Guest Blog by Rosy Thornton - Whose Voice is it Anyway?

The novel I have just finished writing is narrated exclusively from one point of view. It’s not in first person, it’s in third, but I tell the story entirely via the perspective of my main character, Catherine. This is the first time I’ve tried this approach, having always previously narrated events from a variety of viewpoints.

Catherine and I have been together for nine months now and we have come to know each other pretty well. So well, in fact, that we are now almost inseparable: she’s there in my head when I’m walking the dog, when I’m chopping vegetables for the kids’ tea and even (see how intimate we are!) when I’m lying in the bath.

Fair enough, you might say. Good characterisation is premised on our ability to know our characters inside out. My problem, though, is that we are almost too close. I have begun to lose my ability to tell where my thoughts end and Catherine’s begin.

The key to writing good fiction, we are told, is ‘voice’. We have to develop our own individual style of expression, because that’s what will make our work fresh and original and distinct. But our characters, we are warned, need voices of their own, too: also distinctive, also unique. For me, with this book, the two have begun to blur in my mind. My voice and Catherine’s – which is which?

It ought to be easiest to tell us apart when I’m writing dialogue. If Catherine is speaking, using her own words, then that’s her own voice, right? But even then it’s probably 2 or 5 or 10% me. Across characters and across novels, it should still read like my writing, shouldn’t it? Mr Darcy doesn’t talk like Colonel Brandon, nor Emma Wodehouse like Anne Elliot, but in the speech patterns of all four we nevertheless recognise a unique Jane Austen style of dialogue.

Then there’s the narrative – all that undifferentiated other stuff that’s not in inverted commas. That should be in my voice, yes? Or should it? Because if I’m in Catherine’s viewpoint, and seeing events with her eyes, shouldn’t the narrative be partly her as well as partly me?

I think the percentage of each of our voices present in the mix varies across different parts of the narrative.

Sometimes I’m absolutely inside Catherine’s head, and what I am saying about events is more less entirely in Catherine’s own words, just as if it were external dialogue. (Some authors use italics or even tags – ‘she thought’, etc. – at such points, to indicate it’s the character’s own internal musings. But in ‘free indirect style’ which most of us now adopt, we don’t need to bother, right?)

At other times, although I’m telling the story from Catherine’s point of view, I’m more detached from her immediate thoughts, telling them from the outside. Here I use my own narrative voice far more, my own choice of words and patterns of construction more than hers.

Those are just the two extremes, however, and there is a whole muddled spectrum of shades in between, where the me-to-Catherine ratio swings to and fro, often with bits of me and bits of her thrown in cheek by jowl without any tidy separation. Small wonder if she and I suffer an occasional confusion of identities!

How about this little exchange, as an example? Catherine is talking to her ex-husband, Graeme, who has just split up with his second wife, Suzannah.

Catherine laid her hand on top of his, where it still rested on her arm. ‘And how about you? How are you doing?’
Without Suzannah. She genuinely wanted to know, and she knew he knew it.
‘Not too bad. I guess we both saw it coming, but it didn’t make it any easier.’
Is this what remained, eight years after a marriage? A residual loyal watchfulness; a fearfulness for each other’s hurts.

Some snippets of the commentary which frames the conversation are 95% Catherine. ‘Without Suzannah’, for example. Or the two sentences beginning ‘Is this what remained…?’ Those are her reflections, not mine.

But when I say ‘Catherine laid her hand on top of his’, that’s pretty well 100% me. Similarly, ‘She genuinely wanted to know’ – although it’s still from her viewpoint in that I am giving the reader access to her thoughts – is probably 80% me, because those are my words. She wants to know, but she isn’t thinking with her conscious mind, ‘Ooo, I genuinely want to know.’

Whereas that phrase ‘she knew he knew it’ is, I’d say, close to 50:50. On one level it’s me saying to the reader that he knew she knew, but it’s also a characteristically Catherine-like phrase – and actually, because we’re in her viewpoint, I’m also indirectly letting the reader know that Catherine knows that he knows she knows…

Confused yet? I thought so. And if you’re confused about what’s what and who’s who, then you are coming somewhere close to understanding my chronic identity crisis!

Strictly Writing is very pleased to welcome back Rosy Thornton. The paperback of her most recent novel, Crossed Wires, is now available.


Geraldine Ryan said...

Rosy I love the genuine puzzlement of your post and the fact that you don't know - and you know you don't know......

I think we analyse our writing too much instead of just doing it and often by analysing it we risk handcuffing ourselves. Should I do this? Am I allowed to do that? Etc. Etc.

When even someone with a string of published novels behind her is candid enough to admit she sometimes gets confused about that sacred cow "voice" then even the novices among us should give themselves permission to relax and throw themselves into our stories without worrying about what sacred writing rules we're breaking in the process.

Rosy T said...

I think you're right, Geri. It is really interesting and useful, at times, to step back and try to pull apart what we have written - to analyse its constituents elements. It helps us to stay in POV, for example - and to iron out any very obvious authorial intrusions, which might break engagement with the character's thought processes (or at least to identify them and decide if they are the effect we want). And I may perhaps have written this post almost deliberately to confuse... But it is true that when I analyse in this way this I am capable of tying myself thoroughly in knots!

I think writing fiction is both complicated and also at the same time very simple: an intuitive process that defies tidy analysis. What emerges when we write is bound to be a subtle blend of character voice and authorial voice, and sometimes we just have to relax and go with the flow!

Caroline Green said...

Yes, I agree that it helps to know even experienced writers feel this way. But I also can't help thinking this is going to be an interesting character, Rosy! The question is, have you got under skin, or has she got under yours?

Susannah Rickards said...

It is puzzling if you break it down and analyse it, but it's a bit like trying to analyse why a flower works. Why on earth put that brown stamen in beside the red petal - those colours don't harmonise, and shouldn't the stalk be fatter for a bloom this big? And on. Good writing flows in and out of the author's voice and the character's voice like visible and invisible stiches. It's interesting to break down where the infinitesimal viewpoint shifts occur after the event but i think it would be a killer to do so whilst writing. The flux between the two, character and author, is constant. I think it's a sign that a piece is well meshed. It's when you get great clunky chunks of authorial comment followed by character driven scenes utterly unconnected in tone and style that the work needs such close analysis.

Maybe it ain't broke, Rosy. Don't fix it!

Anonymous said...

Rosy, I think you've nailed it, or rather, untwisted the strands of the rope, for a moment, before they coil themselves back together.

For a while now I've been writing in several first-person voices per novel, differentiating them as much as I can. But to me it's as if they're like siblings: they might look quite different on the outside, but their DNA is all mine.

I see aspiring writers, beginning to understand this stuff, tie themselves in terrible knots trying to work out whether any given sentence is theirs or the characters. That's as it should be: they need to understand the tools of their trade. But eventually it does become a matter of intuition (and some writers' intuition works beautifully from the start, and they can't see what all the fret is about), and you just do it.

The novel after the WIP is, I think, going to be a third-person, moving PoV, where free indirect really comes into its own. I'll be interested to observe (nervously) how well my intuition about this works out, since it's so different from TMOL and ASA.

Rosy T said...

Thanks for your comment, Emma.

Of course, first person narrative is a whole different puzzle, isn't it? Because you woud imagine, at first sight, that first person narrative would be 100% the character's voice, and not this mysterious tangle of threads theat writers have to deal with when writing in third person. But of course, running underneath the voice of the character-narrators, the author's voice is still sounding clear: your own syntax and patterns of construction, as well as your ideas and values and preoccupations, are coming through as well.

All a bit flipping complicated, isn't it! No wonder it does my head in sometimes.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Blimey, Rosy, I've just had an insight into your headspace and it's scary!! (and very familiar...) It's a bit like trying to tease out the meaning of a painting by scraping off each colour, each line. Like everyone's said, it can be really useful to do as an analysis, but definitely follow your intuition when you're doing the writing. Your writing obviously speaks very clearly and strongly to readers and whether that's Rosy-speak or Catherine-speak is incidental?
Ooh, my head's hurting now.

Fionnuala said...

Hi Rosy and I'm with Suzy!
And I'm also with you!
And Geri.
Now, who am I again?

Roderic Vincent said...

Fascinating stuff, Rosy. Helpful too: I know there are points when I don't trust the established POV enough and break the spell by reminding the reader of what they already know.

Interesting about 1st person POV too, you still need the - I put my hand on his - bit because the reader can't see what's happening.

Really thought-provoking. Thank you.

RosyB said...

Isn't this what writing is about? All these subtle permutations and this way of seeing a character from the inside and the outside at the same time. I think you need that doubleness for comedy, particularly, which is perhaps why the fashion for extreme emotional engagement with one main character with no undercutting of pov is perhaps not the greatest climate for comedy novels to flourish.

My first line (sorry I don't often quote myself I promise but in this case seemed relevant) is:

"Paula did not really consider herself to be a stalker."

It is a double line because there is her delusion - she is in denial. And then there is the authorial voice winking away at you at the same time implying that - well yes, why would we be saying it (after all it's not a very ordinary accusation) - so what has she been up to? And yet, what about that "really" - who does that belong to? Is that the narrator or the character? Does that hint that even Paula knows really that she's a bit of a sad case really...? Who knows what about whom here? It's a very simple line that tells you one heck of a lot and sets up lots of questions at the same time and has the double viewpoint wrapped up in it.

I have a weird thing in that I feel I have a narratorial voice in my novel that I have set up to be a bit of a bastard. The narratorial voice will tell you a character is terribly boring - before they go off and do crazy things. Or that noone will look twice at someone (who is then looked twice at all the way through the book.) Events keep counteracting what the narratorial voice says. So, who is THAT? Is that me? I think it is. It is me. Sort of. But not totally. Taking the piss. Out of me. It feels quite conventional in comedic terms. But probably not very adherent with "the rules" *Argh. The Rules*! But I don't care.

Gotta go by instinct sometimes.

RosyT said...

It is a great first line, Other Rosy - and I love your explanation of its multiple layers.

Right - I've thought about it all a bit - now back to writing by instinct!

Gillian McDade said...

Thanks Rosy for the excellent insight! Good to know that even experienced writers sometimes struggle!

Fiona Mackenzie. Writer said...

Blimey, you're as confused as me but I think it should all be from the third person point of you. None of it should be you.

Catherine laid her hand on top of his’

Isn't this from Catherine's pov as well?

Catherine may have some of your genes but she's still Catherine not you.

Look, I've gone from writing my book from three characters viewpoints, all in first person point of view to third person so I am in a right muddle.

When you've got the answer to this, please can you let me know so I can finish writing this flipping book?

Brent Robison said...

I've found it very helpful to use the approach I learned in the Writers Studio: make your narrator not "you." Even a 3rd-person omniscient narrator is a persona that you have "hired" for his/her/its particular characteristics, to tell this particular story.

By knowing before you begin just who that narrator is, how s/he speaks, how funny s/he wants to be, what feelings s/he has towards the characters, how far "inside" the main character and others s/he is... then you are really in command of narrative point of view. This doesn't mean the narrator needs to be a character with a name etc., but is rather an anonymous "hired voice."

The interesting thing is that separating your narrator from "you" and focusing on craft allows your emotional truth to slip in the back door without the contrivance of agenda, because in the end, after all, you are still you. And your unique voice will rule.

How to apply this to a work in progress I'm not sure, but I'm a firm believer in its power.