Sunday, September 27, 2009

Many Voices

I read a really interesting post today about writing voice, by S. Boyd Taylor. I encourage you to go and check it out, but to summarize, it said "finding your voice" was a myth and tried to talk about voice in terms of developing a voice, and in fact developing multiple voices. Since voice is something I deal with a lot, particularly in dealing with aliens and with unreliable narrators, I felt inspired by that discussion to talk about it a bit here.

S. Boyd Taylor's discussion includes steps to take to influence your writing voice. He describes this process in terms of how to emulate a favorite author's voice: by reading, defining what you like about that author, figuring out how he/she does it, and then giving it a try. He says the "figuring out how" part is the hardest.

I've never actually tried to emulate the voice of another author, but I know many writers who have - and I know from my experiences exploring writing forums that for every thread that asks "how do I do X?" there will very likely be at least one person who replies, "Find an author who does X. Read him/her. Learn how." What makes the figuring out tricky, though - and this is Mr. Taylor's observation - is quantifying exactly how an author achieves a particular effect. A further complicating factor is the fact that most literary analysis I've encountered uses complex interpretive filters - like feminism, Marxism, modernism, or deconstructionism - to take patterns of language and imbue them with extra layers of meaning which can confuse the issue for a writer.

Personally, I find the question of voice fascinating, and I try to come at it from a linguistic perspective.

This means that when I read, I'm not necessarily going to be able to predict the "meaning" a particular linguistic pattern will have for someone who is bringing a different set of previous experiences and judgments to the table. But I can still identify its features on various linguistic levels (from phonological to semantic and pragmatic) and talk about what its words evoke for me.

It also means that when I write, I use linguistic concepts and analysis. These serve firstly as guides for my instinctive drive to put words on the page, and secondly as tools for editing after the first draft has been set down.

Your first reaction might be to say, "I can't use analysis when I put words down; it will stop me writing." This is definitely a factor. Especially when I am dealing with an alien or with an unreliable narrator, the very first scene I write in a new point of view can feel like it takes forever. Sometimes I fall right into the new pattern, but other times I'll find myself deviating from my rules and have to go back, and it won't be until I'm looking at the scene for a second or third time time that I start getting a gut feel for how the voice works.

So let's get specific about voices, and the tools I use to differentiate them. I thought I'd introduce you to a few of my characters who have deliberately crafted voices, and talk about the linguistic and other features they have. One thing I can tell you right up front is that the common way of distinguishing points of view by pronoun - "first person," "third person" etc. isn't going to help a lot. Except for one, all of these are first person present tense points of view.

1. Dana
(from Through This Gate)

"I swear, [Mom's] trying to make Caitlyn hate me for getting into college. It's working, too - Caitlyn's been looking daggers at me all day, as if it was my fault she got herself depressed and addicted to sleeping pills and had to be dragged home for Mom's special brand of detox."

Dana is an almost "normal" voice, because she's a real-world kind of girl. But I do watch out for her voice all the time. For example, she's less likely to say what she thinks with "I think" than with more emotionally charged phrases such as "I swear." She uses modern-day concepts and vocabulary like addiction and "detox" (a very modern term). Where she uses modern slang, I make sure to check her language use with age-appropriate friends of mine, because slang is very easy to overdo. The most slang-like phrase in this example is "as if" (as if it was my fault). I can usually feel Dana's attitude and get into her voice just by reading a short scene.

2. Tenjiro and Ryuuji
(from "Smoke and Feathers")

" blood turns hot. They've got Ryuuji. I'm whirling to go when Takada-sensei's voice says, 'Tenjiro-kun, wait a second, I want to talk to you.' I must stay and bow, though I want to run. Sensei starts telling me again how he wants me to go out for kendo club after school. I can hardly stand still."

"I don't feel like myself tonight. I shut my eyes, drain all the energy from my body, become a puddle in my futon. Maybe this way she will spare me. I hear the door open, and soon Baba's breath blows over my left ear; I breathe slowly, slowly."

Tenjiro and Ryuuji are two Japanese twin brothers. Their culture is reflected in their use of titles (like Sensei) and what they treat as known information (kendo club). The two boys' voices are both first person, but they are distinct from one another because they have different features. Tenjiro's major metaphors are those of fighting, birds, and heat. He uses contractions most of the time. He constantly uses phrases like "try," "struggle," and "have to." Ryuuji's major metaphor is that of water. He is more self-reflective (as when he speaks of his body), and less reactive. He also uses fewer contractions, which makes him sound more formal. I found this story easy to write, but went back through in revision to enhance the differences between the boys' voices.

3. Nekantor (from "The Eminence's Match," forthcoming in Eight Against Reality)

"...the Eminence Nekantor frowned down across his naked ribs. Look: two buttons at the waist of his silk trousers. Fastened, both of them, completely fastened. Deceptively fastened. They had been fastened wrong: lower-then-upper, not upper-then-lower. The difference stuck to the buttons like fingerprints. The difference felt like fingers pressing on his mind."

Nekantor has obsessive compulsive disorder, and his prose is designed to reflect this. He repeats himself (fastened/difference/fingerprints/fingers). He has an obsessive refrain for each scene in which he appears (in this one, it's "fingers"). He never expresses uncertainty. He uses words with insulting, dismissive, or suspicious connotation whenever possible (deceptively, wrong). He frequently uses "must," because he wants everything around him to conform to his altered perception of reality. The first scene I ever wrote in his point of view, I wrote on my gut - then stepped back and analyzed it for features to take forward into other scenes in his point of view. Sometimes he's easy to fall into, but sometimes it can take me an hour just to get into the right head space.

4. Allayo (from "Let the Word Take Me," Analog, July/August 2008)

"The male blasphemes before me: I must avert my face as he allows the sacred Word to escape his mouth in this improper place, so far from the House of Leaves and the Mouth of Singing Crystal. Yet the female is worse. She sits and utters simian calls while a dark box in her lap - O save me! - speaks. Imagine it: to hear the living Word issue from a dead box! My heart quails when I think of it, and I hide my face in atonement for whatever misdeed might have brought me to this test of faith."

Allayo compares everything she sees to sacred stories from her past experience, and to familiar categories (simian, ruff). She uses religious terms for behavior (blasphemes/hide my face in atonement), and religious categories to define things and events (sacred Word, test of faith). Allayo does not use contractions, and this and her use of more archaic or formal vocabulary (avert my face/utters/quails/misdeed) contribute to her sense of general reverence. I wrote this voice mostly from my gut, but my experience with church language was a definite influence.

5. Rulii (from "Cold Words," Analog, October 2009)

"My hackles rise. I know much of unfairness, as the only one of Lowland race on the Cold Council - and also of hidden intent. My own is to use this spaceport to bring Human silver to the Lowlands, thus raising my nape-bitten race. If Parker scents true, this Officer Hada could ruin my hunt before its final pace. 'When will she take foot in La-larrai City?'"

Rulii never uses present progressive forms. The fact that he's always using "do" instead of "am doing" gives him a sense of urgency and constant action, because the use of "am doing" would suggest a sustained state. His major metaphors are those of the hunt (scents true/ruin my hunt before its final pace), and the food chain. He describes interactions in terms of territory dispute and Rank dispute among wolves (nape-bitten). He also uses unusual vocabulary, like "take foot" instead of "arrive," and "show embarrassed" rather than "look embarrassed." His voice also uses unusual meter (rhythm) - I tried to give some of his prose a loping feel (dactyllic/Xxx), and sometimes a striking feel (spondaic/XX). Rulii didn't use contractions in early drafts, but the resulting formal tone actually detracted from the effectiveness of his voice, so I reintroduced them. He was another voice that sometimes took me an hour to get in the right mood for.

6. Tsee (under construction)

"As one, we watch the images shift and move, fishlike, within the sphere. Ship Martials have captured aliens, in fact, truth! They rise homeward to the ship in one of our planet-divers. Four of them, evidently. They are in shock, it seems, no talk among them. But are these four halves, like to other aliens, or are they two wholes, like to us? Not like us, like the Cochee-coco, surely. In the great star pattern with all the races we have met, none have traveled the stars - truth, witnessed - and none have been like us."

Tsee and her brother are twins, never separated, and they never use first person singular pronouns, but speak of themselves as two halves of a whole. This means no "I," "me," or "my." She uses metaphors of music and water. Since alterations in the use of pronouns are extremely marked (difficult for readers to grasp unconsciously) I'm trying not to change much else in her grammar, but I'm trying for a metrical/intonational effect on the phrase and sentence level. Tsee tends to break up her thoughts with short interjections of one or two words, in a call-and-response pattern. Her first scene was extremely difficult to write, because forbidden words kept slipping in (argh!), but I've gone over it and started to get a feel for it now, and it's getting easier.

So after looking at all of these, I'm going to make a list - not an exhaustive list by any means - of some linguistic elements that I use in creating distinct voices.

1. People references.
Names, titles, etc. How characters refer to those around them will reflect how they view them as well as the social structure of their society.

2. Meter/turn-taking patterns
The rhythmic pattern of words, whether it mirrors English, and whether it conforms to expectations.

3. Verb tenses. Affects the sense of time progressing, and gives hints of a character's attitude.

4. Contractions. Contractions aren't actually an on-or-off thing (all vs. none), but the more you use, the less formal your character will sound.

5. Vocabulary. One word alone isn't necessarily going to be enough to affect a character's voice, but if you have lots of words that suggest urgency, rush, or impulsiveness, then your character will start sounding impulsive. The character's choice of vocabulary will reflect the larger metaphors they use as models for their judgments.

6. Metaphor. The imagery used in judgments and descriptions. A person will tend to compare something new in their experience to something more familiar, or to liken parts of their lives to established metaphorical models. So using particular metaphors will establish things like hunting, religion, etc. as known to your character, and also help to establish a "feel."

7. Word Repetition. This is something people will notice, at least on a subconscious level, and it can have different kinds of effects in different contexts (slowing down, speeding up, suggesting obsession, etc.). It's worth looking out for.

Some of these elements I establish intentionally, while others just grow out of the "feel" I get once one or two elements have changed. My general technique is to try a voice for one scene, then run it by some friends to see if it's "working," and then either try to make it more reader-friendly or go, go, go. With the more alien viewpoints, I am careful to ease into them by starting in a place where there's a lot of easy overlap with the existing, familiar patterns of English, and then gradually push them further into the alien.

It's a process I love. You can probably tell - and I hope this post will help you enjoy it, too.


  1. "Voice" is often a marker of "literariness" in fiction. Think of Scout in "To Kill A Mockingbird," think of Huck in "Huckleberry Finn." In science fiction, a distinctive voice tends to be (falsely) associated with "soft" sf, while "hard" sf often works hard to minimize any distinctive voice; unfortunately hard sf often, but not always, reads like an instruction manual. I don't think it has to be that way; for example, Mike Flynn is extremely good at voice, and I'd like to see much more of a distinctive 'voice' in hard sf. I think you do an excellent job at it too, Juliette, and I'm glad to see you continue to work at it.

    The way I've developed voices--not that I'm claiming to be very good at it--is simply through exercises. LeGuin's "Steering the Craft" is good for this.

  2. Interesting observations, CWJ - I'd never really seen that kind of attitude in sf, or at least, I haven't seen it expressed in such a direct way. I agree about Mike Flynn - he's got great voices.

    Thanks for the compliment, and thanks for the LeGuin recommendation. I'll have to go check it out.

  3. That's a great breakdown of linguistic elements. The list and examples really help to explain why some of my characters fall short of where they should be and what I can do to get them there. Can't wait to apply some these elements to improve the characters which lack a suitable voice.

  4. A reviewer at LOCUS years ago complained that in my collection THE FOREST OF TIME I was imitating the voices of other writers rather that projecting my own voice. Each story, the complaint ran, was in a different voice.

    My reaction was, well, they're different stories, no? Why should the story-teller's voice be always the same?

    The reviewer listed the authors whose voice I had chosen to imitate, and the irony was that the list included authors whose work I had never read or of whom I had read perhaps a handful of stories.

  5. That's awfully ironic, isn't it, Mike? The voice was the first thing that really hit me in "Where the Winds are All Asleep," and I knew right then and there that I was going to enjoy it. I agree that the storyteller's voice shouldn't always be the same (as you know!). I'm glad you've got some stories coming out in Analog soon - I'll be looking out for them!

  6. Most of post-modernism is rubbish, but one solid idea in it is that the concept of a unitary voice is an illusion, that each of us, even as individuals, contain a multitude of different voices. (Modernism, with its emphasis on existentialism and consistent self-definition, was more insistent on the idea of a single "true" voice.) The job of a good writer (or actor, for that matter, and probably other creative activities as well) is to let those different voices speak.

  7. I agree with you on that one, CWJ. The "self" is a more layered and diverse creature than sometimes portrayed. It's great to see you come by again.

  8. But that is also tied in with the postmodern notion that there is no truth, only your truth and my truth and her truth. As Nietzsche said, truth is that which gives you a feeling of empowerment. Conversely, if it damages your self-esteem, it is false.

    Question is, can we harvest the valuable insight without being infected with the rest.

  9. Well, I'm inclined to be optimistic as a general rule...