Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Voice: Who Goes There?

"Voice" is a confusing concept in fiction because sometimes we use it to refer to a writer ("Hemingway's distinctive voice") and sometimes to one of a writer's characters (the barber in Ring Lardner's classic "Haircut"), which means one writer can have, for different characters, different voices. Unless he doesn't.

I prefer to think of "voice" as belonging to a specific character in a specific story, and if you're writing in first person, it's critical. In fact, to me it's the only reason to write in first person, since third is more flexible in point of view and in distance, allowing the author to both go into the character's mind AND give some decription of him and his behavior from the outside. It also feels less contrived, since a perennial first-person problem is the question: Why is this person telling me this, and in such perfect rhythm and pacing? It doesn't feel real. On the other hand, first person lets you capture directly the patterns of thought, focus of attention, and nuances of the narrator's mind.

If I haven't got the right voice for first person, I can't even begin to write, since voice is evident from the first paragraph. I think I've found the voice for my YA character, Susan Coleman. It took some noodling around, and I'll have to go back and rwrite some of the earlier noodling because now it doesn't fit, but that's SOP for me. I like her voice.

Now all I need is the rest of my plot, which is emerging slowly as I write. That's how I do it. There are more efficient methods, but this is the only one I've ever found that works for me.


James A. Ritchie said...

Interesting. For me, first person feels completely real, and it's third person I have trouble believing.

In first person, the narrator is an old friend I haven't seen in years. He's come to visit, and he's sitting across the kitchen table, cup of coffee in hand, telling me all that happened since last we met.

Or, as one friend of mine says about first person, "It's like reading a diary, and autobiography, or even Poe's Manuscript Found in a Bottle.

It's really person writing down the account of his life. He wants his experience, his wisdom, his trials, his victories and failures put on paper so they don't die when he does."

I go along with this. To me, first person is a real narrator telling me a real story. I read and enjoy a large amount of third person, but I almost never have a clue who's actually telling me the story, or why.

Mike Flynn said...

Truth to tell, I've never worried about who's telling me the story. The author's name is on the cover, and s/he had chosen this way of telling the story. But I never believed that Melville was a pen name of Ishmael's.

When traditional story-tellers rehearse their traditions, they do so generally in the third person. This is what Sinbad or Cuchulain did.

Wealthedge said...

I pretty much go along with whatever the writer is doing. I'm not one to be a stickler for form. And I'll suspend my disbelief for pretty much anything.

You know, "gullible" isn't in the dictionary. It's not?


I always learn something from whatever I am reading, however. Even if it's how something DOESN'T work or how to make something work better.


James A. Ritchie said...

Mike, you could say, sort of, that Ismael was a stand in for Melville.

I can't say I actually worry about who's telling the story, but I like the idea that someone is. With third person, I do feel like the writer is telling me the story, so I find itharder to believe.

With first person, I'm much more likely to to be absorbed by the story, to believe the protagonist is real, and that the name on the cover is just a go-between. Much like "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir."

It's all a matter of personal taste, of course, which is probably the main reason more than one viewpoint exists, but first person has always seemed more real to me, and I come much closer to believing a real person is telling me a story or real events.

Maybe more important, with first person I seem to come much, much closer to actually living the story I'm reading. For me, there's a, well, a sense of detachment, in third person that I don't find in first person.

Mike Flynn said...

Being Irish, I can regard the author as a seanachy who is relating the story around the hearth. Traditional story tellers get their authority (for traditional tales) from the long chain of custodians of the story, master to apprentice from the original eyewitnesses. Story tellers were spellbinders, 3rdP or no. Telling the tale in the first person is unseemly, like bragging. Beowulf's exploit with the sea serpent is told in retrospect by the skald in Heorot. Sherlock Holmes' adventures are told in 1stP - but by his faithful companion Watson.

Unless the first person narrator actually =is= the author of the story, 1stP can strike me as contrived. Early writers went to great pains to insert into their novels some contrivance to make it seem justified for the author to "know" the story. MADAME BOVARY iirc begins with a first person passage told by a school-mate of M. Bovary and averred that he had gotten the story from his friend. Then the rest of the tale went in 3rd person, pretending it was Bovary's friend telling the story about the doctor and his wife. But few bother with such contrivances now, I think.

Modern mainstream fiction seems to favor the omniscient narrator, since Omni can comment on matters as they unfold. Genre fiction favors "TV camera following a 3rd person" or "first person." Don't know why. I tried an omniscient narrator for THE WRECK OF THE RIVER OF STARS and some readers (evidently of a very small cohort) complained that they were unable to process it!

Nancy Kress said...

Actually, WRECK OF THE RIVER OF STARS is one of the few examples of omniscient POV in SF (as opposed to multiple third) that I think does work. I still use the opening par. as an example in my writing classes.

Mike Flynn said...

Actually, WRECK OF THE RIVER OF STARS is one of the few examples of omniscient POV in SF (as opposed to multiple third) that I think does work. I still use the opening par. as an example in my writing classes.

Flynn blushes, so flattered is he, and seeks to make light of the honor. To think that this multi-nebulaed master writer deigns to notice his poor scribblings.

Yet, this day he has received German copies of that very novel - Der Fluss der Sterne, they have called it - and he cannot help but feel that there is in the event more than sheer coincidence.

Herr lieber Gott! He almost drops the book in dismay. The translator has rendered the snatches of song and poetry so that they rhyme auf deutsch!