A few weeks ago, I learned a new way to analyze voice, to look at where the character came from by the words she uses and the rhythm of how she speaks. To see what the character thinks by how her attitude reflects in her clothes and what she notices about other people and their surroundings, etc.
At the end of it, my friend, who was showing me this method, said, "I can analyze voice in other fiction. I can see it. I understand what I need to know about my character. So why can’t I create it?"
Since then, I’ve been contemplating how to teach voice. Some of my stories have a stronger voice than others, and all of my short stories have a stronger voice than my novels. Why is that?
At the University of Arizona, where I earned my BA in creative writing, I followed the literary events in a town rich with university culture. I loved being in school. I loved going to lectures and readings at night. I loved the intellectual conversation. But I also saw the politics, the posturing, the quirk for quirk’s sake and the art of every bit of it.
Long after I left, a voice burbled up from the past and I wrote a three-titled short story called: Green Light Over Tucson or Liddy, Loran and Me or The Last Lost Hour of My Life from that time in my life in Tucson.
The story is about a girl who’s sees the writing world as a club she doesn’t belong to. She’s going to barter the story of a possible alien abduction in the desert to get into the group. Here’s an excerpt:
I was driving my mother’s car, so perhaps they mistook me for someone who would normally drive a four-door white Ford Fairlane in southern Arizona in the early fall. But I only borrowed the car to drive from Tucson to Bisbee and then back again for a poetry reading of Loran Lorado at the Luxor Hotel. Bisbee’s a little more than an hour away from Tucson toward the Mexican border. A dingy mining town turned artist colony that’s actually a perfect setting for literary soirees.
The parlor where they put the reading is way too small. People are hanging out the doors, into the hall, leaning against large-tasseled burgundy drapes that once covered the doorway. Grad students are opening metal folding chairs and acting like nobody knew this was going to happen. Like the sense of excitement wasn’t planned.
It’s a swank. Loran’s a big draw. They could’ve sold twice as many tickets if they’d held the reading at the U in Tucson. But then they wouldn’t have filled the auditorium. He’s a poet, after all. And how would that look with a scattered audience and empty rows? People might have even left before he was finished.
But Bisbee? Now that’s smart. Not only does the audience have to drive an hour, once they do, they have to work to get in. Anyone out in the hall feels cheated and vows to be here early next time to be on the inside. Result: Loran Lorado’s a hit before he even hits the stage.
Years later, I was living in Highlands Ranch and studying for my MFA at Antioch University in Los Angeles. The following excerpt from my story, White Girl, comes out of the dichotomy of inhabiting both places and both lives. Mother and wife in one of the largest suburbs in America vs creative writing student at a socially conscious university in LA. This is about a juvie creative writing teacher (also an MFA candidate) who looked around at the girls he was teaching and asked among other things: Where are the white girls?
Robert Fox, white man, white hair, indignation splotching an indiscriminate red against your neck. It creeps past a day-old beard to colorless lips asking, where are the pimps? Where are the parents? Where are the teachers?
Robert Fox, white man, teacher in East LA, surrounded by thirteen, fourteen, twelve-year-old girls doing face time for prostitution, for knife fights, for murder or drugs. Still he asks: Where are the pimps? Where are the parents? Where are the teachers?
Black girls, Latina, Chicana, Asian, given permission to speak, they write him their stories. There’s nothing else to do in juvie. Who’s responsible for this? Robert Fox wants to know.
Both of these pieces have a strong voice. There’s an opinion residing behind the words. A way of thinking that comes out in the rhythm and the word choice as well as the plot of the story.
I think I can say that my stories with the strongest voice reflect a passionate opinion. I wrote White Girl in two hours during a predawn rant on a day I was to give a reading, defending the idea that white girls have not abandoned their sisters of color. I read those pages instead of the ones I had planned to read. It was a successful reading, though hard to keep my voice steady because the passion and anger that drove that story was still fresh and still rippled inside me. It’s the angriest story I’ve ever written and there’s a very strong voice driving it.
Taking my experience, I am beginning to wonder if a character's voice is never going to be revealed by coming from the outside like the method my friend was teaching me. Perhaps you don’t create voice by making a list of dialect and attitudes a character might use if they hailed from a particular place. And suffered particular wounds. Perhaps the trick is to find the passionate opinion first. And let that passion show you who the character is when you let that passion speak.
Perhaps the answer is to connect to what your characters love. And threaten to take it away. Or tap into what they hate. Or expose their prejudices and their wounds. Then step aside and see what they say.
Maybe then you analyze and make lists and try to connect to that same passion as you move through the story, faking it with the details she told you when she was talking.
About the Author: Deb McLeod, is a writer, creative writing coach and founder of The Writing Ranch. She has both an MFA and a BA in creative writing. She has been teaching and coaching for over ten years. Deb has published short fiction in anthologies and journals. She has written articles and creative nonfiction. Deb has been a professional blogger, tech writer, graphic artist and Internet marketing specialist.