Wordslinger first began in December of 2011 as a monthly series of writers’ essays for the Bookish Temptations web site. In this column, Morgan explores the many elements of fiction and offers tips on how to get the most out of the proverbial pen.
If you would like to catch up on older posts, please visit the archive at Bookish Temptations:
March 2014: Voices in my Head
Recently, I have addressed the pitfalls of writing from too many POVs in one chapter. Today I would like to dig a little deeper and discuss the individual voices of your characters and reveal what is actually an industry wide slip-up in narration.
Every character has a certain way of thinking and talking. So does the narrator’s voice (if the book is in 3rd person). It’s actually the narrator’s voice that gets mishandled most often when a writer says something as a character that is clearly information or verbiage more suited to the story teller.
It’s an easy mistake to make, and almost 50% of my own edits are search and destroy missions looking for just this sort of pulp foul. It is especially easy to spot if you’re writing with a particularly snarky voice and you see that a lead character says something in a way that has already been established as the omnipresent voice. Sure people change, and so do characters. It’s not even unheard of that all characters and even the narrator share a similar speech pattern and sense of humor, but a good separation is only going to strengthen your work.
If your character can suddenly identify every flower on the hill, and you hadn’t established them as a botanist, or at least a cast member of Little House on the Prairie, then maybe you’re assigning them uncharacteristic attributes that might be better suited for your narration. It’s rarely this obvious, of course, but this kind of “swap” writing is out there everywhere.
In the defense of authors, they have all the voices in their own heads after all, and that makes this error a hard problem to spot. This is especially true in the moment they are assigned to their respective literary bodies. And again, this really is a third person issue and seldom becomes a problem with first person narration.
Doling out the humor can be a big trap sometimes. A particular joke or funny observation might only be appropriate as a narrator, but we want to give the gag to a character to enhance their presence. (Or maybe we’re not even thinking about it that hard). Either way, it might not be the best use of the wit, so it’s worth the time to craft the delivery of a good joke so it sounds as organic as possible. Although, that reminds me, if you have a really dirty joke, or shocking statement to make, putting the words in the mouth of a brazen character is a great way to separate yourself in a way from a potentially embarrassing bit of writing. It may prove necessary, vital even, but as a writer you might not want your narrator to point out certain (pervy) things.
As usual, I am swimming in nuance here and dealing with highly subjective issues that defy the ability to be generalized, yet here I am. Ironically, it’s one of the biggest literary landmines and rarely gets a post dedicated to its nuisance. (Notice now similar the words, nuance and nuisance are).
It’s not just dialogue either, authors get inside their character’s head a lot and their thoughts must be true to them as well. It can be a difficult skill to master but a stringent edit should shake out the incongruences.
Writing a book is like directing traffic in a country where no one is required to obtain a driver’s license and the drinking age is twelve. Which is to say; you spend most of your time jumping out of the way. I know I like to make it sound like writers have little control over their craft, and admittedly, I am dramatizing the effects sometimes. We have God-like power over our own creations, but it’s our desire to see them walk on their own that has us often chasing after them like kids running behind the ice cream truck. Frankly, it depends on the day.
I am lucky to write, (and read) with a partner, my wife, Jennifer. She and I have read more than two dozen books to each other over the course of our marriage, and have written one book as a couple. But even when we’re working on solo projects, the other set of eyes and ears, and access to another brain can be like turning the light on in an otherwise completely dark room.
I am particularly good at spotting the kinds of things I have been warning against in this post as well as keeping a consistent tense in the writing. She, while proficient in these skills, has a knack for finding the kernel of any scene and getting the emotional tone just right. We both know how to write a steamy love scene too, although we rarely do that together for obvious reasons. (as in we wouldn’t get very far in the writing).
If you have an editor, or beta reader, encourage them to help you identify any instances where you cross-assign characteristics. You will have one more reason to be proud of what you’ve accomplished.
Writing is more than just an art, it’s a dream. And for once, it’s a dream we can share with each other. Keep dreaming my friends, I’ll be in the ice cream truck.