I devoured P. D. James' Talking About Detective Fiction last week. James provides an excellent review of the genre of "detective stories" from the 1800s to the present, with commentary on literary trends and how they reflected social changes over time. It's a short book, but I walked away from it with a long reading list.
This evening I finished the first title on my list, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. According to James, T.S. Eliot called it "the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels." Published serially in 1868, The Moonstone still has much to teach the mystery novelist of today, once she makes allowances for certain depictions of "the weaker sex" and "Orientals." Collins was surprisingly egalitarian for his time, but even the most enlightened man couldn't possibly jump ahead 150 years in his ethics.
The biggest strength of Collins' writing, in my opinion, is voice. The Moonstone is told in a semi-epistolary style by several narrators. I fell in love with the first few pages of chapter one, told by a pompous and silly but adorable old servant, Betteredge. He confesses he has no idea how to start this narrative about the Diamond business. He tries his best to introduce the story but veers way off track to ramble about his employers and his late wife, and he has to try again twice.
My daughter Penelope has just looked over my shoulder to see what I have done so far. She remarks that it is beautifully written, and every word of it true. But she points out one objection. She says what I have done so far isn't in the least what I was wanted to do. I am asked to tell the story of the Diamond and, instead of that, I have been telling the story of my own self. Curious, and quite beyond me to account for. I wonder whether the gentlemen who make a business and a living out of writing books, ever find their own selves getting in the way of their subjects, like me? If they do, I can feel for them. In the meantime, here is another false start, and more waste of good writing-paper. What's to be done now? Nothing that I know of, except for you to keep your temper, and for me to begin it all over again for the third time.
My blog post today is also about authors "getting in the way of their subjects," though in a different way than the excellent Betteredge meant. While writers of fiction don't often go on about themselves instead of their characters, they do often insert themselves into their stories through voice. If done well and purposefully, a strong authorial voice can make a book. But if done badly or accidentally, it can ruin it.
The benefits of a strong authorial voice.
When you place yourself in a story as a narrator living safely outside of it, describing and judging from afar, readers will care less about the characters' feelings and fates. Whether this is a good or a bad thing depends on your goals.
Here's an example of a strong authorial voice used deliberately to undermine the emotional impact of an event: the death of George Osborne at the Battle of Waterloo in William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1847–48).
All that day from morning until past sunset, the cannon never ceased to roar. It was dark when the cannonading stopped all of a sudden.
All of us have read of what occurred during that interval. The tale is in every Englishman's mouth; and you and I, who were children when the great battle was won and lost, are never tired of hearing and recounting the history of that famous action....[There] is no end to the so-called glory and shame, and to the alternations of successful and unsuccessful murder, in which two high-spirited nations might engage. Centuries hence, we Frenchmen and Englishmen might be boasting and killing each other still, carrying out bravely the Devil's code of honour.
All our friends took their share and fought like men in the great field. All day long, whilst the women were praying ten miles away, the lines of the dauntless English infantry were receiving and repelling the furious charges of the French horsemen....Then at last the English troops rushed from the post from which no enemy had been able to dislodge them, and the Guard turned and fled.
No more firing was heard at Brussels—the pursuit rolled miles away. Darkness came down on the field and city: and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart.
Vanity Fair is a satire designed to show that people are vain and foolish, and war is vain and foolish, and we're all animals pretending to be civilized. To make sure readers don't cry for George—the vainest fool in the novel—Thackeray uses a voice soaked in sarcasm. He even breaks the fourth wall to remind readers that this is a story, and the Battle of Waterloo happened long ago, and people have been killing each other forever and will keep killing each other forever, so there's no surprise here.
If your goal is, like Thackeray, to make sure your readers don't identify with your characters, an overwhelming authorial presence will do the trick. This is useful in satire and comedy, because humor requires distance—an audience must be somewhat removed from characters to laugh at them.
Sometimes distance can work the other way around, too. If you have unlikeable protagonists, showing them through the filter of an objective authorial voice can make them less annoying.
A good example of this is the middle-grade fantasy Artmis Fowl by Eoin Colfer. Artemis is a twelve-year-old criminal mastermind. He has no heart and no qualms doing dastardly deeds for piles of gold—or so he likes to believe. In reality, he's a bright but lonely boy who believes in fairies and leprechauns, has no friends his age, and misses his mother terribly. We know this only because Colfer writes in the third person as the lighthearted narrator. He tells us what Artemis is really thinking, rather than what Artemis thinks he's thinking. If Colfer had instead used the first person, Artmemis's I'm-so-smart-and-evil shtick would've grated on readers' nerves quickly—especially since Artemis Fowl is middle grade.
Children and teens don't laugh at flawed characters the way adults do. They'll take what a character says at face value, and they'll take it very seriously. Adults will see an outrageous protagonist or antagonist as a clown, because they can see through him and understand why he's acting out. But young people will see the same character as a horrible person who deserves a horrible death.
You can see this by comparing Artemis Fowl to another novel about a preteen genius, this time written in the first person: Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee. I read it at twenty-seven and enjoyed it. I thought the heroine, eleven-year-old Millie, was adorably naive and hilariously clueless. Other adults call Millicent Min laugh-out-loud funny and say girls grades 6–8 will love it. But when real girls in grades 6–8 review it, they often describe Millie as "obnoxious." They complain that she's sooo awkward and sooo full of herself and they hate her sooo much.
Most readers, even adults, want to identify with and love their heroes, and if they can't they get frustrated. You might be able to minimize frustration by casting yourself in the role of a Watson—using the voice of a likeable narrator to keep the tone light and show that this hero is not the jerk he seems to be, as in Artemis Fowl. If you instead take the approach of Millicent Min and set aside your own voice for the raw voice of a flawed hero, readers have to work harder to read between the lines. If they're young, they may not be able to do that yet.
The drawbacks of a strong authorial voice.
Last year I read The Girl on the Train, after the hype died down and the library had plenty of copies available. I thought it was a great story, objectively, but the voice stopped me from getting into it wholeheartedly.
Paula Hawkins has a great voice. That's the problem: she has a a great voice. One. The story is told from the perspectives of three different characters, but all of them sound like Paula Hawkins. In the beginning, I could tell who was speaking only by checking the name the chapter header. Each narrator has a unique worldview, but worldview is not voice.
Here are two distinct worldviews expressed by the same voice.
- I lifted my face to the sky, drinking in the warmth of the cheerful sun. Summer is my favorite season.
- I ducked under the brim of my hat, sheltering my face from the relentless sun. Summer is terrible for the skin.
These two speakers may have different opinions, but the words they choose and the way they structure their sentences are very similar. They sound like two versions of the same person, or at least two people from identical backgrounds.
Now here's one worldview expressed in two distinct voices.
- I fail to understand why Carly, who is ordinarily a hygienic person, would frequent the city pool in summer. She refuses to use public toilets because they're "gross," but she'll willingly dive into a body of water that is, essentially, the same thing.
- The city pool is nasty. I have no idea why Carly likes it so much. At school when she sees a blob of ketchup on the lunch table she's all, "Eww, gross!" But then in summer she splashes around in a gigantic toilet like it's super fun.
The way characters speak communicates even more than what they say. You can give everyone in your cast unique backstories and motivations and quirks, but if they all have the same voice, they won't come across as unique people.
Depending on the point of view you choose, you might get away with everyone sounding the same. Well-developed voices in the third person are like flavor extracts in cookies; you'll make your work much richer by putting them in, but most people won't notice if you leave them out. Readers will judge non-POV characters by what they say, not how they say it.
However, if you write from multiple first-person perspectives, as in The Girl on the Train, voice becomes vital. An interesting case study in the importance of voice in different POVs is the Divergent series by Veronica Roth. In the first two books she told the story from a single perspective, and these volumes earned rave reviews from her target audience. In the third she switched to dual perspectives, and the book has an average rating a full star lower than its predecessors. Irate Amazon reviewers complain the hero and heroine "sound exactly the same," and the cool hero of the first two books inexplicably turned into "a whiny fifteen-year-old girl." I haven't read the books, but I think it probable the two characters sounded exactly the same all along, only no one noticed until the hero seized a pen to write his part himself.
Another drawback of a strong authorial voice is that the writer's personality shines through, with flaws and all. I wrote above that a strong authorial voice can take the edge off of an irritating protagonist. This works only if the narrator is likeable. Eoin Colfer's personality on the page is witty yet kind, so he shows the quirky characters of Artmis Fowl in the best possible light. Christopher Fowler, author of the Peculiar Crimes Unit mysteries, has a similar voice. No matter how selfish, obtuse, or otherwise frustrating the characters are, Fowler writes in an engaging and humorous way that makes you sympathize with every one of them.
However, I've read some potentially great stories that fell flat because the authors had less-than-likeable personalities, and they accidentally revealed as much through their voices.
Remember Bianca Goes to NYC? After mostly enjoying the first book, I checked out the sequels available through my local library. The sugary Bianca might have been a bit bland in the first book, but she was inoffensive and easy to root for. In later books, her sweet Southern drawl faded away, and she took on a sour, snarky voice instead. I found the author's blog, and sure enough snarky Bianca reflected the author's real-life personality. But snarky Bianca was hard to like. Though the stories continued to be charming and silly, Bianca's growing negativity sucked the fun out of them. I stopped reading the series a couple of volumes before the publisher dropped it.
Writing in your own voice is, obviously, easier than writing in someone else's. I've seen writers accidentally slip out of the voices of their characters into their own, but I've never seen someone go the other way around.
That means when we write, we have to be careful to stick to the voice that's best for the story, instead of gravitating towards the voice that's natural for us. Sometimes the two are luckily the same, but often they're not.
After reading The Moonstone and reflecting, I realized that the reason my fantasy trilogy was so hard for me to write, while the cozy mystery is going so swimmingly, is because I was using the wrong voice for the project. I was writing it in the third person as me, with the voice you see here in these blog posts. I've cultivated this voice over ten years holed up in higher education. It's a fine voice for discussing the merits of novels published in 1868, and it happens to be a fine voice for the bookworm heroine of a cozy mystery. But it is not a good voice for sword fights on the rooftops of steampunkified Beijing. The first chapters I attempted were painfully lifeless. To give the story the "oomph" that it needs, I'll need to write in the first-person perspective of the main characters.