Thursday, July 30, 2009

Voice Equals Character

Earlier this summer, a lot of Type M for Murder discussion was focused on character (how a character is created and what comes first, character or plot?). Here, I want to discuss something that might be even more important or at least viewed as interchangeable with characterization: voice.

The voice of a piece of writing is the persona the reader hears. Voice is what makes strong writing unique. I’ve heard it said that voice is a writer’s DNA. Consider this passage from James Crumley’s THE MEXICAN TREE DUCK (Mysterious Press, 1993), “I got there as quickly as the laws of physics, biology, and pharmacology would let me. I only stopped for calls of nature, gas tank refills, then once to dig around in Norman’s glove box. Treasure time.” These sentences sound unique; the first especially sings. And in fact, you could pull the cover off the book, hand it to me along with four others, and I would know immediately who wrote these lines. Yes, I’m familiar with Crumley, but the voice above is also unforgettably that of protagonist C.W. Sughrue.

Often, writers treat voice the way they discuss the mysterious “muse,” like it is every writer’s Holy Grail and to find it means instant success. I don’t believe in the muse just as I don’t believe in writer’s block. Writing is hard work. Period. Even on the good days. So when I hear someone say that voice can’t be taught, that a writer either has it or doesn’t, I always disagree. Yes, I do think a writer like Crumley possesses a natural grasp of the language that many of us do not possess. But I also believe a writer can find and develop his or her own voice, which is why teachers ask students to keep journals—because no writer ever located their voice by just talking about it.

However, fiction is far different from academic prose. In fiction, authors routinely step into and out of a variety of voices, depending on the needs of the story. For instance, I don’t speak (or write blog entries) in the voice I use to write Jack Austin novels. This is where I think the discussion of character needs to be expanded to include voice. Writing fiction, at least for me, is no different than acting. I enjoy the Bravo network’s show ACTORS STUDIO because listening to actors discuss their craft reminds me so much of the fiction-writing process. As a writer, I assume the persona of the character from whose point of view the story (or scene) is being told.

Sometimes locating the voice the story (or scene) requires takes a lot of work. Let’s go back to the late Mr. Crumley’s passage. Yes, parts are damn near poetic. But there’s nothing hidden that any writer/reader willing to do a little analysis won’t understand and learn from. The lines are not the work of a lazy writer. Crumley makes deliberate choices. The sentences are carefully constructed; not mechanical but certainly patterned. First, the passage is tightly parallel. Second, the diction is highly unique. In fact, word choice is what Crumley hangs his hat on here. “Pharmacology”? In this context? Are you kidding me? Call the novel’s plot outlandish, if you want. I don’t care. I’m smirking the whole time I’m reading and hate to put the book down.

Maybe a better example of voice and how we can take it apart and examine it in hopes of learning is the story “A&P” by John Updike. Consider this 77-word sentence: “By the time I got her feathers smoothed and her goodies into a bag—she gives me a little snort in passing, if she'd been born at the right time they would have burned her over in Salem—by the time I get her on her way the girls had circled around the bread and were coming back, without a pushcart, back my way along the counters, in the aisle between the check-outs and the Special bins.” Everything you need to know about the main character, Sammy, you get right here. Girls in my classes are annually (justifiably) annoyed by the chauvinistic voice. I remind them that this isn’t Updike; he was stepping into character when he wrote this story.

So how does Updike do it? Again, diction and syntax lead to the voice. The first-person sentence features ellipses (the dashes to interrupt), there’s a deliberate comma splice after “passing,” and the cynical view of the customer all work to reveal Sammy’s true persona, which is the voice behind the story. Can voice be taught and created? Sure. Just as the muse is found everyday if you look for it at your keyboard and not in front of the TV or lounging in your favorite reading chair.

In the end, I think voice is so closely tied to character that for some writers the two are interchangeable; moreover, as fiction writers we need to view voice as a device we can carefully construct and utilize.


Hannah Dennison said...

I completely agree!! I was told it took me 2 years to "find my voice" for my Vicky Hill mysteries ... it was rather a Pygmalion moment as in "by George! She's got it!"

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