This week in one of my writing groups it was my turn to share a piece. I’ve been sharing chapters of my novel as I work through the rewrites. Every chapter of my book starts with an “excerpt” from a book that exists in the novel’s world. I write a little paragraph as if it’s from a textbook that someone in the novel’s world wrote, or something like a diary entry or a bit of folk wisdom. It’s a pretty common thing to do in fantasy writing and I find it a lot of fun. It’s a great way to give a little more info on the world and society without sounding like exposition, and something to give a little hint at what’s to come in the chapter.

I was worried when I first started doing this that it’s too much of a trope, something that’s overdone and self-indulgent. To my delight the writing group is consistently in favour of these little blurbs and seems to enjoy them. One of the comments about them was how distinct a voice they have – they sound very different from the style of the regular narration, like they are actually from another book. Another was that they’re doing a great job of setting the tone of the chapter. So I’ve been feeling very pleased that my little excerpts are doing exactly what I’d intended.

A bit of a side effect is that it’s had me thinking more actively about the voice of my characters. In my first round of edits I was worried that all my characters sounded the same. I noticed that one of them, who is supposed to be terse and pretty much never explains herself, talked way too much and was explaining every choice she made. I chopped a lot of her dialogue before the book went out to my alpha readers.

In my current editing, I just reached the part where that character is introduced and I was looking at her through this lens of thinking about distinct character voices. I was discouraged to find that despite all my previous cuts to her dialogue, she is still talking way too much. I started wondering why I’m struggling so much to make her sound like herself, when I’m apparently doing so well at making the little chapter intros distinct.

The conclusion I’ve come to is that with the chapter intro excerpts, I’m being very intentional. I write them very specifically to match the contents of the chapter and with a particular feeling in mind – do I want a clinical textbook assessment or do I want to express underlying cultural fears through folksong? There’s a very deliberate choice made with each one of them.

The novel itself however, in a very real sense, is me just talking to myself. While yes, I want it to have an audience in the future, when I’m writing it’s just me telling this tale to an audience of one. That lone audience member doesn’t really notice anything weird when everything just sounds like me. All of the thoughts in my head sound like me, so of course this one does too.

While it’s simple to stick with a particular voice for the duration of a paragraph or two, when I’m in the thick of writing a chapter that goes on for some time it becomes very easy to just fall into my default voice. The narration sounds like me because I am the narrator, which is fine, but after a while the characters start speaking like I would speak.

I’ve been talking the way I do for a long time. It is my default and speaking any other way requires active effort. I think that in a quick blurb or even in a short story it’s easier for me to hang onto that distinct voice. Tone has to be set so quickly in a short piece that any deviation is immediately noticeable. In a novel I can move in an out of voices gradually so I don’t necessarily see it until I look back at it later and say “Why is this character talking again? She wouldn’t explain this.”

While my characters all have different voices when I think of them, they get filtered through the lens of me. It’s like a game of telephone; the reader can’t talk to the characters in my head directly, so I have to pass their messages on to you. And like a game of telephone, the longer that message is, the more garbled it gets as it goes.

None of this is a problem, per se, it’s just a thing I haven’t been thinking of too consciously up to this point. I think I need to start considering it more actively. I need to remember that image of a child, listening to their parent reading a bed time story and insisting “You have to do the voices!” I can’t just recite the tale because I’m not actually talking to myself. I need to be active in the telling. I need to do the voices.

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