Please note — there’s a special BONUS at the end of this post for all my loyal fans (both of you) who read right to the end …
So, you know how I started out one day last week to write a post about “voice” in writing, and I got sidetracked into writing about voice in my personal and professional life instead? Here’s the post I was going to write.
I got an interesting question in my email the other day from Karen, which I wanted to think about awhile before answering (here you go Karen — the whole world gets to read my answer to you! The “whole world” being the 27 people who read my blog). Here’s the essence of what she asked:
“I just wanted to know if you had any tricks of the trade for keeping track of multiple characters? … I have 5 or 6 characters that will be central the story. The chapters will alternate between each character’s point of view. How do you keep an authentic feel to your characters?? How do you make them real and how to keep track of who’s who?”
I’ve given this a lot of thought. To me, this is really a question about voice, because each of the characters should have an authentic voice which will come through in their dialogue, and in the narration if it’s first-person. Even if the narration is limited third-person, so that the character him/herself is not directly speaking, we’re still seeing the world through that character’s eyes and to some extent the character’s “voice” still comes through. Different people notice different things, process them in different ways, find different things funny. Whether you’re writing from the point of view of one character or alternating among several, you have to be deep enough inside the head of your character to see the world as she sees it, and to write with her voice.
I can think of at least two very literary, highly acclaimed novels I’ve read in the last little while that have used the viewpoints of multiple characters, and in each case I’ve read or heard reviews that have criticized the writer on the basis that “all these characters sound like the same person.” In essence, these critics said, there were multiple characters and multiple points of view, but only one voice: the author’s.
How does a writer avoid that? Obviously each of us has our own unique voice and style, but how do we write in such a way that the character’s voice is paramount, and distinct from that of every other character in the story?
I’ve written a couple of novels with multiple points of view, and played around with how to distinguish the voices. Deborah and Barak alternated between the viewpoints of the two title characters, although the narration was third-person. In Barak’s chapters I made an effort to make the narrative voice sound and feel different — using shorter, more terse sentences in keeping with the way I envisioned Barak as more a man of action than of words. Whether that worked out or came across successfully, I have no idea. Philippi is also told from multiple viewpoints — five characters, again writing in limited third-person for each — and except in the case of one character whose voice is more distinct, I don’t think I’ve done enough there to make the characters sound and seem unique. That’s something I want to look for and try to strengthen in revision.
My most extended experiment with multiple voices was in the perpetually unpublished Prone to Wander, which is told from the viewpoints of five characters: Katie, Liz, Dave, Julie and Jeff. Each person is telling the story in a different way: Katie’s story (which is kind of the backbone of the book) is written in a very traditional, third-person limited storytelling style. Liz’s is first-person, very postmodern, kind of like a prose poem she’s writing. Dave’s story is his side of an ongoing conversation with his therapist, which means it has to be written in a more oral style, as though he’s speaking aloud. Julie’s story is her journal, and Jeff’s is a series of flashbacks and thoughts he has during and after a car accident, as he drifts in and out of consciousness.
Because the style of each section is so different, I think I’ve done a good job with this novel of distinguishing the characters’ voices. Two of the characters, Liz and Dave, have been living in my head so long that I know them better than I know my best friends. Writing in their voices came very naturally to me. Writing the Katie pieces was very easy as well because Katie essentially is me — a few different life experiences, but her viewpoint and her voice are mine. The other two characters, Julie and Jeff, I had to work at a lot more. When a character’s voice doesn’t come so naturally, I find myself staging scenes in my head and trying to actually “listen” to what the character is saying — asking myself “What would Julie say about this?” “How would Jeff react to this?”
Interestingly, one of the ongoing problems with this novel (and one of the many reasons I haven’t sent it out to a publisher yet) is that different readers react very differently to my characters. About five people have read the MS in its entirety and almost every reader has had at least one character they hate and one they love — but there’s absolutely no consistency among them. The very person whose story one reader finds the most compelling is the one that causes another reader to get bored and put the book down. It might be logical to assume that the characters whose voices came most easily and naturally to me are the most compelling ones but that’s not been the case — I don’t see any correlation between my ease of writing and the readers’ reactions. I have actually decided (AFTER. MUCH. THERAPY) to view the diversity of reactions as a strength in the book — if people can hate and be annoyed by some of my characters as well as loving and caring about some, then the characters must sound and feel at least a little like real people (who often anger and annoy us). That still doesn’t solve the problem of people getting bored/annoyed and giving up on the book, but at least it makes ME feel better.
If there’s a “trick,” I think it’s just in getting to know your characters well enough that you can hear their voices and see the world through their eyes. And that applies no matter what type of narrative voice you’re using.
My current work-in-progress, What You Want, is told in first-person point of view, from the perspective of Megan, who is probably less like me than most of the main characters I’ve written about. She and I share some superficial life experiences — she’s a graduate student in English, as I was once; she has a conservative religious background; she likes to read and write. But she is, as I said before when talking about this book, a very passive people-pleaser who doesn’t know what she wants in life (hence the title) so in a lot of ways I have to wrap my head around her perspective in order to write in her voice. And yet that voice comes very naturally to me, and I’ve found this writing very easy. (Side note: I seem to find it easy to write in first person only when the character is very different from me — which fits with what I said above about Prone to Wander as well. Maybe I can only do first-person if I can separate the character from myself sufficiently.)
The other two characters in What You Want, the two friends Megan goes on a road trip with, don’t get to tell the story from their own points of view. But I still have to be able to hear their voices, because the dialogue has to be true and accurate, and they have to come off the page as real, living characters. With one of them, Jonathan, this was very easy as he’s another one of those people who’s been living in my head and talking to me there for awhile. He’s so real to me that it was just a matter of getting him out on paper. The other character, Andrew, has been more difficult. I can see him very clearly — which is unusual for me; I can usually imagine how my characters would speak and what they’d do but often don’t have a clear visual image of them. I can see Andrew but I have trouble hearing him sometimes, and so I have to more carefully construct scenes in my head, sit him down (usually behind the wheel of the car or on a barstool, which are the two places I usually find him in this novel) and listen to what he would say.
So I guess what I’m saying is, that your characters have to be real people to YOU before they will ever be real to readers. And they will have their own unique quirks — speech patterns, sense of humour, the types of comparisons they’re like to make, the things they would notice and talk about — that will distinguish them from other characters. Sometimes you know those things instinctively and sometimes you need to take time to get to know your characters a little better, figure them out and know what those things are — and make sure they come through in the story, not in forced and obvious ways, but in ways that are natural and organic. I know, it doesn’t sound easy. And it’s even harder than it sounds. And I’m still figuring it out as I go along.
Since I’ve blogged a bit here about What You Want and a few people said earlier that it sounded like something they’d like to read, I am offering an amazing blog-reader’s bonus for those who really care. If you really want to read a little of the book, the first chapter is posted here, but you need a password to get to it. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll tell you the password. The same password will get you (if you haven’t already read it) the first chapter of another work-in-progress, the one about the time-travelling monk. And if you read either of them, leave a comment after the chapter and let me know if the voice is working for you … or if you’re hearing voices in your head, or whatever.