Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Voice

Here’s a post at Kill Zone Blog: Doublespeak: A Look at Voice

The post begins this way:

I recall reading my first book by a best-selling author. A male character discovered a young girl, about 5 years old, who had been left to die in the woods. He brings her to his cabin and finds she cannot or will not speak. I was impressed with the way the character spoke to the child—it seemed exactly how someone should deal with that situation. However, as more characters entered the story, I discovered that he spoke that way to all of them. Not only that, almost every character in the book spoke with that same “Talking to a Child” voice. Obviously, it doesn’t bother the millions who buy her books, but it bugged the heck out of me. And it’s consistent with all her books in that series. It wasn’t just a one-time deal.

This made me pause, because it reminds me so strongly of a specific very popular author. I read a lot of his books a long time ago. Eventually it dawned on me that all his protagonists, male or female, any age, any species, all sounded exactly alike. They phrased things the same way and also looked at things the same way, with the same reactions and the same values. Once I noticed it, this bugged the heck out of me. I gave away all the books I owned by this author and never looked at another book he wrote.

Anybody got a guess about who that is? This is someone who started writing in the late sixties and was still bringing out new books as recently as a couple of years ago. One extremely long series plus a whooooole lot of other work. Fantasy and SF.

Anyway, that’s not quite what the linked post is about. That post is actually about making sure characters sound different from each other within one story, and on the phenomenon of recognizing an author’s work via their consistent stylistic choices. Both of those are interesting, but still, now I’m interested in the above phenomenon of an author who gives all their characters or all their protagonists the same voice. Have any of you noticed that? Did it bug you when you did?

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10 Comments Voice

  1. Pete Mack

    LE Modessitt? I bounced hard off his books, from a combination of questionable style, dull characterization, and predictable plot. In short: I really didn’t like it. But it’s been so long, I don’t remember if he had this issue.

  2. SarahZ

    There are some authors where a bunch of disparate characters use the same quirky word choices or turns of phrase, but I don’t think I’ve ever noticed something *that* egregious. JR Ward’s characters have a tendency to run together, but I’ll read her when I need to not be using my brain much (hospital reads!).

  3. Elaine T

    I just finished skimming the latest entry in a series that I have now officially given up on. As I skim/read I found myself working out why the book was so uninteresting. One of the elements was there were only two vocal registers. People either all sounded the same. Or talking critters sounded like children, which was brought home when a child came on stage and I – skipping – thought the dialogue belonged to one of the critters.

    There was also absolutely no tension, nor movement, but what contributed to that is harder to verbalize. The lack of variation in speech/thought patterns, that’s easy, once noticed.

  4. Elaine T

    It occurs to me that a writer may have a problem making people sound different when they all went through the same settings and generally experiences.. thinking of English aristocrats and Eton & Oxbridge upbringings. They would sound very similar in default public settings, I think. But different personalities should still come off differently in their own heads or in places where the public face isn’t required. (Example: Charlotte Lucas and Elizabeth Bennet.)

    And that’s where that writer I just gave up on failed. Half the cast could have been handwaved away as trained that way, the other half couldn’t (eldritch in origin) and they all sounded so similar that when I tested by picking a random page I couldn’t tell who or where.

    Can’t think of who you might have given up on. Heinlein came to mind, but he died too long ago. De Camp? I noticed a new book by him in the last few years.

  5. E.C.

    There’s this one kid’s series I read, which I love, but something was off-putting about it and I didn’t understand why. I finally realized: all the characters, from the grandparents to the youngest children, sounded exactly alike. Take off the dialogue tags and the only ones you’d be able to tell apart were the goblins, who had their own specific accent. They all had the same verbal quirks, the same snappy dialogue, and the same level of vocabulary.
    It’s irritating, but not enough to get me to stop (mostly because my nephews and nieces read this series). But also it taught me what not to do in my own work, so there’s that.

  6. Rachel

    Jeanine got it — Piers Anthony. The thing that made this problem JUMP out at me so that I couldn’t miss it occurred during the Incarnations of Immortality. Anthony had been moving toward making War the protagonist and I was looking forward to that because War was an interesting character. Then I started the book and boom! He killed that character and brought in a new young character to take over the role of War, and I realized — or at least firmly believed — that he did this because he couldn’t handle any other type of character in the protagonist role. I was very disappointed. After that I could never not notice that every Piers Anthony protagonist was exactly the same and it ruined all his books for me. I still think of this as the Piers Anthony Protagonist Problem.

    EC, you’re making me think of a different but possibly related issue — the thing when all the characters speak and think the same way, whether they’re human or nonhuman. In your example, the goblins sound different, but I’m thinking of examples where no matter whether the character is a human or, say, a dragon, the thoughts, motivations, ideals, etc are exactly the same. I think noticing that is one thing that made me write griffins that were so different from humans in the Griffin Mage trilogy.

    Elaine, a different issue: I absolutely despise the cutesy dialogue given to the Comic Relief Character in some fantasy stories, such as Gurgi in Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series. I read those books and in many ways might still like them, but that kind of character is now intolerable to me. If I meet a character like that today, I will most likely DNF the book the moment the character walks on stage. So for me, it would probably be a dealbreaker to give talking animals childlike voices.

    SarahZ, I think you’re right about JD Ward, although some (many!) aspects of her worldbuilding eventually made me roll my eyes too hard to go on with the series.

    I don’t think I’ve ever actually read anything by LE Modessitt.

  7. SarahZ

    Yeah, I only read Ward once in a blue moon, when I need something I won’t have to think about at all. It’s repetitive in the extreme, but sometimes that’s comfortable.

    I know a lot of people love Piers Anthony, but I bounced off him hard. The first Anthony book I read was so off putting to me that I didn’t continue – the whole “ha ha, the smarter she gets, the uglier she is. Now she’s gorgeous, but brainless” thing seemed so adolescent and misogynistic (as did a lot of other bits).

  8. Rachel

    Sarah, yes. I was a kid when I read A Spell for Chameleon, and that element still struck me as adolescent and stupid, though I wouldn’t have known how to describe what bothered me about it at the time. Actually, I believe that the smart/ugly/mean combination bothered me the most — the idea that she would be mean and rude and unpleasant because she was so upset to be ugly — I guess now I would call that misogynistic. At the time, I just knew I didn’t like that way of handling the character.

  9. SarahZ

    Oh, definitely – it’s 15+ years since I tried him, so some details are fuzzy, but now that you mentioned it I remember how clear it was that in his worldview all women derived their worth (self and otherwise) from their appearance.

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