Friday, April 30, 2010


My favorite aspect of writing is creating voice.  I like for each of my characters to have a distinctive way of thinking and speaking.
Creating children’s and teenagers’ voices is especially challenging because their vocabularies are necessarily limited.  Little kids don’t know a lot of words; teenagers often speak inartfully (“Like, um, yeah.”) and profanely.  (There are only so many times you can use “bitch” and “asshole” in a young-adult novel.)  Somehow, you have to give the impression of child-speak or teen-speak without relying too heavily on the words children and teens actually use when they are sitting at your dining room table telling you why peas are disgusting and why, by the way, you should buy better snacks and you don’t know anything.

Another part of this is conveying character through voice.  The way a character speaks is the best way for a writer to tell readers something about her.  Is anybody watching this season’s “The Amazing Race”?  You know those two brothers, Jet and Cord?   Their preferred exclamation is, “Good gravy!”  What does this tell us?  That they are polite (at least on camera), that they are unafraid—proud, even—of being different, that they keep their cool under intense pressure.  All this from just two words.  (I should say that while Jet and Cord seem like lovely young men, they would be terrible characters in a book.  I have no idea which one is which.  Real people can be similar to each other, but characters have to be distinct and well differentiated.)

My favorite writers use voice to good effect.  Mona Simpson (ANYWHERE BUT HERE) comes to mind.  Also Philip Roth and Jennifer Egan.  Nicholson Baker’s THE EVERLASTING STORY OF NORY is an adult book about a nine-year-old girl, written in the third person.  Baker gets nine-year-old girls so well that he actually disappears. You forget the book is written by a middle-age man.
It’s not just that Baker gets nine-year-old girls.  He gets this particular nine-year-old girl.  Nory is kind to a classmate who is bullied, she worries about aphids that are eaten by ladybugs, she is suspicious of kids who “tell stories a certain way.”  She is at once like all other nine-year-olds and different from all other nine-year-olds: her very own particular self.  It is an achievement.  (I recommend the book if you love language and character, not so much if you are a fan of plots.  Not much happens.)

I am working on a book right now that takes place in Missouri.  People in Missouri speak differently from people in California.  I want to get it just right without beating readers over the head with it.  Not easy, but that’s the fun part of being a writer.  (The not-fun part is sitting in front of the computer for two days trying to figure out whether Danny should like Cap’n Crunch or Fruit Loops.)

It doesn’t sound like much, but if you like reading about believable, authentic characters who, somewhere along the line, turn into believable, authentic people, it’s a big deal.

Like, um, yeah.

1 comment:

  1. Insightful as always, Gina. We're watching Amazing Race and I agree that Jet and Cord are wonderful but pretty much interchangeable. Do you have good Missouri contacts for research? I have a good friend that lives out in the country (near Rutledge) if that would be of use.