Writing a character’s voice or a narrator’s voice

posted in: Writing Advice | 0

character voiceThis week, I re-read Jesus’ Son, the inimitable short story collection from Denis Johnson. In story after story, Johnson inhabits a character nicknamed Fuck Head, telling stories of a day’s work stripping copper, an abortion, a car crash, an overdose, a drug-addled shift at the local hospital, the months of peeping in on an Amish couple while waiting for the bus home from a nursing home.

They’re strange, wonderfully complex and emotionally taut stories that leave you questioning the life that Johnson leads – how else to explain how fully he inhabits this character?

Also this week, I read “How Fiction Works” by the New Yorker book critic James Wood. The two books were an excellent compliment to one another, Johnson deftly illustrating what Wood spends time dissecting: narrative voice versus character voice, which Wood refers to as direct versus free indirect style.

This is an aha kind of concept, the notion of how much judgment the narrator brings, how much she tells the reader what to think or feel about what’s happening on the page by the way she frames it, versus the distance she builds or erases by taking us in or away from the internal workings of a character’s thoughts and feelings.

Some people might also describe it as telling versus showing.

Wood uses a simple example and I’ll use one too.

a) She glanced at her husband, saw the remote balanced on his belly, his jaw slack. He was spellbound by the players moving swiftly around the ice. “He looks like his father,” she thought. “How did I ever love this man?” She wondered if things could be fixed.

b) She glanced at her husband, saw the remote balanced on his belly, his jaw slack. He was spellbound by the players moving swiftly around the ice. He looks like his father, she thought. How did I ever love this man? She wondered if things could be fixed.

c) She looked at her husband, saw he’d transformed into her dull, heavy father-in-law instead. Had she actually loved him?

In the first two, I’m telling you what to notice, or at least what I notice. The remote, the belly, the dullness in his posture. Putting quotes around her thoughts puts us at a distance from them. I’m merely a scribe. Without them, it seems we’re just there, in her head, hearing her thoughts.

By the last example, I’ve abandoned the distance of the writer and am fully inside the woman’s mind, using her language to describe what she sees. It’s punchier. It’s far closer to her than the other two, because it’s meant to be her, not the author looking at her or writing about her.

(Photo courtesy of Pixabay)

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