Voice and characterization

The Writing Workshop coming up at ArmadilloCon in a few weeks is making me think about the craft of writing, and that in turn has made me want to go waaaaay back in time and pull out some of my older blog posts and re-post ’em. With perhaps a tiny bit of revision. So this post is revised from one back in 2011, right after I started posting here regularly.

So, voice. And characterization. The two are not separable, I’m sure we all agree. One of the issues that occasionally interferes with falling into a fantasy world is seen where characters speak to each other with modern American idiom (and also possess, for inexplicable reasons, modern American attitudes and mores, but that’s another issue). Of course that can actually work well, but putting modern idiom into the mouth of a character from some other world is a technique that should be used deliberately, not because the author implicitly believes that everyone at all times and places uses identical idiom.

But aside from that, voice is fundamental when you’re trying to create a character who seems like a true individual, a unique person, distinct from all others both real and fictional. I think, for example, that voice is the single most important issue for trying to make your brand-new Urban Fantasy stand out from the huuuuge horde of other UF. For quite a while there, all UF featured a young woman protagonist and a first person style, and my didn’t all those books just blend right together into an amorphous mass of indistinguishability. Except for the ones that stood out, which for me were Briggs’ Mercy Thompson and Andrews’ Kate Daniels.

It’s not just voice that makes those books stand out from the crowd, but voice is one of the most important features, I think.

So, taking a closer look at how to build a unique voice: one technique that works extremely well depends on really getting the rhythm of language and also getting when and how to break grammar rules.

Here’s a sample of entertaining dialogue:

“Only once, really, but that was because I scared them and it was really Prothvar’s fault because I asked him to teach me and he wouldn’t teach me he just laughed and said I couldn’t but I knew I could so I did it to show him I could but he didn’t know I could and then he got scared and they got angry and that’s when I got scolded. But it was really Prothvar’s fault.”

How about that? The comma-before-conjunction rule is totally ignored, plus this sentence includes one actual run on (did you notice it?). Doesn’t that work beautifully to give a rushed feel to this speech? That’s Jaenelle from Anne Bishop’s Black Jewel’s trilogy; she was about eight years old in this scene. Doesn’t the one-pronoun-after-another thing really do the job of making Jaenelle sound like a young child? It’s all getting the rhythm of the language, plus breaking rules effectively.

Here’s another one:

“By the by, I think you, and, for that matter, Dick, are wrong about David, because you do not realize that he is an honest man, and of more importance, he is a man looking for the Truth, rather than, as you seem to think, one convinced he has found it, though, to be sure, he sometimes thinks he has found a large piece of it, and that makes him annoying, if not downright dangerous, but I do not think this happens as often as you think, and soon enough he is himself again, in which state he is less belligerent than you pretend, until you or Dick light his train, as you are wont to do.”

That’s Kitty from Freedom and Necessity, an amazing, complicated, historical epistilary novel with very slight fantasy trimmings around the edges, by Steven Brust and Emma Bull. Three different interesting things are going on here, all of which give Kitty a tremendously engaging and individual voice. Obviously there’s the super-long sentences (118 words!). Despite its length, this sentence is grammatically correct, which with this kind of sentence is a statement in itself. Also, of course, we’ve got a lack of contractions, which normally makes the writer sound like she’s doing a bad Mr. Spock imitation, plus the word choices of an educated adult (“to be sure”, “belligerent”). Plus the period slang (“light his train”). Kitty’s letters also have a LOT of italicized words in them, though that passage didn’t happen to have any.

The combination of the italicized words and the long sentences with the correct grammar, the formal word choice and the lack of contractions really produces a fascinating voice: an impulsive, breezy woman who writes a highly individualilzed version of the 1800’s educated-person’s style. Historical “feel” and personal “voice” all in one.

One more example of creating voice with long, fast-paced sentences:

“He isn’t going to walk, he’s going to climb, which is quite different, besides being much safer than staying out here where he can’t really do much. Of course, there are a great many people who don’t do much and who are quite safe, though perhaps a bit boring; still, I’m afraid Eltiron isn’t one of them, which is probably just as well since most people don’t like being bored.”

And a page later, same character:

“I don’t believe I said he was a sorcerer, though it’s quite possible. Not, of course, a good sorcerer, or I doubt he’d have gotten into such a predicament. . . . It’s really quite fortunate you were here; it would have been very inconvenient to have the Matholych in Leshiya. Rather like having a basilisk in one’s cellar, which would be extremely awkward for practically anyone.”

This is Amberglas, a sorceress from Patricia Wrede’s early novel, The Seven Towers. Every word Amberglas speaks is so delightful it’s hard to stop quoting her:

“I haven’t the least objection to your making oaths and promises for yourself, though of course what you were suggesting does sound a bit extreme. But binding other people for all time is an exceedingly dangerous thing to do, particularly when they aren’t there, no matter how justified it seems, and frequently has rather unpleasant consequences for everyone. So I’d rather you didn’t, though it’s extremely good of you to offer.”

Isn’t that fabulous? It’s the free association and unexpected analogies which “make” the voice for this wonderful character. This book turned me into an instant Patricia Wrede fan.

Which is easier to read, the almost comma-free style of young Jaenelle, Kitty’s extremely comma-intense style, or the in-between comma usage + periods we see from Amberglas? Each gives a different effect, each is wonderfully suited to the character who uses it, and there’s no possible way you could give any of these character’s one of the other styles without totally changing how she ‘feels’ to the reader.

Here’s a completely different reason to use long sentences — this isn’t a character speaking, but a description of ongoing action:

“The stairs twisted and they ran onto a portico half-opened to the night, then over the high, covered walkway above Horda’s Garden, the night crisp and bright around them and Crise, below, rummaging with a Bec shadi for the small winter roses that lived, bright and chilly, under the mantle of snow. Lyeth scooped a handful of snow from one embrasure and, as she passed the next, aimed and let fly.”

The 53 words in the first sentence of that passage won’t beat out Kitty’s 118 any time soon, but it’s still pretty long! The scene this comes from involves a race. One of the ways the author (Marta Randell; this is her very good novel The Sword of Winter) speeds up the action during the race is by suddenly using a lot of long sentences and dropping some of the standard punctuation. Notice the lack of commas before two conjuctions that would normally have them. The change this gives the rhythm of the sentence is marked, even if a reader wouldn’t normally notice how that chance contributes to the “feel” of the scene.

So, long sentences! Takes me back to when I was writing my Master’s thesis and my advisor kept trying to take out my semi-colons! (I kept them, as I recall).

Now, what effects do short sentences produce? In dialogue and in description? Pay attention to a hard-boiled detective novel: that’s one place you see that kind of prose. Also, I just read my first Spenser novel (by Robert Parker, I must be the only person my age who likes genre fiction but had never read one). The AVERAGE sentence length on one random page of that novel was 7.73. Quite a difference! Admittedly, there was a lot of dialogue on that page, but then, there’s a lot of dialogue on lots of the pages of that book.

Short, punchy, powerful sentences create a very different kind of character. Suppose at an intense moment, your male lead says this to your female lead:

I want you. Not her. You. Right now.

You could practically design the entire character from this tiny snippet. There is no possible overlap between this character and, say, Amberglas. You could not possibly interchange their dialogue, not for a second.

One book in which every single character can be quickly and easily identified by his or her dialogue, without dialogue tags or other clues, is Godbody by Theodore Sturgeon. There’s a unique book in a lot of ways, and I don’t suppose I have much of an impulse to re-read it, but it’s certainly worth a good look for dialogue, voice, and how important both are to characterization.

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2 thoughts on “Voice and characterization”

  1. Shelby does voices well. Let me see what seems quotable …
    A bit of dialogue from Cantata in Coral and Ivory:
    What has happened?”
    There didn’t seem to be any way to say the words that wasn’t entirely too stark. “Your uncle, the former Eplakil of Seteblite, is even now ascending to the Celestial Ones, Your Eminence.”
    There was a pause, and when I looked up I could see signs of dismay written on his features. “Is my cousin at court?” he asked.
    “Your cousin became feverish during the worst of the summer storms, Your Eminence. He is also on his way to the Celestial Ones, may both their ascents be smooth.”
    I must have misheard the next words of Isde Ikhsior, for an eplakil would never so forget his eminence that he would comment negatively on the moral worthiness of the Mother Moon.”

    One uses short sentences, coming off as brisk and businesslike. The narrator … doesn’t. Two characters thriftily characterized.

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