Monday, July 22, 2019

Writing In Your Character's Voice #amwriting I'm reading JUST ONE EVIL ACT by Elizabeth George, a book in the Thomas Lynley series, and am struck by the way she uses different writing voices to represent her characters. George changes the tone, pace, 'sound', and feel of each scene depending on which character's point of view is represented. She does this by using that character's dialogue style and word choice, by deliberate selection of descriptive words in each scene, and by altering the structure of sentences.

It's fascinating. And effective. As a writer, I hope to emulate what she's doing. Maybe you will, too.

A bit of background: Elizabeth George's Lynley novels are set in current-day England and feature two main characters, Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers. Although he doesn't flaunt the fact, and indeed prefers to be judged based on his performance rather than his peerage, Lynley is the eighth Earl of Asherton. His speech, temperament, movements, and choices (from life choices to which socks to wear today) all reflect this.
Havers has had a difficult life and everything about her - speech, temperament, movements, and choices - reflects her background.
In short, Lynley is refined in everything he does and Havers is an unmade bed, physically and emotionally.

Elizabeth George writes Thomas Lynley's point of view chapters in a smooth, calm, and controlled fashion, reflecting Lynley's personality. When Barbara Havers is the point of view character, George's style becomes longer-winded, less formal, and harried. Haver's life is a mess and each of her scenes reinforces that fact.

These are subtle differences, written so well that a reader hardly notices a change from one scene to the next, but feels the change and the character's personality intimately. As a reader, George's techniques draw me in to each character's world.

Here are two examples of how George's style subtly develops each character. This scene occurs after Barbara Havers learns that a close friend has deceived her:

If this was true, it held up to doubt everything the Pakistani professor had said and done from that point forward. And if everything he had said and done from that point forward was one variation or another on a lie, then Barbara wasn't sure what she would do about that fact or to whom she would give that information.
The only answer seemed to be food. When she arrived home, she gobbled down a double takeaway portion of haddock and chips and followed this with treacle tart and a side of Victoria sponge. She quaffed a bottle of lager as she ate and finished off her meal with a cup of instant coffee. Accompanying this, she dipped into a packet of salt-and-vinegar crisps, after which a virtuous apple assured her that her arteries would be thoroughly cleansed if she munched upon it hard and long enough.
Then, no longer could she put off the phone call to Italy without putting herself into some sort of caloric stupor. She lit a fag and punched in Azhar's number. She'd never dreaded a phone call so much in her life. She was going to have to tell him everything: from the Love Rat Dad story to the claims made by the private investigator. In neither instance did she see that she had any choice.

I've got indigestion by association after reading about Barbara Havers' dinner and can physically feel her stress. The sentences run on and George uses words like 'gobbled', 'quaffed', and 'finished off' to show us Havers' distress. George could've told us that Havers was confused and angry, but instead she sends Havers on an eating binge, which is just how Havers would deal with discomfort at having to confront a friend she suspects of lying.

The next few paragraphs show Lynley at dinner with a woman he very much cares about, as she breaks off their relationship:

She smiled, it seemed, in spite of herself. "You know what I mean. You deserve someone who is willing and able to be one hundred percent for you, open to you, accepting of you...whatever you want to call it. I'm not that person, and I don't think I could be."
Her declaration felt like the thinnest of rapiers. It slid without effort under his skin, barely felt until the bleeding began. "So what are you saying, exactly?"
"I hardly know."
She looked at him. He tried to read whatever he could on her face, but time and circumstance had made her guarded, and he couldn't blame her for the walls she built. She said, "Because you're not an easy man to walk away from, Tommy. So I'm very much aware of the necessity of walking away and the marked reluctance I feel about doing so."

He nodded. For a moment they ate as the sounds of the dining room rose and fell around them. Plates were removed. Other plates came. He finally said, "Let's leave it at that, for now."

This passage causes no indigestion, but the turmoil beneath Lynley's reserved facade is clear. I have no idea what they ate, but I can feel the tension in their dinner through those six paragraphs. George could've told us that Lynley's heart was breaking, but instead she showed us.

It takes a skillful author to change styles between different point of view scenes and use each style to show so much about a character. Is this something you've noticed in your reading, or a skill you use in your writing? Is this type of showing a character's personality and development important to you?

photo credit: Seafood Medley via photopin (license)
photo credit: dinner party via photopin (license)

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