I’ve struggled with a post for today like you wouldn’t believe. I analyzed my writing using Juliet’s fantastic list of Voice attributes, and even started a post. Then I decided it was obnoxious of me to use my own writing to try to showcase something like this and ditched it all. Finally, I asked my friends in the Twitter community if they had any questions about Voice that they’d like tackled, and I had three responses. My thanks to them! Here goes:
Comment 1: I’m reading for a literary agent, and I keep getting manuscripts where the narrators are evil. They lie, they cheat, they steal, and they own up to those flaws up front, which makes them unreliable. I always stop reading these. Is it ever okay for the narrator to behave this way–where the antagonist is the protagonist? It seems like a trend, but I don’t know how and if it can work. Your thoughts?
I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel in which the narrator was purely evil. It seems that even if the main character, the protagonist, is a “bad guy,” (possible, yes) there should be something about him or her that the reader can identify with, otherwise the story’s impact could be lessened. It might work, too, if the character evolves throughout the course of the novel–becomes less of a liar, a cheat, a robber, has some major revelation about life and makes a change.
I can think of one highly successful novel in which the narrator owned up to being a liar right up front, though: Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader.
My name is Towner Whitney. No, that’s not exactly true. My real first name is Sophya. Never believe me. I lie all the time.
I am a crazy woman. …That last part is true.
It definitely worked! Towner’s unreliable nature kept readers guessing throughout the book, and there was a twisty and rewarding payoff in the end.
I also remember a movie in which the main character was purely evil: Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer. But the thing is, Henry wasn’t always horrid. He was once a little boy, whom we met through flashbacks–an innocent, who was introduced to a dark world by his mother. I had a slim hope for Henry throughout the story that he would somehow regain that lost innocence. In the end, though, he was true to character, killing someone I’d hoped might help him. But it made for authentic storytelling.
Comment 2: Something re writing w/ authentic voice of opposite gender, e.g., 40ish female writer writ’g dialogue of 20 yo male character?
Comment 3: Tricks for getting into certain characters’ voices? I seem to struggle with men, for example.
It’s ironic that I’m tackling this one. Was it really way back in 2007 when I blogged about the Gender Genie program? Uh, yes, it was. I had to create dialogue for several male characters for The Last Will of Moira Leahy, and one dude gave me a lot of trouble: My beta Englishman sounded more like a girl than a guy, according to my critique buddies. (Read about his makeover via the link.)
Things to try:
* Listen. If you’re a woman struggling with male dialogue, spend some time listening to men speak. (And if you’re a man struggling with fem dialogue, be all ears around women.) Make sure their ages are in line with those of your characters. Write down some of their sentences, then play with that dialogue as an actor might. Feel yourself slipping into character a little? Use that momentum; carry it into your story.
* Speak. Read your dialogue aloud or–better–ask your favorite guy person to read it. How does it sound coming out of his mouth? If it’s awkward, as him how he’d say the same thing.
* Create dialogue fingerprints. What makes your character uniquely Him or Her? How can you carry those traits over to dialogue? Some ideas: The angry guy talks in short sentences. The long-winded teenager uses big, flowery words. The young boy is shy, barely speaks at all, but always says something worth hearing. The grandmother is matter of fact in action and word.
* Go Genie! If you’re still struggling to capture the essence of the opposite sex, try the Gender Genie. It was a fun experience for me, and in the end my dude actually sounded like a dude. Phew.
Thoughts from the WU audience? Have you read a book in which the protag is purely evil? Did the story work for you? Did that character evolve? And what of creating voice for your characters? Do you have any tricks for making those voices distinctive–especially for characters of the opposite sex?
Photo courtesy Flickr’s Sister72