Sunday, January 24, 2010

Well, you know, sort of

Seth said...

I prefer to write for characters, rather than to write for rules. If a certain character is our POV character, then I would use a sharper version of that character's voice as my narrative style. If they would end a sentence in a preposition, it usually reads better to just let them.

If you have a more pulled back narrative, of course, that's a different style. But I think character voice is far more important than author voice.

This is such a good point, and let's talk about it. (This is, btw, why I say that deep POV isn't for everyone or every book-- you really have to cede a certain amount of "voice" to the POV character, and you might not want to do that.) Let's say your POV character (first- or third-person) is not the most incisive narrator. Let's say he/she is really pedantic, or sort of vague and spacey, and the narrative voice reflects that.

Can we have some examples? Here's mine:

She just didn't know, okay? She kind of thought that she was sort of someone he cared about. But not like you could tell it from the way he said things. He probably said the same things to other girls, you know? So, anyway, she was maybe taking a chance trusting him with what she had to trust him with. But life was risk, right?

Okay, maybe I channeled a few of my freshman students there. :)

Let's have some other examples! This is for, um, un-sharp or un-pleasant or "bad" voices. Give us a quick (first try) example, and then write about what you'd change if you were revising-- NOT to revise into a more author-voice, but to make this person a better -narrator- (not just character). Help?

Now what I mean is-- We already have dialogue to show how a character sounds, to reveal this character's inattention and inarticulation. So we don't need this person to be the POV character, the narrator, unless she brings something to the narration. So what does she bring?

One thing I notice in re-reading that is the paragraph tells us almost nothing. (And understand, I couldn't bear to write a book or even a scene in this POV, so I am immediately revising, and you might not do that. Depends on what we want!) So right from the first, I look at that lame preposition-ending, and I think-- so what does she have to trust him with?

Maybe we know, or maybe I can insert that without losing the flavor of her voice. Let's see:
So, anyway, she was maybe taking a chance trusting him with what she had to trust him with. Her secret. You know. The whole murder thing.

That still has the prep, but at least I feel like I'm imparting a bit of information-- by the end of the paragraph, the reader knows more not just about the character but also about the story (murder, I guess).

I can't help it. I have to get rid of at least one preposition-ending.
She just didn't know, okay? She kind of thought that maybe he sort of cared about her. Maybe.

I have to say I like all the "kind of" "sort of" vagueness, just because that's sort of an amusing take on the utter inarticulateness of some people. They could be talking about undying love, or they could be talking about a load of mulch for the backyard-- same diction. (But really, I don't think I could write-- or read-- pages of that.) But she could be sharper and give more info without totally compromising her authenticity, because we don't know if he's a potential lover, or her father:

She just didn't know, okay? She kind of thought that she was sort of someone he cared about, not in a romantic way, yeah, more like a friend. But not like you could tell it from the way he talked to her. Sure, he joked around and said some flirty things. But he probably said the same sweet things to other girls, you know?

Does adding those adjectives to "things" (sorry, it hurts to type that word :) get in the way of her voice? I like to think that identifying the relationship in her mind (not romantic, more like a friend) helps deepen the understanding. And we can see he says flirty, sweet things, so we don't imagine him saying insulting or smarmy things, I guess.

So I guess I'd start with the free-writing to "feel" her voice, than go back and add and subtract so that the passage says what I want it to say to advance the story just a bit. That is, it's not going go be enough for me to have the passage just show her voice or reveal that she's incapable of articulating a complete thought. It might be enough if there was only a few paragraphs in her POV-- but if she's the narrator, she's got to keep the story moving too. And a tiny advance every paragraph, surrounded by a bunch of "voice," well, actually, that is totally my problem. Really. I don't write characters as inarticulate as that, but I have to say, I also take a long time saying much (much prettier prose, of course), so my passages and scenes are long. Hmm.

Anyway, how about some examples of deep POV voices that aren't, shall we say, OUR voice-- and are lame and limping and all that. And then, would you make any changes in revision?


Bernard said...

I thought this was like, spot on. First person POV narration can be really enjoyable. Nelson DeMille's John Corey is a great example (eg: Plum Island).

Edittorrent said...

I got the "like". My students say that like, all the time (comma before "like"? After?), and I've picked it up.

John Corey is a great narrator-- I can still "hear" him in my head!

Jami Gold said...


Or would the 'like' have commas both before and after, treating it as an interruption phrase (similar to 'however')? Unless there's some rule I haven't learned yet, this is probably how I'd punctuate it: I thought this was, like, spot on.

Jami G.

Dave Shaw said...

I've been doing the commas before and after the like in my latest WIP for the two young folks who use it. Dunno if it's right or not, but that's, like, what it sounds like to me. Neither of them uses it a lot, just for effect when they're talking to each other or trying to convince others to underestimate them.

Bernard said...

I think it's like, slightly different here in Australia. We don't like, pause before the like. We go straight in, and then like, pause for a moment after it. Single comma job.

Disclaimer: When I say "we", I mean the young-uns like my nephews.

Dave Shaw said...

Yeah, I'm sure there are regional variations. I mostly hear the New York/New England and Southeast US versions, with the pauses front and back. It's also the way George Alec Effinger punctuated it in his Maureen Birnbaum stories, and you can't get much more authoritative than that, now can you? If you're unfamiliar with Muffy Birnbaum, background info is at,_Barbarian_Swordsperson. Great satires of some of the classics in SF, Fantasy, and Horror.

green_knight said...

I don't see a difference between character voice and use of dialect, where the guideline is to use enough to make it clear that the character is using certain patterns of speech, but not so much that you're confusing or boring the reader.

She hoped she was sort of someone he cared about. So maybe she was taking a chance trusting him with all that stuff, but life was risk, right?

would be at the edge of what I could stand, and then only if there's very little of it (eg, not the only narrator and not getting pages of it.) And the next passage would be _showing us_ what happens when she confesses a murder to him or whatever.

we don't need this person to be the POV character, the narrator, unless she brings something to the narration.

She might be the only person who was there, or the person who is undergoing the most change. Both of those are good reasons for picking someone as PoV character. With a character like that, I need to a) have enough substance to keep me reading at the start, and b) I need to see them develop. If she's still as fluffy and emptyheaded at the end of the book, I'll not be impressed with the writer.

Dave Shaw said...

Good point, GK. Even Muffy matured a little over time.

Jami Gold said...


It's the same here in that there's often not a pause before the 'like'. Maybe a better example would be 'um' (those who say 'like' often use it as verbal equivalent to 'um'). And with the interruption of 'um', I'd still place commas before and after even though the speaker doesn't pause before it, just because it is an interruption to the actual sentence. So I was, like, wondering if you wanted to go to, um, prom with me. :)

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

I agree, GK-- this is like dialect! It's like a personal (or
generational) dialect, really. Hmm.

Re commas: Yes, right, "like" is an interruptive element here, not a preposition (it's like "yeah"-- that's using "like" as a preposition), and interruptive elements are set off before and after with commas. So that sounds right, Jami and Dave.

Funny that we want to properly punctuate a barbarism like that!

Ali said...

I have a first person protagonist whose personality evolved quite a lot over the course of my first draft, because the character I'd initially envisioned was incapable (in my hands, at least) of narrating an entire book. He wouldn't have had the patience or the insight to tell the whole story, not to mention the fact that he refused to describe anybody because it was a waste of his time. I could have switched to third person, but I wanted the immediacy of his voice inside his story.

His core is the same, but the evolved version of him is more intelligent and insightful. The narrative flows better while still having the edge that I like.

I wish I had an example of the old voice vs. new voice to share but, umpteen revisions later, I wouldn't know where to dig up that early draft.

green_knight said...

The always astute Patricia C. Wrede just posted something on first person POV which is relevant to this discussion: [Dialogue is] a model of the way people talk…and first-person narrative is even more so.

She says it better than I can, but yes, that. Give the flavour without putting every single tic, habit, or word on the page.

Eva Gale said...

P.C.Wrede's article is brilliant. I've always thought of first as acting the character on paper, while third was being a voyeur and writing what I saw. Writing first made me want to take acting classes.

Sylvia said...

Hmm, it seems like some people are saying that first-person has to be in deep POV. And although clearly a first-person narrative is going to "sound like" the narrator, I would not have an issue with all "like, you know?" markers in dialogue and not in the descriptive text.

I have a stripper character who uses "fuck" for any word that needs emphasis - and she's pretty argumentative so she likes to emphasise words a lot. But she only does this in speech, the narrative doesn't include the swearing.

So it comes out looking something like this:

"What the fuck?" I shouted, somehow overwhelmed at the tirade at the tip of my tongue, for the words that would show him just how pissed off and sick of this I was. I ran to the drivers door and smacked his window with my palm. I took a deep breath and tried again. "What the fuck are you doing?"

I tugged at the driver's door. He pressed a button and I heard the click of the locks but he was too late: I flung the door open. He reared back as I stuck my head in. I pausedbetween each word, to make sure he caught the extent of my rage. "What the fuck...?"

"Shut the..."

I held the door open. "You're stalking me!"

"I'm not stalking you!" He got out of the car and slammed the door behind him. "I'm just passing through."

I stared at him, speechless. I raised my hands, gesturing around me. "You are here, checking out the neighbourhood, because?"

He scowled and rephrased. "I'm not *supposed* to be watching you," he said, as if that were somehow better. He rubbed his forehead. "Why are you here?"

"I fucking live here." Then I remembered he'd been outside my apartment the other day and knew better. "My mom lives here," I amended before I realised I shouldn't be telling him anything. "Why are you following me around?"

"I'm not!" He looked genuinely put out. "Why are you showing up everywhere there's trouble?"

Does that make sense? And is that in line with offering "flavor" instead of details?