Monday, March 16, 2009

Sorry, I Can’t Write Today; I’ve Lost My Voice

Every character in every story ever written has a voice. No matter what perspective in which the story is written -- from the completely devoted first person to the distant third person omniscient -- every character has his or her own way of speaking. The concept of “voice” in writing is a confusing one, but it’s also very important. In fact, I would go so far as to say the voice of a story is the most important part. More important than even the plot in some cases.

Because when it comes right down to it, no one cares what happens to a character they don’t really want to listen to. And we’ve all opened a novel or read a magazine article and thought “I love this chick! She’s hilarious!” When that happens, we usually aren’t talking about the author; we’re talking about that sassy character that just walked onto the bar and threw a drink into some guy’s face because she misunderstood what he just said and thought he called her fat. No worries, she thinks. You don’t get to be twenty-eight without doing something worth getting doused in strawberry margarita. And just like that you’re hooked.

If you’re writing a story from multiple perspectives, every one of them needs to have a different voice; no two people think exactly the same way and so no two characters can be written in exactly the same way. It’s this concept of creating multiple voices within a story that frequently gives me troubles. I’m finding as I go through Memories that my voices need a little tweaking.

In what is probably a horrendous practice for a writer, I’ve taken to making up words for problems I notice in my writing while I’m going through revisions. I know I should be articulate and a wordsmith and perfectly capable of using the appropriate word, but sometimes made up words are just easier. And they’re more fun to blog about. ;-) Quite a few of my made up words have to do with voice. Here are a few of my favorite examples:

Skitzovoice: This is what happens when characters who are not suffering from the mental disorder of schizophrenia suddenly start thinking like they are. Halfway through the book, their personality drastically changes for no apparent reason, usually explained by my taking on another project or taking too long a break in the middle of the writing. By the time I come back to it, I’m not actually writing the same character anymore. It also happens when I don’t really have a clear picture of the character in my head, so their personality bends to the situation, rather than bending their perception of the situation. This can be disconcerting for the reader, to say the least, who doesn’t usually know or care where I was in my writing process when the character went all wonky.

Blendyvoice: Every character in the story begins to sound the same. No one has their own quirks or accents. This usually happens when my distance is wrong. I’m too far away from the characters and so I’m not getting a clear picture of them. As a result, I’m telling a story, not showing one, and it’s not very compelling that way. The worst ‘blendyvoice’ for me is when all the characters start talking like me. As a writer, I don’t generally consider myself interesting; that’s why I make up other people who have interesting lives. I don’t do them or the reader any favors by stripping them of their individuality and turning them all into little mes. (‘Mes’? Really? I’m just not having a good English day, am I?)

Annoyingvoice: This one seems pretty self-explanatory to me. Characters with ‘annoyingvoice’ don’t last very long. Their voice irritates me and I hate listening to them. While writing a character that inspires a visceral response is usually a good one, it takes a stronger writer than me to put up with a character induces migraines brought on by excessive teeth-grinding for very long. Maybe they’re excessively whiny or they do a lot of shrieking or they are over-fond of things like “Ugh” and “Sigh”. When a character like this pops into my head, it’s actually impressive if they last until revisions. They usually get killed off after a couple of pages and then eventually written out of the story completely.

Now sometimes these voice “mistakes” are good. Sometimes as a writer you have to do things that don’t make sense in order to get your point across. Maybe your character is mentally unbalanced, traumatized by some event in the story or trying to be something they’re not. In that case, ‘skitzovoice’ can work very well to demonstrate that. If you want to show two characters growing closer together -- by supernatural means or just through the general development of their relationship -- a little ‘blendyvoice’ is called for. If you really want the bad guy’s henchmen to get under the reader’s skin (and make it totally forgivable when you kill them off in a spectacular fashion) ‘annoyingvoice’ could be a way to accomplish that. NOTE: I don’t recommend it for the Big Bad, though. If my main villain ever suffered from ‘annoyingvoice’, I would likely never finish the book, as I would dread sitting down to write it.

As with everything, from the consumption of sweets to the harmonizing of multiple voices, the answer lies in the concept of moderation. A little ‘blendyvoice’ is okay, if the situation calls for it. ‘Skitzovoice’ isn’t bad, so long as it doesn’t indicate that you don’t really know your characters all that well. Just don’t overdo it. All you have to do is find the right balance. It’s as simple as that.


1 comment:

haricot vert said...

I find myself fighting blendyvoice at the moment. I have to keep stopping and saying, no, these characters can't act/talk the same because at point 1, 2, and 3 they are completely utterly different. Of course then I have to go back and fix their characterizations so that I can _see_ the differences but hey, that just exposes flaws in my plotting.
/sigh. I'm so depressed now.