Rule 5 for New Writers
When I say that voice makes character, note that this is not the same as saying that character requires voice. It's simply saying that well-made prose can be engaging not just in terms of dynamics but because it generates a sense of the viewpoint character, brings them to life in the very lexis and syntax. I'm not going to say that you can't conjure character solely through their words and deeds, thoughts and emotions, but I will make this contention: voice is ultimately more effective even than action in that respect; voice trumps action; it's the words and deeds, thoughts and emotions that will ring hollow if the voice is inadvertently conjuring a character inconsistent with them.
Or if it's simply reminding us of the author indeed. In deposition, with a narrative flatly communicating where it should be conjuring, part of the problem is we hear only an inept author droning their testimony of how X happened, then Y happened, then Z happened. The writer who sees style as patina will only compound this by slathering on "artistic" expressions rather than actually exercising artistry -- decision, excision, precision, concision, incision, and (again) decision. In the purple prose that results we hear the same ineptitude, but with an additional quality of affectation. We still hear only the author, but now they're an Author, posturing and pompous. This could be said to be conjuring a persona, as the writer is likely just naive and enthusiastic, but clearly it's not an effect to be striving for.*
The minimum we might speak of as voiceless narrative then is actually narrative which simply has its own voice, where it's not just the tedious drone of all deposition made individual with the author's favourite mannerisms of purpling, but where the voice that's been found for conjuring the action is aiming only to do that, not to conjure a viewpoint character's persona in the manner of telling. As an example, let's take one product of the previous post:
Tal peered through the spyglass at the scene below. Over hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, a desert rat scampered, busy with the daily struggles of its dismal life. It scurried across a crust of earth parched and cracked by a pitiless noon sun, on the edge of a weather-beaten trail that wound through arid scrub, through the sort of barren wastes all too damn common in the Norgolian Empire. The rat stopped, sniffed the air and... darted for safety as dust swirled up in blinding clouds at the hooves of three mounts galloping, whirling, rearing under the weight of their clashing riders.
High on his rocky ledge of cliff, Tal lowered his spyglass, unslung the longbow from his shoulder, reached for an arrow only to feel a hand grasp his wrist. Rising from a crouch behind him, a king of thieves known across Norgolia as Black Raq Skarrion arched an eyebrow at the impetuous rogue. Tal gave him a mock-innocent shrug. What? He was a rogue, after all.
Here the only voice is that of the narrative itself. Given that I've worked it over, there are undoubtedly features in there of an authorial default narrative voice that's distinctly Hal Duncan. There's a lack of the semi-colons and em-dashes that I tend to like for the way they can loosen up a text, but the ellipsis for dramatic pause is... very me. As is the dropping of "and" before the final clause in paragraph two's first sentence, and the short sentence at the end of that paragraph is something I think of as a "kicker," the opposite number to a "hook" line at the start of a passage. Still, given the source of much of it in Thiess, it's utilising elements I probably wouldn't have used if I was writing it from scratch. And if it were a different type of scene in a different type of story I'd have taken it in a different direction. At the end of the day, this is not Thiess's work rewritten "in the style of Hal Duncan," I'd say. It's Thiess's work restyled to a passage with its own voice.
Taking this as a baseline then, how does one go about imbuing it with voice in that character sense?
Since voice qualities are about conjuring persona via the idiosyncratic features of a character's way of articulating themself, although I do want to show how that works in third person, it's easier to demonstrate by first reimagining this passage in first person. And since a character's way of articulating themself is primarily manifest in casual speech rather than formal writing, we'll go the whole hog and put it in what could be termed anecdotal voice:
So I was up this cliff ledge, taking a gander through me spyglass, right, scoping out the scene below, yeah? This little desert rat were scampering over hoof prints -- well, I say "hoof prints" but they was near scrubbed down to nothing by the sands. Whatever. This little rat was just getting on with the day-to-day bollocks of its dismal life, scurrying across a crust of earth as parched and cracked as you've ever seen -- must've been about noon, see, so the sun were bloody pitiless. This were on the edge of some weather-beaten trail as wound through arid scrub -- you know, the sort of thing I mean, yeah? Them barren wastes as are all too damn common in the Norgolian Empire, if you ask me. Anyways, this rat stops, sniffs the air and bugger me if it don't go scarpering for safety. Cause next thing you know, the dust is swirling up in blinding clouds, and there's three horses galloping in, whirling, rearing. And three riders on them, I sees, engaged in a good old two-against-one.
Naturally enough, I lowers me spyglass and takes the longbow from me shoulder. But I've no sooner reached for an arrow to notch than I feels a hand grasp me wrist. And Black Raq Skarrion -- yeah, the king of thieves himself, notorious in all Norgolia -- he's coming up from his crouch behind me, arching an eyebrow at my impetuosity. So I gives him me best mock-innocent shrug. What? I am a bleeding rogue, ain't I?
Rather than past perfect tense, you'll see I've switched to past progressive ("I was... taking a gander") sliding into present tense at a key point of tension ("this rat stops.") I've brought in some more informal phrasings like "day-to-day bollocks" for "daily struggles," and some idiomatic phrasing like "take a gander" for "peer." There are dialectic variants in spelling, like "me" for "my," or even in grammar, as with the inversion of "was" and "were," or the third person "-s" on first person verbs. There are tag questions in place of declaratives. There's elucidation via digressive self-interruption rather than descriptive detail. And there are rerailing terms like "whatever" or "anyway" to accommodate that casual chain-of-thought freewheeling, bring the narrative back to the story.
Personally, I'd find a whole story written in that anecdotal voice insufferable, and not just because this particular variant is a hokey cliché of a stock "rustic" running from Shakespeare down to Mackenzie Crook and Lee Arenberg in the Pirates of the Carribean movies. Conjuring a full-on simulation of someone actually telling an anecdote requires a degree of redundancy and convolution that's just going to be tedious if that anecdote is thirty minutes long as opposed to three. Even without that sense of growing waffle, with an in-yer-face voice like this, the reader has to want to spend time with the character being conjured, and I'm not really liking this guy.
Is there a little hint of puffed chest in the opening line? A hint of a pub braggart buttonholing his audience with the double tag, forcing engagement? Is there a hint of dismissiveness at the hoof prints? A hint of habitual dismissiveness in the casual "whatever," furthered by his disregard for the rat's struggles? Does he sound irked that the noon sun is hot? Kind of resentful that his environs don't meet his expectations? If this is our protagonist, does he sound like the lovable rogue whose impetuous rascalry would be indulged by Black Raq, someone who can charm that indulgence out of his boss with a "come on, you know what I'm like" shrug? Me, I think he comes across as kinda charmless. If voice makes character, I don't think this is the kind of character we'd want to be making.
So let's dial it down a bit and tweak the tone. If he's going to pull off that shrug, we need to sell him as a bit of a charmer. And nobody wants to spend thirty minutes listening to a blowhard anyway, so we need to make his speech less casual as is, more polished. Moving away from that anecdotal voice, back towards the lexis and syntax of writing, we can conjure a type of voice that might just be able to hold an audience for a bit longer than your average pub braggart, what we might dub a raconteur voice:
So... I was up on this rocky ledge of cliff, as chance would have it, taking a casual gander through me spyglass, scoping out the terrain below. Picture the scene, boys: hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time; a little desert rat scampering among 'em, busy with the daily shenanigans of his dismal life, scurrying across a crust of earth parched and cracked by a pitiless noon sun, on the edge of some weather-beaten trail a-winding through arid scrub -- through the sort of barren wastes all too bloody common in the Norgolian Empire, if you ask me. The rat stops, boys. He sniffs the air. Then, quick-as-a-flash, he's scarpering for safety, as dust swirls up in blinding clouds at the hooves of three mounts galloping, whirling, rearing. And who's on those horses, lads, but three riders engaged in a good old two-against-one?
Well now, naturally enough, I lower the spyglass, take the longbow from me shoulder. But I've no sooner reached for an arrow to notch, than I feel a hand grip me wrist. And Black Raq Skarrion -- aye, the king of thieves himself, notorious in all Norgolia -- he's rising up from his crouch behind me, arching an eyebrow at my... impetuosity, shall we say? Well, I give him me best mock-innocent shrug, of course, as if to say, what? I am a rogue, after all -- no?
A "So" and a pause to announce his start, to draw attention rather than demand it. A little arch "as chance would have it" weaving in the mock-innocence we're going to see shortly. An elicitation, an invitation to imagination, with a chummy "boys" to establish fraternity with the audience. A little daub of imagery at first, relaxing into that more lyrical conjuring, wandering off louchely into an aside that's wry rather than resentful. And now it might even be part of a performance, used to relax the audience in order to emphasis the sudden shift back to significance. The tag question at the end of that first paragraph as a way to underline: what do you think of that, eh? A "well now`" just to reinforce that sense of assumed rascalry, that air of "why, what else is a man to do in such circumstances but help these riders kill each other and relieve them of their possessions?" A pause before "impetuosity" and a "shall we say" as a verbal wink translating it to "shameless opportunism." You might, of course, find this character just as irksome as the previous one -- no character can charm everyone, no more than a real person can -- but the point is less to make him sympathetic than it's to show how he is made by the voice.
Still, even that sort of raconteur voice is not always going to be what you want. The artifice of simulated performance might be a fun thing to use in this story or that -- I've used it a fair wee bit in some of the Scruffians stories -- but it's not the usual order of business. Even in a first person narrative, do you want to make it all about that central character's storytelling showboating, or do you want to draw the reader into the action? More often than not, you just want to give enough of a flavour of persona to conjure character. So we can dial down a little further, take out all the verbal working of the audience, and go for a fully literary narrative in what we can term memoirist voice:
I took a casual gander through my spyglass at the scene below. Over hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, a desert rat scampered, busy with the day-to-day shenanigans of his dismal life. The little critter scurried across a crust of earth parched and cracked by a pitiless noon sun, on the edge of a weather-beaten trail that wound through arid scrub -- through the sort of barren wastes all too bloody common in the Norgolian Empire. The rat stopped, sniffed the air and... quick-as-a-flash scarpered for safety as dust swirled up in blinding clouds at the hooves of three mounts galloping, whirling, rearing. And on those horses... three riders engaged in a good old two-against-one.
Well now, I thought. High on my rocky ledge of cliff, I lowered the spyglass, unslung the longbow from my shoulder, reached for an arrow only to feel a hand grip my wrist. And Black Raq Skarrion -- the king of thieves himself, notorious in all Norgolia -- rose up from his crouch behind me, arched an eyebrow at my... well, call it impetuosity. I gave him my best mock-innocent shrug. What? I was a rogue, wasn't I?
Note how a simple touch like "shenanigans" rather than "bollocks" or "struggles" conjures a more complex attitude to that desert rat, how that rat's dismal life is no longer "its" but "his," the object cast as a living being, granted empathy as a "little critter," but kept at a distance by a certain loucheness. This character isn't dismissing it callously but he's hardly troubled by pity for a desert rat. Translate back to third person and you have a narrative voice that should read as fairly natural -- the flavour of the character's personality coming through but not so aggressively as to overshadow the drama with the simulation of an actual verbal telling of the tale.
Tal took a casual gander through his spyglass at the scene below. Over hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, a desert rat scampered, busy with the day-to-day shenanigans of his dismal life. The little critter scurried across a crust of earth parched and cracked by a pitiless noon sun, on the edge of a weather-beaten trail that wound through arid scrub -- through the sort of barren wastes all too bloody common in the Norgolian Empire. The rat stopped, sniffed the air and... quick-as-a-flash scarpered for safety as dust swirled up in blinding clouds at the hooves of three mounts galloping, whirling, rearing. And on those horses... three riders engaged in a good old two-against-one.
Well now, thought Tal. High on his rocky ledge of cliff, he lowered the spyglass, unslung the longbow from his shoulder, reached for an arrow only to feel a hand grip his wrist. Black Raq Skarrion -- the king of thieves himself, notorious in all Norgolia -- rose up from a crouch behind him, arched an eyebrow at Tal's... well, call it impetuosity. Tal gave him his best mock-innocent shrug. What? He was a rogue, wasn't he?
This is not, of course, a strategy for actually imbuing your work with voice -- to translate the narrative through such iterations. The practical strategy here is just to apply the principle of incision, look for the phrasings that will cut to the quick of the event in one particular respect, reveal the core of the PoV character experiencing that event. And ultimately to do that you need to apply that incision not just in writing but in reading, in life. Voice makes character because the nuances of how one articulates oneself in the real world are manifestations of character. Voice is the use of a verb like "flocking" as regards immigrants that might speak of xenophobia or outright racism. Voice is the use of "goshdarn" that might reveal primness or diffidence or just habit formed in upbringing. It's any and all features of lexis and syntax in which we might recognise how the people speaking around us are expressing more than just their meanings, how they're expressing their selves.
If you can develop an ear for voice by paying attention to it in the daily shenanigans of your own hopefully-not-so-dismal life, paying particular attention to it in the expedient demonstrations there to be studied in any number of books, then you can start to apply it in your own writing. Find the right voice for your viewpoint character and they'll come alive on the page with the insouciance of a "casual gander" that will start to generate the mock innocence of a shrug before you've even come to imagining that. Learn a facility with voice, I mean, and finding the right voice for a character will be a matter of clicking into that character's mindset, bringing the narrative out onto the page in that voice as if you're channelling that rakish wastrel; and the character manifested in that voice will come with attitudes such that when a Black Raq Skarrion arches an eyebrow at him, he'll respond with a shrug because that's who he is, what he would do. Hell, he might well give another response entirely, something better than the action you had penciled in to happen at that point.
But that's where we move onto Rule 6 -- that character makes action. And that's for another post.
* A mannered narrator is a different thing entirely. In a fairytale swashbuckler, for example, you might want an omniscient narrator with the playful erudition of a Stephen Fry, to imbue the whole with a performative wit, the storybook air of a tale told for the sheer wonder of grandiose fabrication. Essentially that means conjuring the narrator as a character, just an incorporeal one. The purpling of bad prose will not achieve this masking of the author. Where you want Prospero, we'll see Polonius, stumbling onto the stage in a fumble of cheap props -- a foam staff and Halloween wizard robes -- intoning fluffed and garbled lines so portentously it makes us cringe.
Labels: Writing Craft