Establishing a Voice, Or, How to Write Gooder

I’ve talked a lot about world-building and plotting and creating a good story; the architecture of novels, as it were. So I thought this time I’d explore something that has more to do with the details of word choice and style (the materials one uses to build a novel, I guess? my metaphor’s kind of falling apart, but anyway): the voice.

Voice is one of those details of writing that’s essential to get right, yet very difficult to define. Let’s get the dictionary definition out of the way first: “an author’s individual writing style or point of view.” Okay. What affects the writing style? Dialect, which is an indicator of class or education as well as region of origin. Casual versus formal speech, depending on what’s appropriate to the situation. Attitude, or tone, which can range from sympathetic to disgusted to ironic, amused, unaffected and on from there. All of these categories can influence the language at every level, from the pronunciation and the semantics to the sentence structure, to entire conversations or paragraph-long descriptions. It’s pretty much all-encompassing.

Add to that, you’re not only dealing with the voice of the narrator. You need to craft individual voices for each character, at least the principle ones. Even if you have a first-person narrator, they’ll probably still have a somewhat different voice for their actual utterances versus their silent observations and internal monologue. Yes, it can be overwhelming at times, and I’m far from claiming that I’ve achieved perfect success myself. I’m working on it. If all my characters sound the same, if there’s nothing particularly unique or engaging about my authorial voice, it’s going to make my novels a lot harder to read.

Let’s go with some concrete examples instead of continuing to wade through murky abstractions. We’ll start with some non-fiction stuff. If I’m writing a query letter to a literary agent, I want my voice to be professional, respectful but confident. I’ll use phrases like “I am seeking representation for my novel” and “thank you for your time and consideration.” I could say roughly the same thing with “I want you to be my agent” and “thanks a bunch” but those sound respectively desperate and flippant. If, on the other hand, I were writing an email to a close friend, I could be far more casual. It would be rather odd to have such a message with “As we are both in agreement regarding the issue of meeting for lunch, I respectfully request your presence at the café at 12 pm.” You can assume a far easier tone within that context. “Lunch at the café at noon?” Context is paramount.

Now for fiction. I’ve come to recognize what my natural voice is, for the most part, when I’m not deliberately trying to write a particular way. It tends to be wordy, with complex sentences that probably go a little overlong unless I restrain myself. Not the height of formality, but definitely more toward that end of the spectrum than toward the casual. This is, no doubt, because I read a lot and love to assimilate new vocabulary into my regular usage, and I tend toward the bombastic. (Not quite so much when I have to speak aloud extemporaneously, but according to my friends, I still use too many big words. Sorry. I’m proving my point right now.) When I’m working on my novels, I have to rein myself in. Not totally. If I tried to quash my natural voice entirely, whatever I wrote would end up sounding lifeless or artificial. I have to allow myself into my writing to some degree. I just have to be more deliberate about the words that end up on the page.

Each of my books unquestionably has my voice, but hopefully with some variation depending on the context. And I’ve done my best to give each important character their own voice. When I wrote Other I wanted to evoke a slightly skewed fairy tale with the introduction, and so I began:

“Alain was the youngest of Robert Ferrauld’s three sons, and the least likely to amount to anything.”

It’s probably the opening sentence I’ve re-written more than any other, and I’m still not fully satisfied with it. But here’s what I do like: it’s a little bit like the classic Once upon a Time, but with a note of irony. We all know the third son is the one who usually has everything happen to him in stories like these, but the narrator doesn’t know that.

I set it in a pseudo-Regency era, so I gave everyone’s speech a slightly archaic bent (unconsciously inspired by Jane Austen, perhaps?). And then I tried to color each individual with their own particular voice. Alain’s brother Nicolaus is rather prissy and focused on having the right appearance, which I tried to reflect in his speech by his saying things like “those of the feminine sort” rather than just “women.” When the creature comes along, she has a very cynical, sarcastic view of things that makes her language rougher, less refined, sometimes plain nasty. “Go on reading books and feeling sorry for yourself” and “For someone who fancies himself a scholar, you don’t know anything at all.” My hope is that if you pulled a quote from the book and read it without context, most of the time you’d be able to tell which character was talking.

I used a similar voice for my other fairy tale re-tellings, though a little less Jane Austen-y, while my science fiction novels required something more analytical as well as modern. But perhaps my biggest challenge, voice-wise, came with Mortal Failings. Thus far it’s my only novel with a contemporary setting (albeit with supernatural elements) and I had to adjust the voice accordingly. I’m quite aware that I don’t really talk, myself, like a typical youngish American. Certainly not like a teenager. But I knew the book had to be written with a teenage voice, with a first-person narration no less. Even harder, I would have to channel the feelings of a girl who falls hard and fast for a mysterious guy – something I’ve never done and never wanted to do. Knowing how dysfunctional and controlling Erik actually is, I had to suppress my disgust and write un-ironic descriptions of his wonderfulness and Cami’s infatuation with him. “Knowing he’d be near, never mind protecting me, was enough to carry me back home, though it was wrenching to leave his presence.” Blech. But I have to say that restraining myself throughout the first half of the book made it all the more satisfying to have Cami’s tone gradually shift into horror as she realizes what their relationship has really been doing to her. The opening, since it’s sort of an after-the-fact prologue, swings dramatically from one voice to the other:

“The first time I saw Erik, I knew we were destined to be together forever.

The last time I saw him, I shot a bullet through his temple. I’m still not sure if he’s dead. That’s the trouble with demi-mortals. You can never guess how many times they’ll come back to life.”

I did my best to make her friends sound like, well, not an over-loquacious thirty-three-year-old. “Holy crap, is that him? I don’t blame you for drooling over him, Cami.” Still not sure about that voice, but at least I know it’s in stark contrast to Erik, who speaks like he’s from another era, as well as using excessively sappy, melodramatic language: “I can’t tell you how it tortured me, all through that long week while you ignored me. When you thought I was crazy.” Yikes. I also had Cami’s voice become more and more elevated the longer she’s around Erik, as if she’s unconsciously picking up on his speech patterns, letting her own personality get swallowed up in his.

It was a significant stretch for me, voice-wise, and I’m glad for it. I’ve always been a little doubtful about finding an audience for Mortal Failings, since it subverts the paranormal romance story rather viciously, but if nothing else it was a fantastic exercise in writing a voice that doesn’t come naturally. Stretching yourself is essential to improving your talent. Fan fiction, incidentally, is an excellent venue for practicing that, since you already have someone else establishing the voice. If you can learn to imitate that voice convincingly, whether the author’s or the character’s, then you can put those skills to use in the creation of your own varying narrator and character voices. And you can avoid the mistake of accidentally switching voices mid-story, ’cause that kinda writing, it really stinks, ya know what I mean?

The Paladin

Asking an avid reader to name their favorite book is a bit like expecting a parent to choose a favorite child. But if I were absolutely forced to choose only one, I wouldn’t hesitate for long before deciding on The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon. And I’d still be cheating a little because technically, it’s three books. Whatever; I read it as the omnibus three-in-one edition, and it’s really all one story, and there’s no way I’m whittling my choice down any further than that. So. Get ready for a long, rambling love-fest. I make no apologies.

When I was in college, I already knew that fantasy was my preferred genre, but I wasn’t as well-read in that genre as I felt I ought to be. I’d read plenty of children’s/YA fantasy, which, as I’ve ranted on before, is just as valid as any adult version of the genre. And I’d finally gotten around to reading the genre-defining Lord of the Rings trilogy. But I would sometimes wander through the fantasy section of bookstore (usually shelved together with sci-fi and labeled as the same genre, but that’s yet another separate rant), examining the massive books that were part of one or another Epic Fantasy Series, and I would wonder how to begin. Which was worth investing my time in? I’ve always been a whole-hearted reader. I dive into a story and rarely come up for air until the end. I just didn’t have the emotional energy to do that for every series. Or the reading time, for that matter, since I was enrolled in several literature classes every semester.

My husband gave me the opening I needed. Of course he wasn’t my husband then; he was a guy I had a crush on. He had spoken very highly of a class he was taking, a survey of the modern epic fantasy novel, taught by a law school librarian of all people. The reading requirements were the first books of several different series, so you could get a taste of various authors. Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Stephen R. Donaldson, and of course Tolkien. He recommended that I try it out the next semester, so I did. Partly because, heh, I wanted him to like me, but also because I figured this would be a great way to sample some of those massive novels and figure out what I liked, all while earning college credit. It was successful in both regards. (It wasn’t the only reason he decided he liked me, but it helped.) And I went on to read more of the books by the authors I liked, while skipping the ones that hadn’t interested me.

One problem, though – all the authors were men. All the protagonists were men. Some of them wrote decent female characters; others not so much. But never a female protagonist. They were following in Tolkien’s footsteps in more ways than one. And while I love Lord of the Rings and realize that Tolkien was very much a man of his time and don’t condemn him too harshly for it, I  don’t see why authors can’t branch out more broadly from his original model of Men Do Almost Everything That Matters.

A excellent answer to that concern is Paksenarrion. Again I have my husband to thank for introducing me to this book. By this point we were married, and we had done plenty of mutual recommending of our favorite books, movies and music. He thought I might like The Deed of Paksenarrion, and I finally decided to crack open the rather intimidating volume when our son was born – nothing like nursing a baby all day long to make you search for ample reading material. I confess at first I wasn’t too deeply engaged in it. The first book, Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, contains a lot of descriptions of the non-fantastic, regular details of a medieval-esque mercenary company; marching, doing chores in the barracks, training and marching some more. Even when they actually started the fighting, it was still a bit of a slog for me, except for the few tantalizing bits that hinted of some greater destiny for Paksenarrion other than serving as an ordinary mercenary. It was also great to see a fully-formed female protagonist, with lots of other compelling female side-characters. It kept me reading enough to get to the next book.

And I was rarely bored during Divided Allegiance.This is where the flavor shifts from details of military life to something more like Dungeons and Dragons, complete with quests into underground lairs where each door opens to reveal another threat guarding a treasure. As I understand, fantasy role-playing was actually part of Elizabeth Moon’s inspiration. But not in a lazy or sloppy way, as if she just kind of transcribed a D&D experience into a novel. She breathes new life into it, with plenty of backstory for each quest, strong characterizations both of Paks and other lesser players, and world-building that is much more than a clone of Middle Earth. And all through each adventure those hints of Paks’s greater destiny become stronger and stronger. Eventually even Paks herself, stubborn as she is, can’t ignore those hints anymore, and she goes to seek training in one of the holy orders.

But it’s not as simple as that. I’ve heard that Elizabeth Moon was dissatisfied with the typical portrayal of paladins in role-playing, and she set out to tell the story of a paladin in its entirety. One thing this means for Paks’s tale is a heartfelt exploration of religion. It’s set in a fantastic world with myriad gods and saints, but it’s still an excellent metaphor for the real world, more than any other fantasy worldbuilding I’ve encountered. For one, there is the story of Paks’s conversion. She resists joining the Order of Gird in spite of being drawn toward it ever since she first joined those mercenaries. They are fighters who are sworn to protect the helpless, and she approves of that creed. But something is holding her back. After a long conversation with the Training Master, she realizes she resents Gird for not saving his followers. She’s had friends who were devoted to Gird and died painful deaths – why couldn’t he save them? The Training Master’s answer is heartrending:

Paksenarrion, you might as well ask why it snows in winter. I did not make the world, or men, or elves, or the sounds the harp makes when you pluck the strings. All I know is that the High Lord expects all his creatures to choose good over evil; he has given us heroes to show the way, and Gird is one of those…as followers of Gird, we try to act as he did. Sometimes we receive additional aid. Why it comes one time and not another…I cannot say. Nor can you. Nor will you ever know, Paksenarrion, until you pass beyond death to the High Lord’s table, if that happens…And I think that you blame Gird because you are still blaming yourself for these deaths. Is that not so?

One of the great mysteries of life: why do bad things happen to good people? Why doesn’t God protect His followers from pain? And there’s no easy, pat answer to that mystery, but rather a call to action.

And so you are rejecting Gird because he has not acted as you would…You are not rejecting his principles, it seems, but the fact that they aren’t carried out?…Then it seems, Paksenarrion, that you ought to be willing to try to carry them out…If the rest of us are doing so badly.

People can disappoint us. They can be downright evil. We can’t always prevent that, or understand why God doesn’t just fix it for us. But we can choose to do some good in the world, to be part of a solution to the problem.

So Paks begins her training. Then something unbelievably awful happens, something with devastating consequences. And the book ends with her wandering through the bitter cold of winter, alone, afraid and despairing. Let me tell you, I immediately turned to Oath of Gold, the third book, in a frenzy of horror and concern (and let’s face it, annoyance with the author for such a cruel cliffhanger). The story went into places I never would have expected. Where and how Paks finds healing is unconventional and beautiful. There is an exploration of the true nature of courage and of compassion. And there is this perfect, lovely quote:

I used to wonder how the paladins of Gird could be considered protectors of the helpless when they had never been helpless. Rather like asking the hawk to feel empathy for the grouse, or the wolf for the sheep. Even if a tamed wolf makes a good sheepdog, he will never understand how the sheep feel. You, Paksenarrion, you are most fortunate. For having been, as you thought, a coward, and helpless to fight – you know what that is like. You know what bitterness that feeling breeds – you know in your own heart what kind of evil it brings. And so you are most fit to fight it where it occurs.

At the crux of it, Paks becomes a better paladin because of her suffering. That isn’t to say that the story glorifies or romanticizes suffering; it’s quite painful to read the sections when she is at her lowest points, and those who torment her are rightly condemned as evil. But it’s important that while she is weak and fearful, she is judged and derided. Because then she knows, she knows so very well in the very core of her being, no matter how powerful she ultimately becomes, she knows what it means to feel miserably humiliated for being weak. So she will never take part in that humiliation. She will understand the pain of those who suffer far better than one who has never suffered much.

I can’t express even a fraction of what this book came to mean for me. After my first read, I appreciated it as a beautiful, well-plotted story. I saw more of the value of the details of military life in the first book, how it lent a taste of realism to the world, fantastic as it was. (The author has a lot of practical knowledge, both military and otherwise, that informs her worldbuilding. They actually dig trenches in this world, and reference the need to relieve oneself! And clothing must be cleaned or mended; mercenaries need carts of supplies for themselves and their animals! Horses aren’t like motorcycles that whinny; they need to be fed and rested and cared for!) I recognized more of the hints and foreshadowings I had missed the first time around. I saw how the little things at the beginning, the discipline and the adherence to duty and the cheerful friendliness and a strong moral sense, were traits developing within Paks in preparation for something more.

I found it highly re-readable. And each time I saw more of value. I’ve said before that one of the strengths of speculative fiction is how flexible it is, how it can be seen as a metaphor for almost anything you want. Well, this might not make sense to anyone else, but Paks’s journey carried a powerfully familiar resonance for me as we discovered our son was autistic. As she realizes her dream has been stolen from her:

I always dreamed of being a warrior…Silly, childish dreams at first, of being the hero in old songs, with silver sword…My dreams grew…I dreamed of fighting as Gird fought – for right, for the protection of the helpless…And then you honored me, sheepfarmer’s daughter, poor commoner and ex-mercenary, beyond all dreams I’d dared. You, my lady, offered me the chance to become a paladin. A paladin! Do you – can you – have any idea what a paladin means to a child on a sheep farm at the far edge of the kingdom? It is a tale of wonder, all stars and dreams. A – a fantasy too good to be true…And you said ‘Come, be one of them. That is your destiny’…Now you say…I have opened a passage for great evil. But to chance all I can do, to chance losing all I’ve learned, all I am…and to think how long I must live if it goes badly…Could such a one as I be a – a potter, or a weaver? Oh, better to kill me, my lady, and quickly.

I had dreams of what motherhood would be like. And in my selfish moments, I felt that dream had been stolen from me. It has been a long, painful process for me to recognize that the path of my life was going in a different direction than the one I had planned. To spend all my energy mourning what could have been was keeping me from doing the good I should have been doing. I’m far from reaching a conclusion; it’s a process I’m still very much in the middle of. But I find inspiration in Paks’s story. She realizes it’s not really about her. It’s about the people she can help and serve. And maybe going through hard things helps to serve them better. It’s not about me and my assumptions of what motherhood would be like; it’s about my son and his happiness and well-being, and maybe there are other people I can understand better because I’ve been through something like what they’re going through.

Time and time again, when I’m feeling low, I have picked up the book and turned to section where Paks finds healing. It never fails to comfort me. Does this all seem absurd? This story of a paladin fighting orcs and finding magic swords; this tale of fantasy, is the one that I relate to more than any other. I doubt I’ve conveyed more than a part of what it means for me. I recognize the irony that Elizabeth Moon (whose son is also autistic, as it happens) wrote another novel that’s actually about autism, The Speed of Dark. Yet much as I appreciated that book, The Deed of Paksenarrion is one that that helped me on the deepest level when I was first dealing with my son’s diagnosis. I’ve worn through two separate copies of the omnibus. I’ve read the companion novels set in Paks’s world. And I always find what I’m looking for: hope, compassion and comfort.

This is why I read fantasy. This is why I write fantasy.

Emma, Jane and Me

I was introduced to one of my favorite authors in a rather roundabout way, mostly thanks to Amy Heckerling. When I saw the movie Clueless as a teenager, it absolutely blew my mind to learn it was a modern adaptation of a Jane Austen novel. My mother and older sister were familiar with Emma and had smiled through the whole movie as they recognized the creative ways the original story had played out. All I knew was that Jane Austen was one of those old, old writers whose enormous books had, presumably, lots of long conversations between prim and proper characters and very little excitement. But knowing now that one of her books had inspired this wacky, very funny movie – well, I had to take a look at the original source.

So I read Emma. And loved it. It was very funny, a sort of dry, understated humor that poked fun at social conventions and the typical foibles of men and women. In spite of being set in a very narrow world, rather far from my own experience, the observations on human nature struck me as far more universal. It helped, I suppose, that I’d seen a modern version of it first. I was already inclined to like Emma in spite of her many flaws, to hope she would learn her lesson and become a better person, more deserving of Knightley, able to acknowledge her manipulations and mistakes. I giggled at the portrayals of quirky characters like the gentle hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse, the chatterbox Miss Bates (entire pages filled with her rambling monologues! and she’s so sweetly unaware of it!) and the fawning Mr. Elton and the horribly perfect partner he eventually finds in Augusta Hawkins/Elton.

Well, then I just had to read all the Jane Austen I could get my hands on. I think it was Sense and Sensibility next, rapidly followed by Pride and Prejudice. We had a copy of the two of them in a single volume. I still remember the illustrations; Fanny Dashwood entering Norland to take it over from the other Dashwoods, Willoughby carrying an injured Marianne, a snooty Caroline Bingley talking to Lizzy, Lizzy arriving at the portrait of Mr. Darcy at Pemberley. I was a little impatient back then about finding out how the stories resolved, so I peeked at the endings. So surprised that Lizzy and Darcy ended up together! And Marianne and Colonel Brandon? Wasn’t he the old guy? Luckily, it didn’t ruin the stories. Finding out how it happened was still intriguing.

This was the mid-nineties, when for whatever reason Austen-mania was at a high. Lots of movie adaptations. I saw every one I could. The best had to be the five-hour Pride and Prejudice, because they hardly had to cut anything. I’d like five-hour adaptations for every one of my favorite books, please. Of course the original books were always better. There was Persuasion, with the swooniest letter ever from Captain Wentworth, and the wickedly satirical Northhanger Abbey. I read Mansfield Park last and found it, admittedly, less entertaining, but I very much appreciated the idea that Fanny owed Henry Crawford nothing; that just because he thought she would keep him good, she had no obligation to accept his offers. On the contrary, she deserves someone far better than a person who believes he’s incapable of being good without her.

All of Austen’s novels have interesting moral observations, though usually not preachy or dourly didactic. People sometimes turn up their noses at Austen, minimizing her as writing romance, “girly stuff.” First of all, this stigma against romance is unfair and frankly sexist, which I’ve ranted about before. There’s nothing wrong with a story about people falling in love. But it’s not even a valid complaint. There is so much more to her work than basic boy-meets-girl storylines. She was undeniably a feminist in the sense of someone who critiqued the nature of gender relations, as when Lizzy Bennet refuses to accept the role of “delicate female” that Mr. Collins tries to force on her. He convinces himself that her refusal to marry him is simply, in modern terms, playing hard to get, but for Lizzy there is nothing admirable in such behavior or in such a demeaning perception of women. And then there is the wonderful conversation between Anne Elliot and Captain Harville, as they debate whether men or women suffer more for love. She points out that he cannot use literary portrayals as evidence, because they were all mostly written by men!

Jane wasn’t a total revolutionary. Her stories implicitly enforce the class structures of Regency England, such as how it would have been egregious for an illegitimate child like Harriet Smith to marry anyone of class like Mr. Elton or Mr. Knightley. The marriages at the end of the books tend to keep with the status quo, class-wise. But there’s no reason to condemn Austen too heavily for that. She was a woman of her time and of her class. And within those parameters, she was an extraordinary women, a pioneer who paved the way for many, many other female authors. As for me personally, I owe a lot of my current appreciation of “old-fashioned” literature, my knowledge of Regency England and 18th-19th century customs, and my liking for compelling, varied female characters, to Jane Austen.