kinds of novels. I read a fascinating screenwriting blog by a guy named Billy Mernit, who scouts for Hollywood studios, and he made just this point in a post today (called "The Genius of Bad Writing," but that's another topic). I think what he says can also be applied to novels to some extent—I think it’s partly why Twilight works, for one thing: You get in Bella’s head, as annoying a place as that can be. But unlike what he says there, I do still want to see good prose that shows and not tells, even if it's not all that interesting a voice technically.

Which leads us to . . .

Also, this maybe a bit abstract and silly, but I'm going to ask anyway: what do you do if you almost never like the voice in which you write with? I am this close to hanging up this writing dream of mine because I can't seem to nail down a voice interesting enough for me. I mean, what do you do to improve this kind of situation? IS there anything you can do to improve it?

I don’t know. I just finished reading The Graveyard Book and started American Gods, and Neil Gaiman has been blessed by whatever gods he worships, because he clearly just has a really interesting brain—a brain that spouts original, unusual, often funny, sometimes profane thoughts right and left—combined with outstanding writerly discipline and years of practice, so he knows how to wield his techniques well to get the effects he wants. Most every sentence contains an interesting image or nugget or development, and you like even those that aren’t so interesting because the ones that are earn him such goodwill. But not every writer is so blessed with innate interestingness. (I overuse the word “interesting” on this blog, I know, but there’s no better word for it: the quality of being attractive to other people because of a particular freshness, unusualness, or truth.)

Maybe you should change the type of story you’re writing. There are stories that need interesting voices and stories that just need straightforward ones that report on the action—and then you can make the action and characters really, really interesting instead, and that’s good enough. Indeed, the voice in most bestselling (albeit not award-winning) fiction is pretty boring by literary standards because it’s so focused on delivering the action -- there aren't the startling metaphors or images or unusual insights that characterize, say, Gilead or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. But that means it’s easy to read and hook into, which the majority of readers love, and so it’s easier for the book to find a mass audience. You might be just this type of writer.

And, you have probably tried this, but if you haven’t, I would advise you to play with masks. Think of a really interesting person—imaginary or real—and work out a whole character profile of him or her, similar to what I recommended above for the first questioner; and then try writing as that person for a while, giving yourself time to grow into it.

Finally, I will say that readers can tell when a voice is trying too hard; and if the voice doesn’t give pleasure to you, it probably won’t give pleasure to the reader. So maybe you should give yourself a break a while from whatever kind of story you’re putting pressure on yourself to write and try something else. If you feel your voice is really vanilla, try using that stylistic purity to write an entire novel in newspaper articles. Or write very spare poetry.

If a novel is written in first-person POV, is it okay to "break the rules" if the character's voice supports it? Simple example: A teen character thinks in -ly adverbs. How many -ly words can the author use to be true to the character's voice without violating the apparently sacred rule of no -ly adverbs?

Yes, how a voice breaks the rules is one of the things that can make it interesting. (I use –ly adverbs all over the place, you’ll notice.) The only place –ly adverbs are really frowned upon is after dialogue tags: “she said snarkily,” “he bellowed angrily”—and that’s mostly because they are all too often redundant with either the dialogue verb (“angrily” is implicit in “bellowed,” for example) or with the content of what is said. (“'Stay away from me, you jerk!' he bellowed angrily” would be twice redundant.) Tom Swifties are funny because they point up just this redundancy, e.g., “ ‘I’ve been a baaaa-d boy,” said Tom sheepishly.”

I have a character who talks in the most incessant run-on sentences. She just keeps going, and there's no stopping her. So to broaden the question: What to do about voices that are unique to a character but perhaps not the prettiest or most elegant voices to listen to/read?

You’ve got to balance the truth with the beauty, and the reader’s pleasure and the needs of your story with the truth of the character’s voice. So put commas in those long run-on sentences, cut her off occasionally, be sure the especially relevant bits of what she says are discernible somehow to the reader in the flow of language. You can let her talk as much as she wants in the first draft, but in the second, remember that you control her, not the other way around.