Monday, March 8, 2010

Wrestling with Voice

     Warning to reader:  This was composed on my father's dinosaur of a computer. Enough said.

     Trying to define “voice” in writing is like trying to define “air” (the invisible stuff you breathe) or “love”( an emotion that makes you act stupid). After much hairpulling and consulting a bunch of writing manuals, I think I have a definition.

     Writing is what you say, and how you say it. Voice is the “how you say it” part. The term can be used in different ways. One is the writer’s voice. Since I am not a literature scholar, I’m not going to try analyzing writer’s voice, within the confines of a blog post!

     A more manageable topic is character voice. In this context, “voice” consists of the vocabulary, speech pattern and tone used by the individuals. Think of some memorable fictional figures. Could you ever confuse Jane Eyre with Scarlett O’Hara? Huck Finn with Holden Caulfield? Ramona Quimby with Laura Ingalls? Is there another literary child who sounds even remotely like Eloise? Each of them speak and think in a way that is completely their own.

     What influences character voice? The character's gender, age, setting, cultural background, education, family, economic status, occupation and on and on. Taking these factors into consideration, even persons who share some these aspects will still sound unique. Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield are both teenage boys. The uneducated, resourceful and adventuresome Huck, narrates in the dialect of a 19th century Mississippi River “rat.” Holden, immature and introspective, uses repetition, slang and fairly limited vocabulary, that reflects his isolated, upper-middle class, Post-World-War-II American prep school life.

     Even characters who may share many of the same characteristics, should be distinguishable from one another. One of the best examples of this is Rachel Vail’s Daring to Be Abigail. The story takes place in a camp cabin of 11-year-old girls who at first glance, seem to share exactly the same background. Within two pages, the reader knows each of the eight main characters as separate entities. I have read this book over and over, trying to figure out how she established characterization through voice so rapidly, without resorting to stereotype. I’m still reading!

     My students sometimes have trouble creating distinct character voices. For instance, a conversation between two ten-year-old boys, whose dialog could be interchangeable, because they speak exactly alike. When I ask the writer to tell me about these characters…who is their BFF? what’s in their school backpack? what is their least favorite school subject? …the answer is often “I don’t know.” The problem is that the student is trying to write about characters they don’t really “know”.

     My characters live in my head for years and years before I get around to bringing them to life. I keep notebooks, computer files and file folders on future characters, as they "share" with me such diverse information as their favorite baseball player, what their side of a shared dresser top looks like, how they feel about various family members. Sometimes I learn more about my characters through the writing process, but I would never presume to tell their stories without having at least a working knowledge of them.

     In the classroom, we don’t often have the luxury of allowing characters a leisurely germination period. Both the student and the teacher want the story finished within a few class sessions. The following workout can speed the development along.

 Writing Workout

1.      Interview your character. The student will select four or five questions from a masterlist. Although the information the writer “receives” from the character may or may not directly relate to the story at hand, it will make the imaginary more concrete to the student. The questions should only be things you would not know about the character just by looking at them. One of my favorite questions for a character is “Who is your BFF? Why? Where did you meet? How long ago?”

2. Have two characters interview each other. Same sort of questions…much different result.

Here is a list my personal “recommended reading” list of books with great voice. This list tends toward female writers and protagonists and middle grade and YA books. Please send me your own picks for books with great voice. I'm always looking for new ones.

The Make Lemonade Trilogy by Virginia Euwer Wolff
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
Letting Go of Bobby James: Or How I Found My Self of Steam by Valerie Hobbs
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson
The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems
A Step From Heaven by An Na
Goin' Someplace Special by Patricia McKissack
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary Schmidt
Sparks by Graham McNamee
When She Was Good by Norma Fox Mazer
The Lightening Thief  by Rick Riordan
What Jamie Saw by Carolyn Coman
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
The  Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck
Uncle Ronald by Brian Doyle
Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles
Keeper of the Night by Kimberly Willis Holt
Alvin Ho: Allergic to School by Lenore Look

posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Carmela Martino said...

I nominate LIFE AS WE KNEW IT by Susan Beth Pfeffer and THE UNDERNEATH by Kathi Appelt.

Unknown said...

AUDREY, WAIT! by Robin Benway is one of the funniest voices I've ever read.

April Halprin Wayland said...

I second your listing of Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles...omg...what an exquisite book and WONDERFUL voice!