Voice

Jan. 16th, 2005 07:53 am
lullenny: (eats)
[personal profile] lullenny
The following is an excerpt from Part III of the book Making Shapely Fiction, by Jerome Stern. The first two parts are very much worth reading as well. The book is available in paperback.



Voice

Voice is the writer's style as it is expressed in the characters' speech and thoughts.

Writers can be many people and can have access to many voices. They can assume the voice of an adolescent girl, an elderly woman, a bitter young boy, an incompetent salesman, an unhappy teacher. Each voice creates a character. The notion of voice is not hard to understand when it's clear that a character is telling a story in first person. Salinger's opening to Catcher in the Rye creates Holden Caulfield:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Salinger is establishing Holden's speech rhythms, vocabulary, and degree of awareness -- he's sharp, rude, young but insightful, and he reads books. That voice has to be consistent if it's going to be convincing. If Holden started sounding like a New York Times contributor, "I investigated various states of mind -- madness, horror, hilarity -- fully at ease in exploring every one," we say the character breaks voice.

Voice in third person is a bit more elusive. You are narrating, but not entirely in your own voice. Your reader hears your character's voice through you, and simultaneously hears you through your character. Carson McCullers begins The Member of the Wedding:
It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways and, she was afraid.
As the book goes on, that direct, young voice with its breathless little ands lets us hear Frankie through McCullers. McCullers/Frankie describes the cook:
Her hair was parted, plaited, and greased close to the skull, and she had a flat and quiet face. There was only one thing wrong about Berenice --her left eye was bright blue glass.
We won't hear McCullers/Frankie sound like this:
It was full dark now, but still early; Gay Street was full of absorbed faces; many of the store windows were still alight. Plaster people, in ennobled postures, stiffly wore untouchably new clothes; there was even a little boy, with short, straight pants, bare knees and high socks, obviously a sissy: but he wore a cap, all the same, not a hat like a baby.
That's Rufus, the young boy in James Agee's Death in the Family. But it's Agee/Rufus, a kind of double voice with its own rules.

To stay in voice you have to hear that voice in your head. As you can see from the examples, writers establish a range of vocabulary, imagery, phrasing, and style of punctuation. Reading your story aloud is a fine way of testing your control of the voice. You'll hear where the voice has gone flat or lost its rhythm. You'll hear where a certain insight or piece of information seems out of character.

Don't accept the notion that the character could possibly say or think that. Possibly is not enough. You want that shock of recognition -- you want your readers to say Yes!, not Well, maybe.

See Character, Fa├žade, Point of View, Style.

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