New writers struggle a lot with the term “voice.” What is it, and how do you achieve it in your own writing? Most writers agree it’s the hardest thing about the profession to master: the unique mark, like a fingerprint, that makes your writing your own.
Lately my wonderings about voice have tended not toward how to achieve it – I think it’s one of those subconscious things you don’t have much control over – but whether it’s a little like acting. There are actors who, no matter what role they take on, are always Mel Gibson or Samuel L. Jackson. Then there are character actors like Vincent D’Onofrio, who takes on such divinely diverse roles that he doesn’t even really qualify as a “Hey! It’s That Guy!” So, in writing: which voice matters more? Yours or your characters’?
I think I got at least a glimmer of an answer on the playground the other day.
Hamlet* loves two things about the playground: the slides and the ladders. He loves to climb, and although he had to be coaxed onto the bigger slides (he wanted to, but he was scared), he’s learned how to use his feet to brake. He’s more sure of himself, more body-confident than he was even six months ago. That’s good, because I’m at the point in pregnancy where I’m not as body-confident as I was – at least in my core strength. It’s also bad, because the child sometimes thinks he can do more than he actually can.
Like the time he was getting ready to go down the spiral slide. At the last minute, he stood up and leaned over the side so he could get a better glimpse of some vehicle going by. I forget if it was a street sweeper or dump truck or ambulance or motorcycle.
“Hamlet, please sit down,” I told him in my firm voice.
He pointed. This brought him further out by an inch or so. “Truck!” he yelled.
“Yes, I see the truck. Sit down and slide.” He was too high overhead for me to grab and remove, or to climb up and physically plop him down on his butt.
He grinned at me.
“Hamlet. Sit down NOW.”
I knew it was the edge in my voice, because I could hear it too. I couldn’t pinpoint it as fear or anger, because I couldn’t hear those. I try never to lose control in front of him. Besides, I didn’t really feel either of those things. Instead, at the moment I spoke to him that third time, I was envisioning the whole thing: the fall, him crashing onto me (my belly?), whether I could even catch him at all, to what extent I’d be hurt. (I was pretty sure I’d get the worse end of the deal. He’s almost 3, after all; he bounces.)
And there it was: the lesson in voice. I suddenly saw the combination of my experience coupled with those of my characters to create that uniqueness. Going into a confrontation with an ex-wife, for instance, what’s one character seeing in his own mind – the things he can’t express because he has neither time nor words to make her see? What are his fears that drive that vision – and what have I seen and felt in life that propel his vision?
I don’t think that’s the answer, but it brought me a little closer to the root of my trouble with this rewrite. Now to sustain the lesson throughout the rest of the novel. With one eye – and hand – on Hamlet, of course.
*For purposes of the blog, my son will henceforth be called “Hamlet.” Not only must I differentiate him from his forthcoming sibling, but the name fits. The tantrums are positively Shakespearean.
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