So, I’ve read 19 books so far this month. That doesn’t count three I started but put on the give-away pile before I’d read more than a couple of chapters. What makes me put a book down that fast? Just plain bad writing can do it, but that wasn’t the case with these.
I think one of the main things that makes me set a book aside is that I don’t like the protagonist’s voice — either the voice is not interesting or engaging, or else the voice is distinctive but I just dislike the main character.
Patti Hill at Novel Matters has a post in which she considers voice.
She notes that Elizabeth George defines voice as “The narrative voice of your novel is the point-of-view character’s defining way of speaking and thinking” which seems reasonable. I think it’s important to get the “and thinking” in there, because voice certainly includes a character’s attitudes and biases. How about actions? Maybe not, don’t want to get too far afield, we’ll lose the idea of “voice” itself if we expand the definition too far.
Patti also notes that Donald Maass maintains that a character must have strong opinions or else his voice will be uninteresting. I think that might be true. Or true-ish. Does it have to be strong opinions, or would strong reactions do the same job? I’m thinking either would do.
So! How about some examples of voices that instantly captured my attention?
Listen to this:
Questions, always questions. They didn’t wait for answers, either. They rushed on, piling questions on questions, covering every moment with questions, blocking off every sensation but the thorn-stab of questions.
And orders. If it wasn’t, “Lou,what is this?” it was, “Tell me what this is.” A bowl. The same bowl, time after time. It is a bowl and it is an ugly bowl, a boring bowl, a bowl of total and complete boring blandness, uninteresting. I am uninterested in that uninteresting bowl.
If they aren’t going to listen, why should I talk?
I know better than to say that out loud. Everything in my life that has value has been gained at the cost of not saying what I really think and saying what they want me to say.
In this office, where I am evaluated and advised four times a year, the psychiatrist is no less certain of the line between us than all the others have been. Her certainty is painful to see, so I try not to look at her more than I have to. That has its own dangers; like the others, she thinks I should make more eye contact than I do. I glance at her now.
Dr. Fornum, crisp and professional, raises an eyebrow and shakes her head not quite imperceptibly. Autistic persons do not understand these signals. I have read the book, so I know what it is I do not understand.
What I haven’t figured out yet is the range of things they don’t understand. The normals. The reals. the ones who have the degrees and sit behind the desks in comfortable chairs.
I know some of what she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know I can read. She thinks I’m hyperlexic, joust parroting the words. The difference between what she calls parroting and what she does when she reads is imperceptible to me. She doesn’t know that I have a large vocabulary. Every time she asks what my job is and I say I am still working for the pharmaceutical company, she asks if I know what pharmaceutical means. She thinks I’m parroting. The difference between what she calls parroting and my use of a large number of words is imperceptible to me. She uses large words when talking to the other doctors and nurses and technicians, babbling on and on and saying things that could be said more simply. She knows I work on a computer, she knows I went to school, but she has not caught on that this is incompatible with her belief that I am actually nearly illiterate and barely verbal.
She talks to me as if I were a rather stupid child. She does not like it when I use big words (as she calls them) and she tells me to just say what I mean.
What I mean is the speed of dark is as interesting as the speed of light, and maybe it is faster and who will find out?
What I mean is about gravity, if there were a world where it is twice as strong, then on that world would the wind from a fan be stronger because the air is thicker and blow my glass off the table, not just my napkin? Or would the greater gravity hold the glass more firmly to the table, so the stronger wind couldn’t move it?
What I mean is the world is big and scary and noisy and crazy but also beautiful and still in the middle of the windstorm.
What I mean is what difference does it make if I think of colors as people or people as sticks of chalk, all stiff and white unless they are brown chalk or black?
What I mean is I know what I like and want, and she does not, and I do not want to like or want what she wants me to like or want.
That’s the first bit of THE SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon, which is one of the best and most impressive books I’ve ever read. It’s actually hard to stop copying it out here because it’s so good that I want to hold up every bit of the first chapter and point to it and say Look At This.
And what makes it so good? The voice, of course. The unique, fascinating, instantly sympathetic voice of the main character, Lou.
Now listen to this one:
No shit, there I was . . .
We’d been cut up so many ways and so many times we hardly had a skirmish line, and the enemy kept getting reinforced. I, like the rest of the outfit, was exhausted and terrified from swords buzzing past my ear and various sorts of sorceries going “whoosh” over my head, or maybe it was the other way around; and there were dead people moaning and writhing on the ground, and wounded people lying still, and that was almost certainly the other way around, but I’m giving it to you as I remember it, though I know my memory sometimes plays tricks on me.
More on that in a second.
First, I have to ask you to excuse me for starting in the middle, but that’s more or less where it starts.
So there I was, in a full-scale battle; that is, in a place where no self-respecting assassin ought to be. Worse, in a full-scale battle with the keen sense that I was on the losing side, at least in this part of the engagement. I stood on Dorian’s Hill, with the Wall about two hundred yards behind me, and the Tomb (which is not a tomb, and never was, and ought not to be called that) about a quarter of a mile to my left. I wanted to teleport out, or at least run, but I couldn’t because, well, I just couldn’t. I had a sword, and I carried enough other weaponry to outfit half of Cropper Company (my unit, hurrah hurrah).
Now, that’s the first bit of DRAGON, by Steven Brust, who probably didn’t invent the style sometimes called “first person smartass” but certainly does it well, doesn’t he? And there again, a unique and fascinating voice.
Both of these are first person. Can you build a voice so fast and with such certainty in third person?
How about this one:
She scowled at her glass of orange juice. To think that she had been delighted when she first arrived here — was it only three months ago? — with the prospect of fresh orange juice every day. But she had been eager to be delighted; this was to be her home, and she wanted badly to like it, to be grateful for it — to behave well, to make her brother proud of her and Sir Charles and Lady Amelia pleased with their generosity.
Lady Amelia had explained that the orchards only a few days south and west of here were the finest in the country, and many of the oranges she had seen at Home, before she came out here, had probably come from those same orchards. It was hard to believe in orange groves as she looked out the window, across the flat deserty plain beyond the Residency, unbroken by anything more vigorous than a few patches of harsh grass and stunted sand-colored bushes until it disappeared at the feet of the black and copper-brown mountains.
But there was fresh orange juice every day.
She was the first down to the table every morning, and was gently teased by Lady Amelia and Sir Charles about her healthy young appetite; but it wasn’t hunger that drove her out of bed every day. Since her days were empty of purpose, she could not sleep when night came, and by dawn each morning she was more than ready for the maid to enter her room, push back the curtains from the tall windows, and hand her a cup of tea. She was often out of bed when the woman arrived, and dressed, sitting at her window, for her bedroom window faced the same direction as the breakfast room, staring at the mountains. The servants thought kindly of her, as she gave them little extra work; but a lady who rose and dressed herself so early, and without assistance, was certainly a little eccentric. They knew of her impoverished background; that explained a great deal; but she was in a fine house now, and her host and hostess were only too willing to give her anything she might want, as they had no children of their own. She might try a little harder to adapt to so pleasant an existence.
She did try. She knew what the thoughts behind the looks the servants gave her were; she had dealt with servants before. But she was adapting to her new life as best her energetic spirit could. She might have screamed and hammered on the walls with her fists, or jumped over the low windowsill in her room, clambered to the ground by the ivy trellis, and run off toward the mountain; but she was trying her best to be good. So she was merely first to the breakfast table.
Okay, anybody recognize that one? That’s THE BLUE SWORD by Robin McKinley, one of my “comfort reads” — I first read this when I was in high school and I can’t begin to guess how many times I’ve read it since. So I’m not necessarily objective about this one, right? Nevertheless, I’d hold this up as a great example of establishing voice instantly with a straightforward third-person protagonist. We get such a clear impression of Harry Crewe — not just her background or her current life, but her as a person.
Okay, just one more:
Gwyneth Blair heard the bell as the last, dying ember of light guttered into the cloud bank over the sea, and put down her pen.
She looked over the cobbled street, her father’s warehouses, and the bobbing masts in the harbor from the highest room in the house, just below the peaked roof, where the sharply slanting walls made the place unfit for anything but brooms or a writer. She had wedged a tiny writing table under the single window, a rickety affair from the schoolroom, whose surface her older brother had riddled with a penknife when he was bored. An ugly cushion, covered with lime ribbons and liver-colored velvet, that she had purloined from the parlor protected her from the split in the scullery stool she had rescued from the trashman’s wagon. There was just room enough in the angle between the table legs and the roof for a small tin chest into which she dropped the pages of unfinished stories. When they were completed, various things happened to them. Some she read to the twins; others she took to the bookseller, Mr. Trent, for comment. Most were consigned to the dark under her bead, to be considered when she was in a better mood. A few she took down to the garden and burned.
It grew dark quickly in the tiny room after the sun went down. She dried her pen, capped her ink, dropped a half-covered page into the chest. She sat a moment longer, following the ebb tide out of the harbor, through the rocky channel where a fishing boat foundered, invariably, once a year, and out to the restless deeps, already growing shadowy with dusk.
The bell had haunted her as long as she could remember.
It was the first thing she had written about, years earlier, the most exciting, the most dreadful piece of writing she had ever done.
That’s THE BELL AT SEALEY HEAD, by Patricia Mckillip. This is actually the start of Chapter 2, not because there’s anything the least bit wrong with Chapter 1, but because Chapter 1 uses dialogue to establish voice and character and I wanted all four examples to be parallel in structure.
So . . . do these protagonists have opinions? Show reactions? We see their surroundings through their eyes, don’t we? Don’t we immediately get an idea of what they are like as people?
In all four cases, different as they are, I know I would want to turn the page — I’m immediately engaged by each character, and voice is a big part of why.