Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Three Musketeers of Voice: Alexie, Green and Levithan

One of the best things about reading a great story is sinking into it -- disappearing for a while, living with the characters and escaping from my own living, breathing, everyday reality. Moving into the world spoken by the narrator and…oh, yeah…written by the author.

Disagree? Nope. I didn’t think so.

This usually happens to me before I realize it. I find myself so deeply into the story that I feel like I want to call up the characters and hang out. Get a cup of coffee with them. Text them about Friday night plans. Borrow their favorite DVD. Sit up late at night and talk about God and love and sex and justice.

Or in the case of some of the stories for the middle grade set – maybe play ball or ride bikes until the streetlights blink on and we know we are going to be late getting home.

Although you know that I’m not a huge fan of “how to write books” books, I did find a helpful chapter on this mysterious effect in the Gotham Writers’ Workshop: Writing Fiction (Bloomsbury, 2003). Hardy Griffin contributed the chapter called Voice: The Sound of a Story. He defines voice as “what readers ‘hear’ in their heads when they’re reading. Voice is the ‘sound’ of the story.” I also liked this from his chapter – “…the voice of a piece is what makes it special, what sets it apart and makes it feel lived.”

I like that – the thing that makes a story feel lived. That, in my mind, is what pulls us in as readers.

I’ve lost myself in two novels recently – both YA – that are fan-freakin’-tastic examples of voice.

This week, I finished National Book Award Winner The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. (I tend to pick up anything with one of those glittery award stickers on the cover. Doesn’t even matter what it looks like, what it’s about, or who wrote it. I figure if it won an award that merits a glittery sticker, then I can learn from it!)

Junior’s voice is the narrator’s voice. This story is told from Junior’s point of view – and we alternately float on the current of his bravery and try desperately to keep our heads above the sadness and grief of his loss. There is no sinking into this story – it is all about the struggle. Ands sometimes about treading water until we catch our breath. Junior’s voice carries us along brilliantly. He is funny, self-deprecating, and above all – honest. I wanted him to break free of the struggles of the rez. But I also found myself rooting for him to return to his family with his whole self somehow intact, despite his sense of being sometimes half-Indian and other times half-white. And I cried when even he couldn’t, for the losses he endured.

How the heck can I hope to come up with a voice for my own characters as poignant and true as Junior’s? Sigh…

Another example that I keep within arm’s reach (face-out, believe it or not, on my bookshelf next to my official reading chair) is Will Grayson, Will Grayson by the inestimable John Green and David Levithan. (I don’t have an adjective for Mr. Levithan simply because I haven’t read enough of his work yet. Mr. Green, on the other hand, is my HERO. Go get any book he has written. And read it. Now.)

There are two Will Grayson’s in this book (surprised, aren’t you?) who have distinct, human, true voices – each unique, each so real you can’t help but want to either smack them for the real and stupid things they say or fist-bump-high-five-wahoo with them for the moments when they “get it.” When they find themselves despite the odds.

And don’t even get me started on the “massively fabulous” Tiny Cooper. He may be a supporting character, but he steals the story with his own personality, struggles and truth. In a word: his own voice.

I don’t think I can ever learn enough from writers like Alexie, Levithan, and Green – so I’ll keep hunting down their slots in the Borders book store shelves and doing a little jig of joy when I see a title I haven’t read before. And then I’ll try to learn from them – take some of their skill with voice and somehow reinterpret it into my own characters. Make my own voice heard, so a reader someday will sink into my stories, too.


  1. ABSOLUTELY -- I would add Libba Bray in "Going Bovine" and Junot Diaz in "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" (not YA, but still...) as amazing examples of voice. Oh, and in a different way, in re: character authenticity and voice, Catherine Gilbert Murdock's "Dairy Queen" series....

  2. Terry Pratchett does an amazing job of giving his characters voices. I can determine who is speaking from the voice, not the tag. I love his Discworld series!

  3. Cinette -- I'll have to give Pratchett a try! Thanks for suggesting his work.

  4. Karen - After reading this post the other day I went straight to my town library and checked out a copy of "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie. It's really good so far. Thanks for sharing!