Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Story Voice

Some authors' voices remain fairly constant throughout everything they write and it is that author voice that holds such great appeal. Alice Hoffman, Jenny Crusie, and Meg Cabot are some that immediately come to mind.

Then other authors create unique, individual voices for each of their stories so that you might not realize they’d been written by the same person. Jane Yolen, Tamora Pierce, Suzanne Collins, K. A. Applegate, Garth Nix.

If you're the former, then the story voice and author voice remain fairly constant and you don't have to wrestle with the idea of different voices for different stories. However, as I said, this need to tell wildly different stories had me wrestling with voice for a long, long time.

So now I consider story voice to be which aspect of your author voice you’re focusing on or which emotional truth you are exploring.

The thing is, we all have many aspects to our personality: funny sides, serious sides, dark sides, places where our deepest fears lay. To me, it makes perfect sense that our body of work will cover more than one side of ourselves, thus different flavors of stories.

However, while we might vary in whether we want to focus on humor or seriousness or hope or despair, WHAT makes us laugh or cry or hope or despair is part of the essence of who we are and that will very likely remain constant throughout the body of our work.

Whether it is center stage or backdrop is the variable.

If you are writing a scary story, you will be drawing on what frightens you, the terrifying moments you’ve experienced, your nightmares.

If you are writing a humorous or light-hearted story, you will probably draw on what parts of life you find absurd or ironic. A romance would focus on how you define love.

Now, having said all that, I do suspect that each of us has a particular type of story that is best suited to our natural voice. As I told Dave in yesterday’s comments, Theodosia is absolutely the closest to my own natural voice to date. But does that mean I’m destined to write only Theodosia-like books for the rest of forever? Well, as much as I enjoy writing those, I certainly hope not, because that character only explores some of the things I know to be emotionally true, certainly not all of them. Perhaps Theodosia is only one aspect of my voice, or perhaps she is only one step along the path to finding my Most True Voice. I can't say for certain which it is.

I do know that I am hugely drawn to writing in the medieval period. In fact, four of my first six books were set in a medieval type setting. And while I don’t think that those books’ voice are as strong as Theodosia’s, I think it’s more because I hadn’t matured as a writer and developed my voice enough rather than because I was writing in a different time period.

The project I’m working on now is a very dark, mythical YA fantasy set against a late medieval backdrop and this voice sounds nothing like Theodosia, but I still feel very much that it’s my voice. But it is my seventeen-year-old voice versus my eleven-year-old voice. My coming-of-age voice versus my still-firmly-rooted-in-childhood voice. I am also exploring a whole different set of emotional truths and thematic issues and they help dictate the tone and feel of the story.

It is also my voice as seen through a medieval lens and worldview rather than an Edwardian one—two time periods with distinctly different flavors. The medieval world was obsessed with finding a path to grace and assuring a place in heaven, while Edwardians were just stepping out of a dark, somber, restrictive Victorian society and embracing a lighter side. Not to mention the beginning advent of modern technologies. If I’m doing my job in developing my characters, the flavor of those different times comes through.

Or as PJ says, talking about religion instead of relaying a college prank.

Which is why I think asking By what moral authority am I writing this story? helps me be sure I’m telling a story for which I have an authentic voice. That moral authority is the key to my emotional authenticity.

I think the fact that voice is so much more than simply language style is what allows us to effectively explore these different cultures and time periods. And I honestly believe it’s more about capturing the Renaissance worldview or the medieval worldview rather than using absolutely correct language and sentence structure. My intention is usually to evoke the time period through the language rather than to recreate it. I think it can be more accessible to readers that way and it gives me greater creative license to tell the story. And I sincerely believe everything should serve the Story. Especially voice.


Dave Johnson said...

Thanks Robin - that hit the spot, especially the bit about aspects of our own voice. Garth Nix is a great example. I'm reading Sabriel right now and am wowed by how completely different the voice is from Mister Monday, etc.

Would you also say that when we use only one or two aspects of our authorial voice, that it may sometimes be necessary to purposely repress other aspects if they don't accurately portray the character?

Robin L said...

Dave, Sabriel is one of my all time favorite books, and I so loved that voice that I have been unable to get into any of Nix's other books. Very sad. Also, I kept getting confused in Mister Monday. But that was years ago, when it first came out. I should give it another try.

Interesting question about the possibility of needing to repress other aspects of our voice. Hmmm.

I would say if you've climbed thoroughly into your character's skin (which I'll talk about tomorrow or Friday) that it shouldn't really be necessary to squelch something.

For example, even in my dark medieval, my heroine makes wry and ironic observations occasionally, so while I'm not focusing on humor, neither do I feel the need to totally squelch it.

Having said that, there have been mss I've written where I was constantly sidetracked by "the voice not taken," meaning, I kept hearing a wise-a$$ voice that was at odds with the story I thought I was telling. My guess is that means I probably needed to spend more time experimenting with my overall tone and feel before committing to the story voice. (None of these turned into published mss, btw, which is probably a big clue right there! :-)

Or for example, with Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist, he was a much younger, more vulnerable character than Theo, so I had to watch and be sure he was speaking in timid 10 year old speak, rather than Theo's "love big words" style, so I squelched the part of me that loves clauses and complex sentence construction.

If that didn't answer your question (and it feels like I didn't) could you give me an example of what you meant?

PJ Hoover said...

Great post (again)!

After one ms I wrote (first person, past tense, male, 14 y-o), I was worried everything else I wrote would sound exactly the same and if I tried to write something different, my voice would disappear. Then I wrote a YA of a totally different style (first person, present tense, female, 18 y-o), and by some grace, my voice was still there. It's way more serious, but still has a nice mix of my sense of humor (which I wonder if I'll ever not include).

And I've been meaning to read Sabriel. Guess I will move it up on the list!

Dave Johnson said...

Actually, your Nathaniel Fludd example is very helpful - with younger characters we have to repress a bit of our adult perspective, which is a backhanded way of "climbing into the character" as you say.

I think my struggle with this character I'm working on now is the fact that he was an actual person, and I'm scared I'm going to superimpose my own personality over his with my Voice. Plus, I need to read like, about 1,000 more historical fictions before I proceed, but the story is nagging at me...

PJ - I can't say enough good things about Sabriel. The lore is very dense and the journey is painstaking, but it's probably one of the best examples of the type of world creating Robin spoke of in an older post.