It’s always baffled me when a student says as soon as he finds his voice he will feel like a real writer. It seems to me the real challenge is finding your voices. Set fiction aside for a moment. In your day to day encounters, it would be unusual, even odd, to speak in the same voice to everyone you meet. You have many voices, one for strangers, another for friends, another for loved ones. You have a professional voice, a polite voice, a colloquial voice, an intimate voice, on and on.
As Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall write in Finding Your Writer’s Voice, “Nobody but you has your voice. Yet voice isn’t unchanging, nor is it a static, precious commodity. It’s always shifting in response to an immediate moment, an intention, an audience. Just as you aren’t a static, singular entity, neither is your voice.”
Now back to fiction. Finding your voices becomes especially critical when you are using shifting points of view. One problem I see in student work is differentiating the voice of one character from another. What is voice? It’s the way a character speaks, not only to another character, but internally. How one speaks is defined by diction, syntax, images, verbal ticks, the use (or not) of metaphors.
In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver creates four different voices for the four daughters of the Price family. She also fashions a distinct voice for the mother.
Here is a sample of mother, luring us into the story in the opening chapter:
“The mother especially—watch how she leads them on, pale-eyed, deliberate. Her dark hair is tied in a ragged lace handkerchief, and her curved jawbone is lit with large, false-pearl earrings, as if these headlamps from another world might show the way. The daughters march behind her, four girls compressed in bodies as tight as bowstrings, each one tensed to fire off a woman’s heart on a different path to glory or damnation.”
The mother is speaking of herself in third person (more on this later). She’s comfortable using similes: “as if these headlamps..”; or metaphor—comparing her daughters’ bodies to bow and arrows. She likes adjectives, “ragged lace,” “curved,” “large, false-pearl.” Her diction suggests a high level of education. She’s willing to take a cold hard look at things: her daughters are marching behind her, and she knows those earrings are foreign objects in the world of Africa. As a side note, Kingsolver has found an interesting and unique way of resuscitating the third person omniscient narrator by having mother view herself in the third person, at least for the opening of the book.
Now listen to one of her daughters, Adah:
“Sunrise, tantalize, evil eyes hypnotize: that is the morning, Congo pink. Any morning, every morning. Blossomy rose-color birdsong air streaked sour with breakfast cookfires. A wide red plank of dirt—the so-called road—flat-out in front of us, continuous in theory from here to somewhere distant.”
Adah does not speak due to a brain condition. It’s almost as if she’s developed a more acute sense of hearing because her voice is full of rhythms and rhymes, almost like a song or poem. She displays a high level of intelligence with the variety of her sentence structures.
Ruth is the youngest daughter. Her voice captures her age by using simple sentences, simple logic, and usually monosyllabic words. “I only got to bring me two toys: pipe cleaners, and a monkey-sock monkey. The monkey-sock monkey has done gone already. I left him out on the veranda and come the next morning, he was gone. One of those little children stole, which is a bad sin.”
Leah is the twin of Adah, and her voice is even, steady, without much flourish. "My father mopped his brow again and launched into the parable of the one mustard seed falling on a barren place, and the other one on good soil. I thought of the bright pointy-nosed mustard bottles we used in abundance at church wiener suppers--a world apart from anything Mama Tataba had ever seen."
Rachel, the oldest, has a voice full of phatic utterances (The Oxford dictionary defines phatic as: denoting or relating to language used for general purposes of social interaction, rather than to convey information or ask questions.) “No white gloves, it goes without saying.”; “Ruth May is the type to wear rolled-up Blue Bell jeans to her own funeral, and the twins too, they’ve never cared a hoot what they looked like.”; “As a matter of fact, a man walked into a tree in front of our house and knocked out a tooth, thanks to Mom’s stretch pants.”
One of the most pleasurable things about writing a story with different points of view is the chance to invoke different voices, which means different styles (diction, schemes and tropes, etc.). In the confines of one story, as Kingsolver does, you can become a mute, paying close attention to sound, especially the sound and rhythm of words, or be a young girl again, or a teen, highly aware of her audience. All speaking with different voices.
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