Friday, July 09, 2010

I hear voices

I've been hearing voices all week - the voices of my fellow bloggers talking about the "voices" of characters and narrators.

So here's my two cents' worth.

It seems to me there are two kinds of "voices" when discussing the novel. There is the voice of the character, or characters, and there is the voice of the narrator. Sometimes these can be quite separate, as when the narrator adopts the voice of the neutral spectator reporting upon events. And sometimes they can be one and the same, as when the story is told from the perspective of the main character.

In all cases, the voice should reflect the nature of the character, both in dialogue and narration. Even the neutral observer reveals him or herself in the nature of the observations made and the conclusions drawn (even if it is you, the writer). Every detail in every description is, or should be, loaded, because like it or not, our opinions are always invoked by our interpretation of the world around us.

Which leads me to the more vexed question of perspective.

Coming from a background of screenwriting, I brought with me a tendency to jump perspectives, telling my stories from the viewpoint of several characters at the same time. It took a vintage editor at my British publisher (a Canadian actually) to pull me up on this. My book was essentially written from the perspective of my two main characters. I had no problem moving from one to the other, or dealing with both in the same scene. And it seemed to work well. What didn't work, my editor told me, were all those scenes where I had moved away entirely from my central characters, and taken a completely outside perspective.

"Your readers will become confused," she told me, "and you will lose the focus of your main characters, instead of allowing your readers to follow and empathise with them as the story unfolds, unravelling the mystery with them." And with a wry smile she added that when I wrote the screenplay I could restore the perspectives she was asking me to cut.

Well, I did cut those extraneous perspectives, and stuck with only two through the rest of the series. I think it worked, and worked well, and improved the books - as well as my storytelling.

But I have noticed that many contemporary writers like to adopt several perspectives, breaking up their narratives into bite-sized chunks. And I have to admit that it seems a little like cheating to me, making up for a deficiency in being able to sustain the narrative of the novel, like taking a film script and novelizing it, which is really not the same thing as writing a novel.

On the other hand - and I have experienced this myself in several of my Enzo Files books, and the one I am wrestling with now - there are some stories that can really only be told by cutting away to other perspectives, and building tension in the reader by providing him or her with information that the hero or heroine doesn't possess.

And, of course, we live in the digital video age, and an audience whose attention span is rapidly diminishing. That they enjoy the machine-gun rattle of short scenes spat out in rapid succession from a plethora of perspectives, is evinced by the massive sales achieved by writers like James Patterson.

Clearly there is no right, and no wrong. Just a matter of personal preference. Mine, wherever possible, is to stick with that single perspective, that sole voice which takes me as a writer on a very personal, highly individual voyage through the story. A journey on which I hope the reader will join me, while deriving just as much pleasure.

PS: I am writing this from the bar of an enormous ferry as it sails out of the French Mediterranean port of Marseille, bound for the island of Corsica, birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, to attend a three-day crime writing festival. The panoramic view of this ancient port as it disappears in the evening haze is quite extraordinary. I have a cabin aboard and when I wake up tomorrow after a 12-hour sail, I will be in the Capital town of Ajaccio on an urgent quest to find a wifi hotspot so I can post this blog. If you are reading this, then you know that I found one.


DJ Kirkby said...

Very interesting. Liked the closing paragraph! That reads wrong actually as I liked the rest of the post too. I think I like a bit of variety in relation to perspectives. I find some novels work well when told from one perspective others are better whent old from more. I think it's like you said, it depends on which the author is more comfortable with writing. Happily I read lots of novels by lots of different authors and so I get to enjoy both types.

Vicki Delany said...

There was a discussion recently on DorothyL about headhopping, which they defined as jumping from one person's POV to another within the same scene. Some readers dislike it so much that they won't read another book by an author who headhops.

peter_may said...

I gave up on a book called "The Crow Road" for that very reason. Just couldn't keep track of the narrative.