Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Hearing voices

Barbara here. Last week, John Corrigan wrote a thoughtful blog about empathy, and specifically about the challenge of slipping into the shoes of his protagonist who differs from him in outlook and gender. Being surrounded by a wife, daughters, female colleagues and students (as well as a female dog) helps him to hear the female voice. I find it interesting to read books by close friends and to hear their own voice in the voices of their same-sexed protagonists. For fifteen years I have written from the point of view of a middle-aged male cop with a phobia for nature and a stubborn, impatient streak. When asked how I slipped into his shoes, I gave an answer similar to John's, although in many ways Green and I are more alike than surface traits would suggest, and I can tap into that vein inside myself to get into his head.

Since I've embarked on my new Amanda Doucette series, I am now writing from the POV of a thirty-something woman who (despite our age differences) is a lot more like me in terms of values, interests, and spirit than Green is. I thought this would be an easy switch for me; in fact I was concerned about my own personality bleeding into hers. But instead, I find it difficult to capture her voice. There are two male 'co-stars' or sidekicks in the series who also have their own POV scenes, and I have found it much easier to slip into their thoughts and reactions than those of Amanda.

Initially I thought it was because she was a new character and I didn't know her very well yet. There is some truth to that, but I have already completed one novel about her and am well into the first draft of my second. And I find myself effortlessly slipping into the shoes of the two male sidekicks.

There are two aspects to capturing the essence of a character on the page. First is getting her behaviour right. How would this character react, what would they do next, what would they say? The character guides the direction and evolution of the scene by their actions in it. I have found I can do this with Amanda. I DO know her. I know when she's outraged, afraid, amused...

The second part, however, is getting the inner monologue right. Our characters react to things not just overtly but by their private observations, judgments, and thoughts. Through these little snippets, the character draws the reader in and takes them along on the journey. It is this inner monologue I am having trouble hearing. She doesn't talk to me naturally as I write. I always have to stop and ask her, puzzle over what she is saying to herself.

Is it because after all these years, I am more at home creating a man's voice (my Rapid Reads series also has a male protagonist)? Is it because I am more concerned with getting her "just right" because she carries the weight of the series on her shoulders? Am I second-guessing the thoughts she has, trying to make sure she's not me? Trying to make sure she has enough complexity and appeal? Trying to make sure she is unique and compelling?

When I creating Green, I stumbled upon him and created him bit by bit as the series developed. I didn't know I was creating a series character and luckily hadn't read all the advice about how to make him unique and memorable. I hadn't read countless reviews reducing main characters to a string of cliches. Men were gritty, women were feisty, everyone was flawed. So perhaps now I am too aware of these pitfalls, and my inner editor is shutting Amanda off before she can really get into full swing.

This is not to say that she is an empty shell. She's a great character. From the very beginning, I have been very excited about who she is and what she is trying to do, and I think she's a unique character worth spending time with. But she has been through a life-changing ordeal, and she is guarded. She doesn't let people in easily, and it's fascinating to me that that includes me!

My books are written in third-person. It is infinitely easier to find a character's voice when writing in first person. The moment you write the word "I", you are in their head. Because my books are multiple POV, I can't do that, but as an exercise and writing aide, I'm going to write a few Amanda scenes in first person to see if I can hear her more clearly. That's my task for the next few days. Stay tuned! And if any of you have experience with this dilemma, I'd love to hear it.


Kristina Stanley said...

I love the way you write multiple POVs. For me, it keeps the story interesting. Thanks for sharing your thoughts today.

Barbara Fradkin said...

Thanks, Kristina. Multiple POVs keep me interested too. Plus they are a great way to create colliding story lines.

Patricia Filteau said...

Hello Barbara, I found your exploration of writing from a POV quite useful. It illuminates many of the challenges I face in developing the character of the protagonist of my own series. I experienced a sigh of relief to read that even you as a well-seasoned writer continue to have these challenges. I like the questions you ask yourself as you look at how your male leads and now your female lead develop(s). Last week I found my female lead, talking back to me with, 'well, that is you and this is me so get with the agenda.' I think I laughed out loud – my dog interpreted the outburst as, time for a walk. – Looking forward to more of these explorations/analysis from the Type M for Murder contributors.