I keep coming back to the question of voice, because it’s the least understood of all writing craft terms in my experience. I’m still experimenting with developing authentic voices when it comes to creating believable characters in fiction.
The following article from the NY Book Editors makes the links between Point of View and Voice, but goes that one step further and shows a unique voice in action:
The article is particularly astute in discussing First Person Point of View, with the example given of Jeannette Walls’ use of voice in the opening pages of her creative nonfiction memoir “The Glass Castle”. Walls starts her story off with the statement: “I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.” The action is seen through the eyes of her adult narrator. This article makes the all-important point that the narrator and the writer are not one and the same. When the memoir focuses on the child character, the narrator remains the same as the persona in the beginning, it’s just the character that changes.
From there, one can then move on to the task of creating interesting characters, through utilising the device of “voice”.
I recently came across a good example of a fellow writer experimenting with voice in her blog, “Daisy in the Willows”. The voice was so real that, as I started to read the story, I was pulled along by the voice and became part of the fiction about a homeless person and her tribulations. This is what an authentic voice should do, enable the reader to suspend belief and just go with the flow. Daisy’s first few lines sets the scene and grabs the reader in:
Sitting with a cup in me hand, rattling my pennies. The wind cuts through my salvation army coat—I feel bare.
Half and hour until the big brother brigade does their rounds, to come an’ clear off the debris of me, offending society, with my appearance of failure. Glasses fixed on nose bridges to hide poverty’s despicable, shining glare. It wasn’t meant to get to this point. I had a home, a family. Believe me, I was a carer. That was many years ago.
(From “Societies Ills” in “Daisy in the Willows” blog.)
An Australian teacher of creative writing, Lee Kofman, opens her memoir in the following way:
“While my marriage was unravelling, so was Melbourne. That summer, interest and rental rates soared and hung, suspended, above our cityscape, like menacing hot air balloons. Vacancies diminished. Families were losing their houses, students went homeless. Real estate agents grew more royally dignified and unapproachable by the day.” (“The Dangerous Bride”)
Kofman’s voice is strong. Not surprisingly, she favours a memoir style of writing. Her favourite topic to teach to new writers is “The Writer’s Voice”. She has a unique way of describing the voices used by different writers. She remarks on the “shamanic voice” of Marguerite Duras in “L’Amant” (“The Lover”). During a distance love affair, she became aware of the concept of voice when applied to her own epistolary writing style.
“I recalled what I used to teach in my writing classes but stopped applying in my own work (as the Russian saying goes, the shoemaker always goes barefoot): that writer’s voice is not something you ‘come up with’. It is something you pull out of your guts as you dive deeper inside yourself beyond the daily platitudes, beyond the anxiety to make the impression that you are a nice person. Writer’s voice emerges when you finally take the risk and put on paper what you really think about the world, even when the truth is politically incorrect, or compromising in other ways, and do this using your unique vocabulary. In writing to Daryl, I rediscovered those words that felt delicious on my tongue and resonated with how I experienced the world: picaresque, metamorphosis, serpentine, rather than those hidden obscurely in the dictionary that I used to dig out like potatoes just for the sake of showing off.” (Lee Kofman)
When I first started writing my novel in progress, Karrana, set in country Australia in the forties, I experimented with creating a male character’s voice in the close third person point of view. Rather than using direct conversation, I tried to incorporate certain items of vocabulary to suggest his voice and personality. Will has come across a mysterious “dancing light” phenomenon while out riding at night.
Suddenly, he knew what he wanted. He wanted to get the hell out of there! Get away from the creek and out of there as quickly as he could.
The bloody light seemed to be stalking him.
Just as he got to his bike, the light seemed to dive down into the water beneath the bridge, and disappeared, as if it had emerged from there.
Will didn’t stop to investigate further. He jumped on his racing bike and sped, hell-for-bloody-leather away at full speed. He never looked back. Every nerve in his body tingled and he felt that he had escaped with the skin of his clattering teeth. Another second and he was a goner! From what? He had no idea.
Now it was fear that gave him the momentum. He sped the remaining seven kilometres faster than he had ridden in his life before. He was panting and gasping for air like a stranded perch as he pulled up at Honeysuckle Cottage. He knew that his face was white as a bleeding ghost. He waited to get his breath back and regain colour before going inside.
It was something that he would carry with him forever, buried deep within, something that he would not share with a living soul. For fear of being thought mad. Or worse: a gutless, fear-craven sheila.
The female narrator in The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs, comes across as a real person in the thrall of personality conflicts. The author has researched in depth the histories of the main characters in recounting Lucia Joyce’s tragic story in the first person. The first person voice is clear, vibrant, youthful and naiive. It suggests, from the outset, the inevitable tragedy to come. The novel begins with Lucia on her way to visit the psychiatrist, Carl Jung, and there is “a shiver in the air and a thin odour of decay drifting across the lake.” From there on the narrator is looking back, showing the highs and lows of her own position within her famous family, and the reasons for her psychological decline. Annabel Abbs manages to capture the Irish voice of the young troubled woman with great success in this first novel.
Finding a voice in fiction, is not only about finding your own voice, but about creating characters who speak to the reader in voices that are authentic and appropriate.