There are a multitude of things that make up a character. Physicality, goals, fears, and looks are just a few, but there’s a big one that often gets ignored.
Sure, maybe it’s obvious when a character has a specific way of talking, but what about when the entire book is written in the main character’s voice? Sometime’s it’s really obvious, but other times it’s so subtle that the reader barely notices.
Go on, go look at your bookshelf; find some cool voices. I’ll do it too, and then we’ll compare.
Okay, got some? Good.
Here’s what I found:
Interesting Times–by Terry Pratchett, page 1:
This is where gods play games with the lives of men, on a board which is at one and the same time a simple playing area and the whole world. And Fate always wins. Fate always wins. Most of the gods throw dice but Fate plays chess, and you don’t find out until too late that he’s been using two queens all along. Fate wins. At least, so it is claimed. Whatever happens, they say afterwards, it must have been Fate.
The voice in this excerpt is very repetitive. The language used is relatively simple, but the words are strung together in medium-sized sentences which gives it a flowing feel.
The Scorpio Races-by Maggie Stiefvater, Prologue:
I find myself facing the sea, surrounded on all sides by the capaill uisce–the water horses. They are every color of the pebbles on the beach: black, red, golden, white, ivory, grey, blue. Men hang the bridles with red tassels and daisies to lessen the danger of the dark November sea, but I wouldn’t trust a handful of petals to save my life. Last year a water horse trailing flowers and bells tore a man’s arm half from his body. These are not ordinary horses. Drape them with charms, hide them from the sea, but today, on the beach: do not turn your back.
The voice here is full of detail. They follow through with their thoughts even to the point where they list colors. The sentences have the same, smooth flow as Terry Pratchett’s piece, but the word choices are different and there are definitely no repeats: instead of saying ‘daisies’ three times, the voice uses ‘petals’ and ‘flowers’ in the next two instances. Words like ‘drape’, ‘lessen’, and ‘trailing’ make the writing seem more poetic.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl-by Jesse Andrews, Chapter 10:
Earl and I are both pretty weird. And maybe that is why we’re friends. But probably you deserve more of an explanation than that. Also, what the hell does “weird” even mean? I’ve just written it like five times and all of a sudden I’m staring at it and it doesn’t even mean anything anymore. I just murdered the word “weird.” Now it’s just a bunch of letters. It’s like there’s all these dead bodies all over the page now. I’m sort of close to having a freak-out about this. I have to go eat some snacks or leftovers or something.
First of all: woah. We had these nice flowing excerpts and now we’ve suddenly been transported into the bizarre brain of a teenage boy who overthinks stuff way a lot. Notice the word ‘like’–something we didn’t see in the other excerpts. The sentences also seem a little jumpy because of the way the words are arranged, especially the ‘But probably you’; for me anyway, this shoves me straight into a different mindset because I would write ‘But you probably’. Thinking words in a different pattern effectively prevents me from being ‘me’.
Biggles the Camels are Coming-by Captain W.E. Johns, Chapter 1:
‘Come on, you devil!’ he cried, ‘I’ll take your lead,’ and shot out of the circle. He shoved his stick forward savagely as something crashed through the root of the nearest centre-section strut, and then he pulled it back in a swift zoom. A fleeting glance over his shoulder showed the Fokker three hundred feet behind. He pulled the stick right back into his stomach in a flick loop and his eyes sought the sights as he pressed his triggers. Blue sky–blue sky–the horizon–green fields–where was the Fokker? Ah!
During this entire excerpt, the word ‘plane’ is not used, which is interesting to note. We have our first ‘-ly’ word with ‘savagely’, something many authors shy away from because adverbs are frequently viewed as lazy writing. (Strange fact: much of J K Rowling’s writing is filled with adverbs,’Ron said quietly‘, but I have yet to hear a single person accuse her of literary sloppiness. Perhaps it isn’t just an influx of ‘-ly’ words that makes writing ‘bad’.) The Biggles book has some WWI pilot lingo, which is fun. I also love that he stuck the words ‘swift zoom’ together, a pairing I have yet to find anywhere else. Oh, and this doesn’t really have much to do with voice, but notice the interesting punctuation Johns uses. It’s pretty clear that this book was written well before the other three (it was first published in 1932, sixty-two years before Interesting Times, the next oldest excerpt I’ve used).
Did you find any fun voices?
My examples aren’t really what could be called ‘extreme’, but it’s clear that they’ve all got their own style of using language.
Here’s an interesting thing: let’s assume you’re a writer working on a novel in the same style as a Jane Austen book. Meanwhile, your friend gives you a copy of Percy Jackson and, after staying up all night to finish it, you return to your beloved novel and write a chapter or two. Later you read back over your work and realize that your lovely period characters seem to have morphed into New York teens.
The above situation is not rare. And it’s not just voice–tense can mess us up too. I’m personally so swayed by other author’s voices that I often forbid myself from reading any fiction that isn’t in the style I’m aiming for during November (I’m a little obsessed with NaNoWriMo, partly because this is the only month I can actually make myself commit and write a novel). It’s not just annoying though, it can be fun and sometimes useful to write in a different style. It can add some pizzazz to the main character.
If you’ve managed to stick with me through this long rant about words, here’s an experiment I did the other day. I’m pretty sure the voice I’ve used isn’t consistent with itself, but hey–it’s still fun.
This was inspired by a prompt in which I had to use the words ‘chair’, ‘favor’, ‘warn’, ‘primary’, ‘assessment’, and ‘miracle’:
The old woman sets in her chair on the wrap-around porch, rockin’ in time to the swish of the wind in the bayou.
She’s set there as long as me and Danny done walked by on our way to school. Our Daddy says she was there when he and his brother walked by all those long years ago when he was li’l.
Danny tells the other kids she’s a witch–tells ’em to warn the others to stay away or she’ll voodoo ’em into frogs.
Maybe that’s true. It’s gotta be some sort of miracle or such-like that keeps her settin’ there all them days.
I get to starin’ at her sometimes when we walk by. When I be lookin’, I see her big eyes all watchin’ the world–swingin’ back and forth over the swamp. Slow like a gator when he’s makin’ an assessment of who he’s gonna et first.
But she don’t make no move.
Always settin’ there with those eyes–like she be stuck in place.
Some days Daddy gets to drinkin’ whiskey with the men, and his primary talk is ’bout doin’ her a favor–gettin’ a gun and blowin’ out her brains so her soul gets freed.
But I don’t think the old woman be unhappy. She just keeps rockin’ along, lookin’ at the swamps like she’s proud of them.
Like they was a li’l baby that got all growed up.