Thursday, May 21, 2009

Voice thoughts-- world view

Voice, anyone?

I think writers are getting really self-conscious about "creating a voice," and maybe that's counterproductive. Not that whatever spews out is voice-- but I think you FIND and then REFINE your voice, you don't create it whole cloth.

Actually, I think voice starts not with sentences-- it ENDS with sentences-- but rather with world view.

Oh, first, this is something that might be different from author to author-- or from work to work. That is, is your voice consistent throughout your oeuvre, developing, maybe, but never transforming into something else? Or is it a work-oriented process, where you have a different voice in every book (perhaps because your voice is actually the characters' voices? Which would each of you say your voice is?

I would suspect, with my evidence only being my reading, that comedy writers have fairly consistent voices. That is, Carl Hiassen "sounds" similar from book to book, no matter who the major character is, because his voice is what makes him funny. (I remember asking Eileen Dreyer to do a workshop on "How to Write Funny," and she replied, "Look. Either you're funny or you're not. You can't fake it.")

But writers who do deep POV (and that is usually in books where one or two characters dominate, and their journey drives the story) might have radically different voice from one book to another, because they're actually writing in "character voice".

What do you all think?

But anyway, one aspect of voice I think is paramount and primary is "world view". What is that? It's how you (or the character, or both) view the world. That is, if you have sort of a paranoid world view, and I don't mean that pejoratively, because it's actually a great world view for horror and dystopic and cyberpunk, then your voice is going to reflect that. If you're funny, it'll probably be in a dark-comedy way. You are unlikely to have sentimental scenes (unless you're setting up for something really gross or disastrous). Your tone will invite the reader to feel a sense of dread.

But if you (or character in voice) have a sunnier world view, then you'll likely choose a sunnier genre or subgenre. If you write about vampires, they're probably funny vampires who chat about how cow's blood makes them flatulent.

This will affect everything else-- what events you choose, how you end the story, how painful the internal conflict is, how you develop scenes, and oh, yes, what words you choose in your sentences, and in what order you put sentences in a paragraph (do you end on an upbeat or a downbeat?).

I think this is the FIRST voice choice, and everything derives from this. This is why I get annoyed when writers act as if voice is all about their diction (word choice) or their syntax (sentence order). Those come last. And in fact, those should come naturally because of the choices you made even before you created a sentence. In fact, world view might not be a choice at all. You are probably born an optimist or a pessimist, and I don't know if you can change that, and it's likely to affect your world view as a writer.

I guess what I'm saying is, your voice task on the sentence level should be going through and finding the sentences and words which are not within your voice (or the voice of the book or scene) and fixing them, refining them to be within the voice you've already established. If you're self-consciously crafting "voice" into your sentences, I have to wonder how organic your writing is. That is, if your world view (in life, or just for this book, or just as a writer-- yeah, I do think a person who lives sunnily can write darkly, sure... but she's adopting the world view as she writes-- she doesn't just choose "dark words," does she? Not if she knows who she is as a writer and what this book is) -- where was I? Oh. If your world view is this and not that, the story and the scene design and the paragraphing and the sentences should reflect that world view-- the tone or the mood created in the reader should be constructed by all of that, not just word choice.

(Let me point something out. I was going to revise that last paragraph because I have been teaching my students how not to fragment and comma-splice sentences, and I really ought to set a better example. I mean, just attaching a bunch of clauses together with dashes does NOT a coherent sentence make. But then I thought, heck, what a good example of syntax reflecting world view? See, I tend to think, "It's all connected." I mean, if I weren't a skeptic, I'd be a conspiracy theorist, because within me there's a suspicion that Oliver North is connected to the assassination of JFK. Sure, maybe he was only 19 at the time, but really, in the 80s, he was connected with just about everything, and who knows? Anyway, my dark fantasies about Ollie North aside, I do think it's all connected, and that is reflected in my choice of university -- Chicago, where everything is cross-curricular-- and also my favorite punctuation mark, yes, the dash, and it'd probably also be the ellipsis if I wasn't so scared of Theresa's scorn. Anyway, point is, my stringing all that together in the paragraph above reflects my "connected" world view.)

(And no, I'm not sure what my penchant for parentheses reflects. Skepticism, somehow? Or maybe the suspicion that you always have to delve deeper?)

So what is a world view? Well, you know as well as I do. But here are some -- I think it's kind of about the assumptions you start with about life. (And the world view can actually be the major POV character's-- as I said, you can vary your voice by story or even by scene.)

Pessimist or optimist?
(Related to that) Do you think humans are innately good or not?
What matters more, justice or mercy?

Would you say principle matters more than pragmatics, or vice versa?

Democracy or benign dictatorship?

Are you more likely to laugh or cry?

Dogs or cats? Or no pets at all?

Is betrayal likely in this world?

Do you believe in miracles?

What about love at first sight?

Beauty or goodness, or are they the same?

"Live fast, die young, leave a handsome corpse," or "You can never be too careful?"

Destiny? Is there destiny, or do you think mostly we make our own way? (This is very important in romance-- I find that I tend not to believe in stories where people are "fated" to be together, as in Twilight... I like it when they have to work for it. That's world view!)

What genre-- horror or romance? Mystery or sf? Or????

Is the universe getting better or worse?

Community or individual-- what is paramount?

Urban or rural?

Active or reflective?

Expressive or private?

Bright colors or subdued?

Modern or traditional?

Fast or slow?

Poetry or prose, or both?

How empathic are you? Can you feel what others are feeling?

Do you believe in intuition?

Do you believe in God? (I ask this because I notice that some writers I know to be atheists or agnostics are fascinated by religion, but the way they deal with "absolutes" reflects their own complex feelings... cf. Joss Whedon's notion of "soul" in Buffy the Vampire Slayer... the incoherence of the treatment of soul, I think, reflects his agnosticism, his skepticism and yet reverence for the concept of faith -- and in fact, the incoherence makes the story deeper and more ambiguous.)

Should things make sense? Is incoherence annoying or deep?

Respect or love? (If you think you can have both, you are in a different world view than someone who thinks you can only have one.)

Are there answers, or only questions? Which is more important to explore?

I know these sound like I'm asking you about your intimate internal life, but in fact, who you are of course affects your world view, and your world view affects every aspect of your expression. (Again, some of us do subsume ourselves so utterly in a character, that the character's world view takes over, though our malleability is probably a result of our world view). And your expression, of course, comes out in your story, in your choice of genre, in your plot development, in your writing process. And eventually it will affect your sentences and word choice. For example, if your world view is skeptical, you will probably undercut your words a lot, maybe by having the POV character say something, and then immediately think something contradictory, or mentally "translate" it to what the truth is. Or if your world view exalts nature, you're probably going to have more description and use more vivid words, and maybe use natural phenomenon as a metaphor for emotion.

Thank you, Wikipedia: A worldview describes a consistent (to a varying degree) and integral sense of existence and provides a framework for generating, sustaining, and applying knowledge.

Okay, so it's about existence and knowledge. And expression therein.

But this is where you start, whence everything about the way you write derives.

For example, I think my world view is skeptical and yet optimistic. Everything I write, I think, reflects my world view that humans are innately good and yet can and should get better, and I can help. :)

So anyway, would you say that your world view is your own, more or less unchanging, reflecting very much who you are... or does your fiction-writing world view (as opposed to your personal world view) far more reflect the characters or book you're working with?




Unknown said...

Great post - and I very much agree that writers do (or should) develop a clear voice. As you mentioned, it may vary from project to project, but within the project it should be consistent.

I don't feel that people are born optomists or pessimists, mostly because most people vary wildly from day to day and week to week, certainly from year to year. People have moments where they explode with energy and moments when they are exhausted. Myself, I always work on multiple projects at once (with one main focus) so that when I'm feeling down, I can work on one of my projects where that negativity can be harnessed. When I'm on a rare jubilantly overly-optomistic rush, I tend to simply write short stories - mostly because I couldn't possibly maintain that level of enthusiasm through an entire novel.

Thanks for the excellent post - it was a great read.

QW said...

Great post on world view!
I loved the list of questions. Not only helpful for understanding my own world view, but also for finding out about my character's world views.

B.E. Sanderson said...

AHA! I've had people tell me they like my voice, but I've never really understood what my voice was. Your post makes perfect sense. It also sheds a little light on those sentences/paragraphs/scenes that sometimes just feel off. Brilliant. Thank you.

Edittorrent said...

You're right-- if you have a voice, and know it, you can tell when a line or a word is "off", like it's too childish or too ornate.

em said...

I struggle with this a lot. Your questions are great. I'm still trying to figure out what lacking depth in your voice means:(. Reading your post I think it gives me a better idea. Maybe I haven't given my character's the fullness of a world view? I am going to think about that.

Anonymous said...

I loved this post. Voice starts with world view or, as I would put it, with attitude. How do you view people, as competitors, strange animals, as individuals, or as members of a herd? Do you look down on them, or eye to eye? What's life to you? An eternal fight? A walk in a foggy night? A gamble?

These questions may shape the general outline of a story and the author's voice. But they are adjustable to different characters, so you can "shape" different character voices. It's what I work with most.

I haven't tried to develop a distinct author's voice, but I suspect it comes through in a very abstract manner. It's got to do more with the author's thought process. Do you go from the general to the specific? Do you start on an off-tangent and lead gently to your central point? Do you go in with a bang and then hammer your point down? Or are you an on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand kind of person?

I guess these characteristics show in the organization of your work even if you are able to create different voices for your characters.

Todd Newton said...

IMO, it's like trying to change the way you walk or the accent you talk with. Your writing voice should just come out naturally and not be something you have to distill or refine... then again, this is all assumption! We all just expect our first drafts to be teh awesome because we don't see all the revisions our favorite authors went through. I just think if you filter out what makes a piece yours, or try to make it sound like something else, you'd have been better off playing tennis instead of writing.

PatriciaW said...

Best post I've ever seen on voice. Totally agree. Worldview is your personal lens, your filter out of which everything, including your writing, comes.

Three people can tell the story of Cinderella three different ways, emphasizing different aspects or putting unique spin on others because they have different worldviews.

I think this is why it's difficult for writers to write like someone else (even though I know that was a very accepted way of learning to write in the past). Because one can copy the sentences and construct, but it's difficult to copy someone else's voice while at the same time excluding one's own.

Riley Murphy said...

Wow, what a great post!

For me, I think that my fiction-writing world view, reflects in the characters and their stories, far more than my own world view does. Personally, I think that it’s easier to characterize a different world view, maybe because you blatantly see and accept, the weakness and strengths in a particular personality that is not your own and therefore you are freer to explore aspects of that individual, both good and bad, that would work better to make your story richer. I believe it’s the voice that ties all these differing views together that is the constant and remains recognizable throughout the author’s varying projects.

This one’s a keeper, Alicia!

Wes said...

Dang! What a great post.

"So anyway, would you say that your world view is your own, more or less unchanging, reflecting very much who you are... or does your fiction-writing world view (as opposed to your personal world view) far more reflect the characters or book you're working with?"

Being ever articulate, I would say it's the chicken-and-the-egg thing. One's world view affects one's genre, subjects, characters, etc., and these things heavily influence what and how passages are written, and we are back to the writer's world view.

Unknown said...

Brilliant read:).

Edittorrent said...

Em, you know, I think if someone says that your voice lacks depth, it might be because it's a transparent utilitarian sort of voice, conveying the action of the story. I think that's right for a lot of types of books, particularly action-oriented books like DaVinci Code. In books like that, you don't want the voice to get in the way of the action.

But if you want to deepen your voice, well, I think depth has a lot to do with contradiction. For example, if there's a description of a pleasant sunny day, and in fact, the character is dreading a meeting with someone dangerous or difficult, or has just been fired or dumped, the contradiction between the setting and the interior emotion adds depth.

Depth also probably comes when the writer or the character (whoever is "in voice") doesn't trust what's being experienced. Imagine the difference in how you narrate a character's trip home to ostensibly loving parents, when the reality is, those parents abused her as a child, or she's just realized that the parents are only together for financial reasons and really hate each other.

Let the voice reflect that complexity-- for example, the mother might now have not a "sweet, welcoming manner," but "a sugary manner."

Try it-- just fix in your head some complex emotion or situation before you start writing the scene, and see what happens.

Edittorrent said...

"How do you view people, as competitors, strange animals, as individuals, or as members of a herd? Do you look down on them, or eye to eye? What's life to you? An eternal fight? A walk in a foggy night? A gamble?"

Anon, that's a great thought. Someone who views others as enemies will "sound" very different than someone who never met a stranger.

Murph, I can see that-- it's sort of easier to find the contradictions and complexities in someone else's world view! :)


Julie Harrington said...

This was such a great read. I really enjoyed it. It raises a ton of great questions and I think, for me, my writing reflects my world view but I am excessively philosphical by nature. People hate me because, while I can take a very rigid stance on some things, I can always -- and often do -- argue the other perspective. I can always see the "why" of both sides and I can find valid points in almost all of them. The very fact that I can argue for something and (when called on it) turn around and say "I didn't say *I* believed that, but 'what if'" drives them crazy.

I love to explore themes in stories. Right vs. Wrong, Good vs. Evil, Justice vs. Revenge. Love vs. Hate, the concept of "family" etc etc and so my stories often revolve around those themes and my cast of characters take varying stances within them to offer up a wealth of view points of them. Some of those views I share, some I don't (but I can see the logic) and some I totally don't buy but others do.

I always say I'm a pessimist with a soft, squishy optimistic center. That crunch outer shell of "expect the worst" protects my "hope for the best" insides from getting bruises when humanity fails to live up to my loft expectations. Nothing bruises the soul quite like seeing the evil that men do... and excuse.

I've written several things over the years and been accused of being everything from a 50 year old man to a girl with one heck of an evil mother (my mom is a saint, by the way) and everything in between. LOL. But a lot of people have told me they can read something I've written (without any identifying name on it at all) and instantly know it's me because, as they tell me, "It sounds like you."


em said...

Thanks Alicia:). I'm going to give it a try. Your comment has given me something to work on. No one every explains lack of depth in voice as opposed to storyline - it can be very confusing. So in my next scene I am going to do as you suggested and see where it leads:).
Thanks a million!

Edittorrent said...

JT, your lack of certainty that there is one answer definitely will affect your voice! I suspect there is more ambiguity in your endings, for example. You might have a happy ending, but also not have every plot thread wrapped up, or have something bittersweet, like the heroine has to sacrifice for good. (Sort of a Casablanca ending.)

You know, I just realized that is a perfect voice for a series or a trilogy-- where the earlier books CAN'T wrap everything up and have an absolute ending.

Kathleen MacIver said...

I think you hit the nail on the head. An author's world view always is reflected in his/her writing...and believe it or not, this is actually more important than genre or writing style in determining whether or not I will enjoy a book. If too many things just don't "click" with what "makes sense" to me, then I'll put the book down...and it's probably just because my world view is too different from that author's!

Julie Harrington said...

You know, I just realized that is a perfect voice for a series or a trilogy-- where the earlier books CAN'T wrap everything up and have an absolute ending.
It's funny you mention that because I've been planning out two different series (ack!) of 4 books apiece and I really like how they fit together, how each one can stand alone yet different bits of it carry over into each following book(s) because the continuation of those earlier stories sends ripples through the next and vice versa.