This month, I’ve been dipping my toes into the water of a brand-new project, taking the first steps on the looooong road that will eventually (I hope!) lead to a finished novel. I actually love this part of the process. Doing loads and loads of research reading, letting myself daydream as I read (or do dishes, or watch my six year old practice handwriting), racing to my computer to type notes into my ‘ideas’ folder as they occur to me. It’s a little like decorating a Christmas tree at this stage of the game. Every day I unwrap a few shiny ornaments–a setting, a plot twist idea, a deeper understanding of the hero’s emotional baggage and journey– and tentatively decide where they might hang. I don’t have a vision of the whole tree, not yet–I may not until the moment when all those shiny ornaments are unwrapped and hung and I type ‘the end’ at the close of my first draft. But it will come.
One of those shiny ornaments that I haven’t quite gotten unwrapped (I swear I will give up on this metaphor before you’re all thoroughly sick of it!) yet is the narrator’s voice. That will come, too, I know–it always does, when the time is right. There are many guidelines–many very good– out there with tips on how to strengthen your narrative ‘voice’, but to be honest, I don’t typically use any of them when I’m writing or outlining. For me, there’s an element of almost magic in uncovering a character’s unique voice and style of narration. At some point in my reading and research, the main character’s voice simply starts sounding loud and clear in my head. A lightening bolt strikes, and that’s the moment when I know I’m ready to start typing.
Which is great, but not especially predictable or helpful in terms of giving other authors advice on how to find their own voice. I really enjoyed Lisa Cron’s post here last summer on the subject of ‘unmasking the muse’. Essentially, Lisa suggested that the creative force that drives our writing isn’t some external ‘muse’ beyond our control, that even when it seems a question of magical lightening bolts striking and bringing characters to life, it’s really our amazing subconscious minds at work. So this time around, I thought I’d try to pay attention and delve into the process a little bit more. Where exactly do these voices come from, these characters’ voices that we hear so loud and clear when we’re telling a story? How do we make them striking and unique and ensure that they come alive on the page?
I thought about my own books, and thought about the opening lines of some novels that I think have the most striking, compelling voices. Here are just a couple of the examples I pulled off my own shelves:
From Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart:
Lest anyone should suppose that I ame a cuckoo’s child, got on the wrong side of the blanket by lusty peasant stock and sold into indenture in a shortfallen season, I may say that I am House-born and reared in the Night Court proper, for all the good it did me.
From Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice:
I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him.
A lot of the writing guides I’ve looked at suggest that voice is the way characters’ express their unique opinions about the world–which it is, there’s no question. Everyone has opinions, and your narrator should, too, if you want him to come to life in the readers’ imagination. And it goes without saying that people have unique ways of speaking, unique word choices and diction patterns, and that’s a big part of crafting a compelling voice, as well. But for me, at least, that’s not quite where voice comes from. Or rather, I think your characters’ word choices and opinions–even her passionate loves and hates–are the outer layer: important, essential, even, no question, but for me not exactly the source. I think what makes the most striking voices so striking is that the authors have truly, absolutely accessed the essential truth of who their characters believe themselves to be.
You as the author of course have your own opinions about your character, but what does she think about herself and who she is? If you were to chose just one central truth about your character that he believes absolutely to be true about himself, what would it be? We all have a deep, essential part of ourselves that we generally keep hidden from the rest of the world and reveal only to those we truly love and trust. So what lies at the very deepest heart of your character’s hidden, essential self? I think, for me, that’s where voice comes from; when I finally understand that one most important emotion or secret or experience that my narrator holds deepest and tightest, buried from the rest of the world–that’s when the lightening bolt strikes and I can clearly hear my character’s voice. For one of my main characters, that truth was her lifelong struggle to overcome her shyness, her deep-rooted belief that she wasn’t very strong–even though I, as the author, knew she was. For another, it was the guilt my main character felt over past mistakes–again, even though I knew she wasn’t as culpable as she felt herself to be.
I’m not quite sure yet what I’ll discover in my new narrator’s most hidden part of her heart, but I can’t wait to find out.
What about you? How do you access your characters’ voices? What do you think makes a voice unique or compelling to read?