Thoughts on Characterization and Voice in Novel Writing
I started writing novels in 1993, and I was much better in the 1990s than I am now. But I am relearning some of the craft that I lost in my ten year writer’s block (1998 to 2009). Compare these openings to my novel Silver Skies:
RABBI DOR BEN HABAKKUK followed the rules of his religion, denied himself the woman of his dreams, and married a woman named Rachel. Now, after years of silence, Dor couldn’t believe his eyes. . .
At the edge of a cliff, the woman of his dreams gazed. Her soft hair radiated from sunlight that streamed through Douglas Firs. Leaves whispered. . .rustled. . .six years. . .and thoughts of her still obsessed him. He hadn’t married her and felt an emptiness his present marriage couldn’t fill. Perhaps marriage never could fill these deepest longings, maybe he expected too much of it. Ash grey pebbles crunched as he walked and wandered deeper into the watershed, if only loneliness would disappear.
She bounced her head about as if she searched for the direction of the voice.
Fallen tree trunks scattered about, and mirrored his life, like his past, that haunted him. “Have you forgotten me, Brianna?”
“Forget you? How could I ever forget you?”
Dor looked down at the ground. “You know. . .I’m married and have a daughter.”
“So why do you tell me this?”
His mind became fuzzy like the ferns on the fallen trunks. “I can’t tell you how often I’ve thought of you.”
A woman at the edge of a cliff gazed. Her soft hair radiated from sunlight streaming through Douglas Firs. There was the faintest rustling of leaves. Six years. . .and thoughts of her still obsessed him. He hadn’t married her and felt an emptiness which his present marriage couldn’t fill. Perhaps marriage never could fill these deepest longings, maybe he expected too much of it. Ash grey pebbles crunched as he walked and wandered deeper into the watershed, if only loneliness would disappear.
She bounced her head about as if searching for the direction of the voice.
“I’m here,” he said.
Fallen tree trunks were scattered about; the past haunted him. “I thought you’d forgotten me.”
“Forget you? How could I?”
Dor looked down at the ground. “I’m married and have a daughter.”
“Are you happy?”
His mind became fuzzy like the ferns on the fallen trunks. “I missed you.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Only thoughts of you have encouraged me.”
ANALYSIS: The first version I wrote around 2009. I dislike it. The second version that I wrote in 1994 was superior. First off, my God’s eye point of view in the first version is not working, because it distances the reader from what is happening in the point of view character’s soul (Dor). The second version reads like it is the EXACT THOUGHTS of the POV character Dor, who tends to be philosophical and introspective as a character. The wording of the sentences, they way they flow in the second version seems like a natural outgrowth of the character’s thoughts. The 2nd version is more believable and seems more authentic and real. What I wrote in the 1990s is the character’s stream of consciousness, which is a fancy writer’s term for the character lost in their thoughts. It’s very effective, it makes you want to lose yourself into the story. I recall when I wrote the first version, I was trying to write in 3rd person limited POV. I actually veered into omniscient a bit, but it worked because WHEN I DID, I maintained the voice of the POV character, and I kept the voice for each character unique. By trying to have a consistent POV in 2009, I ruined the book, because the voices for all the characters started blending in. You couldn’t differentiate between them. Omniscient POV works better for an event story, which is a story about a disorder that needs correction, but even then, maintaining each character’s voice as strong is essential to keep up reader interest. If your characters seem fake, you lose your reader. Because Silver Skies is a character story (about a character searching for his role in life), it is very important that each character’s voice be strong and unique.
Now let’s study some passages from my favorite books:
Here is a passage from Leon Uris’s Exodus:
The airplane plip-plopped down the runway to a halt before the big sign: WELCOME TO CYPRUS. Mark Parker looked out of the window and in the distance he could see the jagged wonder of the Peak of Five Fingers of the northern coastal range. In an hour or so he would be driving though the pass to Kyrenia. He stepped into the aisle, straightened out his necktie, rolled down his sleeves, and slipped into his jacked, “Welcome to Cyprus, welcome to Cyprus. . .” It ran through his head. It was from Othello, he thought, but the full quotation slipped his mind.
“Anything to declare?” the customs inspector said.
“Two pounds of uncut heroin and a manual of pornographic art,” Mark, answered, looking about for Kitty.
All Americans are comedians, the inspector thought, as he passed Parker through. A government tourist hostess approached him. “Are you Mr. Mark Parker?”
ANALYSIS: Excellent! Each character is clearly defined and seem to jump out at you from the page. You can already tell what kind of story this is. It is going to be an event story about a disorder, and the characters are really going to stand out. You can already tell that this writer plans to use the characters as symbols for various disorders in the story, which will highlight the main disorder. This event story is brilliantly set up. You feel like you already know the characters, the author brings out little details that brilliantly characterize the characters as he introduces them to you and his use of language is how the characters think and approach life. The author uses a show, don’t tell method, using the omniscient POV mainly to jump from one character’s head to another, but is careful to make each character separate from each other. As a general rule, the author should only “tell” in an event or milieu (see Orson Scott Card’s Characters & Viewpoint) story and only to eliminate confusion, and when he does “tell” should make it seem as if the character’s head is in the scene.
Check out this opening from Wuthering Heights:
1801- I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbor that I shall be troubled with. This is certainly a beautiful country! In all England, I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society. A perfect misanthropist’s heaven: and Mr. Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us. A capital fellow! He little imagined how my heart warmed towards him when I beheld his black eyes withdraw so suspiciously under their brows, as I rode up, and when his fingers sheltered themselves, with a jealous resolution, still further in his waistcoat, as I announced my name.
ANALYSIS: Brilliant! It is so easy to visualize the characters. The thoughts of the POV character seem like the thoughts of a REAL person. You can see yourself galloping on the countryside with him through the 18th century countryside and then even in the first paragraph Heathcliff STANDS OUT, with telling details, his black eyes withdraw suspiciously, his fingers shelter themselves. And the wording captures the VOICE of the novel, words like misanthropist, desolation. With such a strong voice, strong characterization, we have a MASTERPIECE.
Check out this opening from The Thornbirds:
On December 8, 1915, Meggie Cleary had her fourth birthday. After the breakfast dishes were put away her mother silently thrust a brown paper parcel into her arms and ordered her outside. So Meggie squatted down behind the gorse bush next to the front gate and tugged impatiently. Her fingers were clumsy, the wrapping heavy; it smelled faintly of the Wahine general store, which told that that whatever lay inside the parcel had miraculously been bought, not homemade or donated.
ANALYSIS: Brilliant! Already we are getting the sense that this is an event story about a disorder that needs correction. Though it’s written in omniscient God’s eye POV, each character is carefully delineated, so that they seem to jump from the page, and we get hints what the disorder is, because Meggie is described with telling details that show she is neglected and deprived. So as the reader, we want to know why? Even the way she thinks indicates this. Brilliant use of telling details that reveal to the reader what kind of story this is, who the character is and how she thinks and approaches life, which is so important for this event story about characters who go through life as an unnecessary sacrifice for something not worth the sacrifice. IF THERE ARE NO TELLING DETAILS IN THE OPENING, THAT USUALLY INDICATES THAT THE WRITER HAS NOT NAILED HER CHARACTERS YET OR DOES NOT HAVE THE SKILL TO SHOW THEM EFFECTIVELY ON THE PAGE. When an author fails in the use of telling details that reveal character and theme, the characters seem to blend into each other and the book is a bore, especially to people like me who enjoys books with strong characters and themes.
ANY WAYS, BACK TO WORK ON MY WRITING. I plan to write Silver Skies 1996 version, truer to the 1996 version, where I really understood my characters.