The Art of Voice-Changery, Part 1

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A writer’s imagination runs through many worlds, histories, and lives. The danger of one writer and an infinite creativity? That only one voice ever speaks.

Changing voices has got to be one of the toughest challenges for a writer. I’ve read some failures, and believe you me: the story just tanks due to pov confusion, or loses all flavor due to deja vu. I mean, just imagine if all the Muppets sounded like Ernie. How lame would that be?

My Shield Maiden series…Shield Maiden Quartet? Oooo, A Quartet of Maidenry!

Sorry about that.

Anyway, I have four very different protagonists in this set, and that different-ness MUST be clear to readers. In Middler’s Pride Gwen went from show-off jerk to decent human being. Now I need to maneuver into the head of another recruit named Wynne, the protagonist for my next book, Beauty’s Price. Wynne has motives wholly unlike Gwen’s for joining the Shield Maidens. She is a sweet soul, a lover of nature with a desire to live life without the rules a class society dictates. How to create this gentler, more provincial voice?

Hmmm.

I stare blankly at my bookshelf: Conan Doyle doesn’t exactly come to my mind for strong heroines. Nor does Colin Dexter, or P.D. James, or Ellis Peters…blast. And Agatha Christie’s heroine Miss Marple is too old for what I need.

Surely my Diana Wynne Jones shelf won’t fail me!

Wait, hang on. No, these girls are all too fierce. They were great for helping me with Gwen, like Hildrida from Drowned Ammet.

drownedammet“Betrothed?” said Hildy. “Without asking me!…You might have asked me if I minded, even if I’m not important. I’m a person, too.”

“Most people are,” Navis said, rather desperately scanning his page. He wished he had not chosen to read the Adon. The Adon said things like “Truth is the fire that fetches thunder,” which sounded unpleasantly like a description of Hildrida. “And you are very important now,” he added. “You’re forming an alliance with Lithar for us.”

“What’s Lithar like? How old is he?” Hildrida demanded.

Navis found his place and put his finger on it. “I’ve only met him once.” It was hard to know what else to say. “He’s only a young man–twenty or so.”

“Only–!” Words nearly failed Hildy. “I’m not going to be betrothed to an old man like that! I’m too young. And I’ve never met him!”

Navis hastily got his book in front of his face again. “Time will cure both those objections.”

“No, it won’t!” stormed Hildrida. “And if you go on reading, I’ll–I’ll hit you and then tear that book up!” (270-1)

Oh, there was Charmain from House of Many Ways, but she’s too bookish. She’s practically dragged into the plot. Wynne goes willingly.

And then, I see a small bundle of books by an author I only started reading in the last year:

Jane Austen.

I used to wear it as a badge of pride that I had NOT read her work. Way too many of my classmates oohed and aahed her stories, and I couldn’t get why. It’s not like anyone got poisoned or shoved out a window, let alone shot.

I pause with Pride and Prejudice in hand. Elizabeth Bennet is considered one of the great female heroines, isn’t she? Her voice is strong and unafraid. Her wit shines often, but her raw emotions have their moments, too. I particularly love her retorts to Mr. Darcy when she’s certain he loathes her, such as this one early in the story:

51uWyPyyBnL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_After playing some Italian songs, Miss Bingley varied the charm by a lively Scotch air; and soon afterwards Mr. Darcy, drawing near Elizabeth, said to her–

“Do not you feel a great inclination, Miss Bennet, to seize such an opportunity of dancing a reel?”

She smiled, but made no answer. He repeated the question, with some surprise at her silence.

“Oh!” said she, “I heard you before, but I could not immediately determine what to say in reply. You wanted me, I know, to say ‘Yes,’ that you might have the pleasure of despising my taste; but I always delight in overthrowing those kind of schemes, and cheating a person of their premeditated contempt. I have therefore made up my mind to tell you, that I do not want to dance a reel at all–and now despise me if you dare.” (35)

With every chapter read, Wynne’s voice starts to form. I can see her now, the one of sense in a family filled with silly pride and, well, prejudice. Wynne’s parents will be much like Mr. and Mrs. Bennet: a mother obsessed with status and appearances without the wit to show any, and a lackadaisical father who’d rather not parent if he can help it. Both Wynne and Elizabeth have four sisters of age to marry, and most of them idealize marrying a man of good fortune. But while Elizabeth is the second eldest of the Bennet sisters, I want Wynne to be the youngest. Her youth will keep her from that desperation the others feel in needing a man to marry.

Early in P&P, Mrs. Bennet tries to force a match between Elizabeth and a cousin of some means, but who is also a simp and a kiss-ass. Elizabeth has absolutely no patience with him, and cuts the proposal off cold, much to her mother’s annoyance. Wynne will be in a similar situation, as one man wants to marry all five sisters, much to the parents’ surprise and relief. Only Wynne is dead set against the match, throwing her family into chaos, and the man into…well, a rather dangerous frame of mind.

But back to voice.

Gwen’s attitude is superior, dismissive, callous. She thinks you don’t know and/or care about anything half as much as she does, and she’s not afraid to treat you as such. When I used Michael Dellert’s #13WeekNovel Prewriting Questions to explore Gwen, I got some pretty blunt answers. Take the first two, for instance:

middlers-pride-7“How would you describe yourself?”

No brood mare, I’ll say that for free. I can carry lumber like any man. I can go into the woods of Irial all alone and haul honey, berries, and kindling on my back. I can hear better than any of our watchmen—I’M the one who caught Bricius thieving ól from the brewery.

How could they possibly think I’d go off to be a broodmare when I’m far smarter than any young soldier of these parts?

Not. Bloody. Likely.

 “So what’s an example of something incredible you’ve done?”

Oh, catching Bricius thieving not enough, then? Fine. Well one time, I was keeping watch for the caravan of southern traders—we’d heard they would come by our thorp, and our slopes are sweet with honeysuckle and dry, good camping grounds—and saw some strange men loitering about the edge of the stables on the far side of the thorp. None of ours, I’ll tell you. They had saltwater mud…don’t ask, I just know these things. One must if one’s to venture into the world for vengeful reasons.

Anyway, they were hanging about, eyeing up the horses, and I knew they were plotting something devious. We keep fine horses here in Easavainn Mills, perfect for ambushing a caravan and fleeing off to the north with all the other devious gnomes and wild people.

Yes, gnomes are devious. Don’t interrupt.

Well, I told the veteran’s sergeant Cinaedh about the men. He said they were scouts for the caravan, and simply waiting for it to catch up.

Scouts? What do scouts need with our horses then?

Pish and spit. They were planning something.

But being but a young lass of 10, what was I to do?

I did the only thing I could do to disarm the enemy: I stole their washing while they bathed in the river and scattered it around the forest.

Thanks to me, the caravan arrived safely, and no one was harmed.

Already you get a sense that Gwen doesn’t listen to anyone. She’s got her own principles, and by the gods she’s sticking with them. In her mind, she was victorious against an evil everyone else was too stupid to notice. There’s no correcting her here or anywhere.

Wynne, on the other hand, has no aggressive confidence. She has been kept apart from others her age by the prejudice of her parents, and feels herself wilting beneath their expectations. The river Gasirad is all that keeps her alive until she meets a certain young fellow…

Jean Lee“How would you describe yourself?”

I would rather not, but as you are insistent, I will say I am the youngest of five sisters. My father is a merchant who deals with the caravans and artisans who live in Hafren. My mother is also of a business frame of mind, but that business is to marry my sisters and I to eligible, rich suitors.

We are all of us trained to be pleasing to the eyes and ears. Yet neither my mother nor my father saw need to train us in ways pleasing to the heart.

“So what’s an example of something incredible you’ve done?”

What I may consider incredible could differ vastly from your consideration. You may think of heroic deeds, marches into battle and overtaking beastly fire. Sometimes the incredible comes in the little things, if you quiet yourself long enough to notice.

Consider a time many summers ago, when one is but a child, with few duties or directions. Many my age in Hafren were considered beneath rank by my family, so I was forbidden to play with them in their fields or yards. Imagine whole days watching children flee their chores for adventures, and I could not take a single step among them! Such agony is what sent me north alongside the river Gasirad. She was my friend for many, many seasons, sharing her harmony with my songs and her whispers with those from my own heart. She encouraged me to walk beyond the Hafren road stones without escort or knowledge of the land. To walk with but a river as my companion northward, through a dark wood where rocks the size of men peer from shadowed glens, to a new town. To set foot in a new place without any word of introduction, without any desire to share my family name, and walk up to the first child I see, and to say, “What do you know about adventures?” And I did not blush despite my haggard appearance. How Mother would have scolded! I was a walking scandal with mud, petals, and sweat littered about my dress, boots, and hair.

The child was a boy with the body of a reed, brown and thin, and the eyes of a hungry owl.  “Loads.”

“Right,” I said, and I had no clue what else to say, and found my tongue on the verge of knotting itself. “Wh-what about adventures by the river Gasirad? Do you have them there?” My tongue loosened with the river’s name.

“Sometimes,” he said.

“Do you ever speak more than one word?” How impudent of me! Yet I found myself wanting of an answer, for gods knew when my father would gallop in, hoist me up, and put me back inside the house among small chairs and stiff manners.

The boy’s smile reminded me of the Gasirad in winter’s thaw. “Depends.”

“Well then,” I crossed my arms as Father often did when he was declaring the finality of his offer, “let’s go.”

Changing voices isn’t just about getting into the new protagonist’s head. There’s a technical aspect, too. Just look at the Gwen and Wynne answers again. Wynne doesn’t do super-short sentences like Gwen does. Wynne doesn’t direct condescending smack-talk to the reader like Gwen does. Wynne’s prose needs to be as flowers picked for a crown: “She was my friend for many, many seasons, sharing her harmony with my songs and her whispers with those from my own heart.” Unlike Gwen, who often scoops handfuls of word-mud to sling at the reader: “Not. Bloody. Likely.”

Whether you reuse the same exploration techniques or not, you’ve got to give your new hero time to open up, especially if she’s never known that kind of attention before. Intimacy comes with time, patience, and a sincere desire for feeling. You can’t rush it–you may as well demand a seed to blossom in your hand. That’s what I’m noticing about Wynne: her love for what matters gives her voice a sweet warmth–rather like apple cinnamon tea on a cool spring morning. It’s that warmth that draws us to her, to learn what kindles it.

But we’re not the only ones drawn in. And therein lies a danger I must further understand. Austen may not be able to help me with the fantasy elements, but I know what can…

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38 thoughts on “The Art of Voice-Changery, Part 1

  1. Interesting stuff, Ms Lee. It certainly got me thinking. Do you think/believe there is scope to let the reader find the voice of a character; a serious player within a tale, by saying/describing little of him/her, or perhaps nothing of her/his good, bad, weak or strong traits? I’m thinking here, by their deeds (or lack of) as peened within the book the character spills out over the page (or does it?)and will be judged accordingly by said reader.

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    • Hmm. Yes, I think so. I’ve a WIP where I learned my characters strictly as I drafted without plans or forethoughts. And sure enough: the kindly mentor character turned out to be the big baddie. All it took was one choice to reveal the menace to all earlier actions, and the promise of more evil to come. And yet, in his perspective and in the perspective of the society, all has been done for the greater good.
      I had no intention whatsoever of this sort of “turn” or “reveal” or however you’d call it. Yet when it came, it made total sense, and I can’t think of him without it.
      Perhaps it helps that this particular WIP has no plans for a series, per say. I wouldn’t mind writing other stories in that universe, but I don’t see that particular cast coming back. So without the necessity of long-term planning, I guess wingin’ it “feels” much more permissible.
      Gosh, that got long-winded, sorry!

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      • A passionate tale, not a ‘long-winded’ one. Not that I’ll ever do it…the taste is too sour…yet I often imagine the tale of a character of pure, unadulterated evil, for no other reason than how I would get into character and write him…plainly, it has to be a ‘him’; plainly, I have not the skills to write his tale.

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      • Perhaps you can’t approach his tale directly. Perhaps you’ll be writing, and then, without knowing it, a back door will open to his tale, and you’ll know him without him knowing.

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  2. I got to synchronize the audio with the post this week – thank you, it’s very thoughtful of you. It’s a strange human reaction that when people go on and on about how good something is we always put what they were talking about on the back burner.

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  3. I usually go the other way when people jump up and down about how good something is but have to agree Elizabeth Bennet is pretty damn sassy- whichever way you look at her, with a mercurial tongue to match any modern day wit. There are parallels between Elizabeth and Wynn, which you clearly didn’t intend. I like Wynne and Gwen, both are attractive characters – Wynne because she is searching for the inner wild child and Gwen because she is that wild child and yes, characters need time to open up, and like a bottle of wine, allowed to breathe so one can appreciate the true layers.

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  4. YOU’VE FINALLY GIVEN IN!!!! MWAHAHAHAHAHAAAAA! Jane Austen is my drug of choice. The kids even know her, sort of- “Oh, Mommy’s watching her ‘talking movies.’ ” (Do you remember a mutual roommate’s disgust when someone made her watch Sense and Sensibility? It was fantastic 🙂
    Ahem. On to writing. Elizabeth Bennet- an interesting choice for a Wynne comparison! I didn’t ‘hear’ that sort of sassiness in her in Middler’s Pride, but then Gwen didn’t spend much time listening to Wynne, did she? Wrote her off as weak right away- it will be interesting for her to have her own voice and to see you take our expectations and turn them around on us once again! Argh- now you’re making me MORE impatient for the next book. I have to clean this house some time, you know, Ms. Lee!

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    • LOLOL! What? No, I don’t, um, remember, what? Hmmm? Oh look, a big distracting thing!
      😀 Yeah, we have to clean, too. 😦 I do remember having P&P on once (the one with Colin Firth (YUM)(anyway)), and Blondie also didn’t get why I was watching it. “It’s not a cartoon. What are they doing? Why are they doing it? Can we watch Star Wars now?” BOO! Anyway. You’re right that Gwen didn’t give a toss about Wynne, so her voice never really gets a chance in Middler, but that’s fine. I just need to get cracking down on exploring her life more so I can bring her “tenacious” suitor to life. He’s…something.

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      • Sounds like it- five sisters at once? I could make some comments, but then the man would tell me to be a lady :p Whoa! That IS a big distracting thing… xo

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      • HA! Ah, I love when you visit. You get me psyched to get back to Wynne, which I haven’t been able to do all week. Apparently grading finals and parenting have some sort of “priority” round these parts…

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      • And snooping on comments below, Mansfield park is…ok. I didn’t know it was a parody, which might’ve been part of it, but I found the heroine likeable, but not as defined as Austen’s other leads. You want Fanny (poor girl) to do all right, but it’s hard to be invested. Northanger Abbey pokes SO much fun at the mellow- dramatic gothic novels that in my first read-through I felt like Austen didn’t really like her leads. I’m going to give it another shot, eventually. Big T just got me a movie version with ‘Jyn Erso’ from that one star wars story as the lead. It’s got some strange bits, but she’s pretty adorable in it. And now I will really stop babbling about Jane Austen on your page. OH! Except for one other thing. I guess her face is going on a one pound note? And the hubby may be finding one for me- MAJOR brownie points for him! (Even if he has a hard time keeping Lizzy and Elinor and Emma straight. 🙂 )
        I’m stopping now. I promise.
        Yay for distinctive voices!!!

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      • Oh that’s right! I haven’t read Northanger Abbey, either. Maybe I’ll do that this year, too.
        Well in your hubby’s defense, S&S reads like a rougher version of P&P; they both have very similar plot lines to them, I think. Emma–ooo…I should do a point of view thing on HER one of these days, because she’s got that knack for stadium-sized leaps to conclusions that cause all sorts of chaos…Gotta mark that for the summer posts! 😀

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  5. What a great character to use for inspiration! I was also an Austen avoider for many years – I didn’t do period drama. Then I read Pride and Prejudice and laughed all the way through it. She is so wonderfully subversive. Have you read Mansfield Park?

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    • No! I have read Emma, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility. I was told I wouldn’t get Mansfield Park without reading some other author of the period whom Austen actually parodies with Mansfield Park. Are you familiar with this?

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  6. No, not at all. I’ve read the other five of her six major novels and love the satire and social commentary in all of them but haven’t read Mansfield Park. A lot of people have told me they really disliked it which always struck me as rather strange so I’ve been meaning to get round to it for a while.

    It actually makes a lot of sense that perhaps they didn’t get much out of it because they weren’t aware of the material it was parodying. I still intend to read it. One day.

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