September 5th 2014
Voice – what you say, and how you say it
Part of the problem of writing the other, writing about a culture one has researched rather than the culture you are familiar with from the inside, is that it depends so fundamentally not just on WHAT is said, but on HOW it is said.
So a component of the problem becomes not just approaching it with the requisite respectful attention and the willingness to do enough research to make it stand but making that approach from the correct direction… seeing the world from a proper perspective… and, most importantly, speaking with the right voice.
Stereotypes have always been easy because they are so obvious, and they are so broad. I mean, it’s one of those “everybody knows” issues and the lazy writer who won’t delve deeper has the cardboard cutout ready and waiting to be slotted into the correct place in the plot. But although “real” characters (we’re talking about fiction… but you know what I mean…) may well start with a “stereotype” scaffolding, in the sense that the story plot requires a certain KIND of character, their reality stems from the simple fact that they do not stay simple stereotypes. Those characters which succeed use just enough bedrock to build on – becoming archetypes, rather than cookie cutter stereotypes – and then grow from that, becoming their own thing.
You cannot write about a character as a type, it’s just too broad. Your character will have their own voice, or else there can be no truth to the story.
For instance, if you’re white and writing about a black character – it isn’t enough to have “black character” in the back of your head and be done with it. There is no such as thing as a monolithic “black character”. Does this particular black character come from deep in a Louisiana bayou, from inner-city Chicago, from rural Nigeria, or from Soweto in South Africa? Does your black character speak with the accent of someone who comes from an ex-Anglophone or an ex-Francophone colony in Africa, or with a cockney overlay acquired from being a second-generation Londoner? Any one of those individuals will be differently shaped by their history, their context, their culture, their language, their religion, and their attitudes – and all of these things will influence the way in which your character will communicate with the rest of their world. No matter if only another individual from the same environmental context will know if you got it perfectly right or not. There are many other individuals who will know instantly if you got it perfectly WRONG. The reason for that is that you have to have at least a modicum of insight in order to be sincere – and you have to be very very good at understanding, and extrapolating from understanding, if you want to fake sincerity. The voice you choose has to ring true, and it must sound like the kind of voice that would come from an individual of a size, shape, color, and personal history whose existence, independent of the page on which that character was created, you are attempting to convince your reader of.
I’ve recently had occasion to reflect on voice because of a set of circumstances which has sent me into an area with which I am not familiar as a reader. Because I began watching, and became an avid follower of, the TV series “Longmire”, one of my husband’s Christmas presents last year was a collection of paperbacks of the original novels on which the series was based. He steadily read his way through them… and then, because I loved the characters and the issues of that show, despite the fact that I don’t really read either Westerns or mysteries, I picked them up myself.
The Voice. Was. Perfect.
I was sucked in and held in. Walt Longmire spoke in a readily identifiable and unique way – but there was also the deep grounding that the novels (and the series) gave him with the addition of his friend Henry Standing Bear, Cheyenne Indian, who also speaks with his own distinctive voice. I loved the way that the Cheyenne lore and context was woven into the fabric of these stories. This wasn’t just used “as backdrop”, this wasn’t just painted plywood settings, there was something… real… here. And despite the fact that my personal knowledge of, or connection with, things Native American is thin – somehow I got something out of these stories that sounded – what was that word I used before? – sincere. Real. True. I could believe in this.
Hubby, the long-time mystery fan, then suggested that if I liked these books I might also enjoy Tony Hillerman’s novels – winners of many accolades, including nods from the Navajo tribe who seem to have given him their full approval. So I picked up a novel of Hillerman’s, and I tried. I really tried. But dear GOD, I bounced off it harder than if I had tried to leap into a mountain lake without realizing it was frozen solid. I slid off solid ice. Or solid painted plywood. Something.
I don’t know that it lies within the scope of an essay like this to go into a detailed analysis, but I can lay my different reaction, I think, to VOICE. Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire novels had a warmth and honesty and sincerity which immediately made me accept the background and the world and the worldbuilding, and believe in the characters, and (despite this not being remotely my genre of choice) go with the flow of it. Honestly? There are a few more books in the series. They’re on this year’s Christmas list. And although they’re my husband’s presents-to-be, frankly, I can’t wait until he’s done so that I can grab them myself. The Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee Hillerman stuff…? I don’t know. I really don’t. Hubby now says I might have gotten a dud book, and okay, everyone’s allowed one – so for the love of my husband and because I usually trust his judgment I’ll maybe try another. But I am not holding out any great hopes. I find the writing didactic, choppy, full of repetition and infodumpery, and victim to a HUGE degree of what I consider to be a novice mistake, the “I’ve done my freaking research and you will all damn well know it” syndrome, where, for instance, during a tense sequence of tracking a mysterious character down the Grand Canyon Hillerman somehow manages to work in (through a character’s memory of a geology lecture at college) the ENTIRE LIST OF GEOGOLGICAL STRATA in the canyon. Like I really wanted to know, at this point what any particular layer or kind of stone is called. The voice stalls out for me, completely, I’m out of the story and out of the book and annoyed silly.
I can readily and fully and completely believe in Henry Standing Bear. I find it really hard to do that with characters like Jim Chee and Bernie Mendoza. Sorry, Mr Hillerman. You failed the Voice Test.
It may be that something like this could be a question of viewpoint. After all, apparently the Navajo themselves quite like the way they were portrayed in these books. But from the outside, looking in, I can’t see the entry point, I cannot feel the empathy, I cannot take a step into that world because I simply don’t feel as though I have been invited – and perhaps this is at the root of a “cultural appropriation” kind of reaction. The sense of wrongness. I don’t hear the truth in this voice, and therefore I cannot accept the fiction.
Moral of story – or stories – is that unless you can do the very difficult thing of getting into two very different heads – your character’s head, as a POV character who owns the worldview you are trying to create, and the reader’s head, as the person whom you must convince that YOUR interpretation of that POV and that worldview is genuine – writing the other can be a tough row to hoe indeed. In some ways it is far easier to write gnomes and elves and Martians and Q from the Continuum – because there ARE no parameters, there are no points of comparison, there is no context against which to judge the verismilitude of what you are trying to convey. It’s YOUR word, and yours alone, that the reader has to accept or dismiss. But when you’re using any ingredients from our own world in your particular dough… the bread won’t rise unless you get the right yeast in there. The identity of that yeast can be pinned on any number of things. But perhaps one of the most important of all – and not often discussed, at that – is the ability of a writer who is writing a character very different to the writer’s own… to somehow speak in that character’s voice, and be believed.
The challenge to the writers amongst us then is partly this: can you understand what it means to walk a mile in someone else’s moccassins, and can you then describe the experience so that it sounds as though you tried?
Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.
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