As I delve into a section of my novel that is told by a character other than my protagonist, I am beginning to question the narrative voice that is being used. I’ve spent a lot of my time writing subconsciously trying to find my own ‘voice’, attempting to discover what it is that makes my writing, my writing. But, now I’m editing a story as told in the first person, by a character, and I’m struggling to separate it from my own voice and identify what it is that makes James’ voice unique.
I’m reading through paragraphs thinking, ‘Is this what James sounds like? Would he use this language? Is he speaking with the same rhythm as everyone else in the book?’ It’s exhausting to think that there is not enough distinction in his voice and that, really, I might be using him as a mouthpiece for my own voice.
Of course, that is what characters are, in essence – a mouthpiece for the stories we want to tell – created expressly to connect us to the story and link us to that emotive aspect that comes with all experiences. Still, is James’ telling his story his way, or mine?
I am confused. I understand the need to allow each character their own individuality, but having spent so long developing my own writing voice I’m beginning to feel that I now have to abandon it in order to be true to my character. Yet, this doesn’t quite make sense.
Research: I need to pay more attention when I’m reading other material and see how existing authors tackle this. With my current read, The Secret Keeper, there are two main narratives – that of Laurel, in the present and her mother, Dolly, in the past. How does Kate Morton keep these two character voices separate? Does she?
If I open up the book and read a paragraph, right now, can I tell who is narrating, outside of the content of the story?
I’m not sure I can. It’s always the context that defines whose story it being told, whereas the voice itself, the flow of the sentences, the description, the break between narrative and dialogue – this is all Kate Morton, telling the story through her characters.
So perhaps voice is the wrong descriptive analogy for the narration that my characters provide. What I need to ensure is that the language is theirs. That James, as a mechanic, doesn’t use vocabulary that he wouldn’t be familiar with, that he stays true to his roots and his words are simple, straight-forward descriptions of what happened, rather than beautifully created prose that would not be his style (but perhaps better suited to Penelope, later on).
I think, also, that I need to spend more time writing as James: really understand why he chooses the words that he does and tells the story the way he does. Why does he focus on certain details, but skip over others? What is important to him, as the story-teller, as oppose to me the author – trying to shape this event in his life to fit with the novel’s arc?
Authors and characters may never have the same motivations. Sure, there is a story to be told and both author and character might want that to be out in the world – but, on a deeper level, the author is manipulating their character into sharing their story for an audience, rather than a nostalgic, cathartic experience. In the end it is the character’s story to tell and the author’s job to record that, rather than the other way around.
So, yes, in a first person piece the character’s voice should stand out – but perhaps more though language and vocabulary than overall tone of voice. In the end it’s still the author writing it and we should know enough about our characters to understand if they will overuse contractions and adverbs or say ‘ginnel‘ instead of ‘alleyway‘ or ‘stupendous‘ in place of ‘bloody great‘. It can be difficult to concentrate on these differences when you’re writing, but in the editing process it would be wise to comprehend the differences between how the characters speak and what their background provides them access to in terms of language.
It’s a long process, and not an easy one. But I’m learning – mostly through reflecting on my experience as I write these blog posts. I think now I’m better equipped than I was half an hour ago to return to my novel and highlight what it is that makes James’ narrative his, as oppose to ‘mine’. Let’s hope I can apply my considerations to the text at hand and refine my writing as I go.