Sunday, March 27, 2005


"Literature is the one place in any society where, within the secrecy of our own heads, we can hear voices talking about everything in every possible way."
Salman Rushdie "Is Nothing Sacred?" 1990

No, I'm not schizophrenic. But I hear voices in my head: voices of people out of the past speaking to me, telling me their stories, coaching me on what to say on their behalf.

The fiction writer must get inside his or her character's heads to show the reader what the character is thinking and saying. It's never exacly your voice. Each voice is different.
When I'm at the keyboard I'm almost 'acting'. I'm 'in character' improvising by using words and syntax that the characters in my story might use. The characters may have overtones of my 'style' of speech, but each character must have their own way of speaking that is not mine.

I've never had a problem with dialogue. I started writing plays when I was about 10 years old, before I began writing stories. Once I had dreams of acting, and did perform in a few productions at school and in plays written by myself at Church and camp. A year after I graduated from high school I wrote a cautionary tale The Street when my boyfriend and his pals became addicted to heroin. A group of young people and myself produced and performed in the play, which was an amazing success at the time. A few years ago, after taking a playwriting course at College, I redeveloped the same play, this time without the censorship of parents or society, and it was perfomed to great reviews for three weeks in a theatre-cafe downtown.
The dialogues and monologues in that play were the speech I was familiar with, the street slang of the '50's. I was invited to be a script consultant by the producer/director because some of the young people in the cast didn't understand the vernacular of the time. Expressions like "Holy Doodle!" brought down the house!

For my historical writing I must use a completely different level of diction. It mustn't be 'archaic' speech, which is old-fashioned and stilted. Yet it has to keep to the tone of the period, and fit in with the cadence of the prose.

In my on-the-shelf work in progress Dragons in the Sky, because it is a first-person narrative, the voice is distinctly Welsh/Celtic. It was the voice of the protagonist Olwen speaking to me, telling me her story. I gave the MSS to my Dad once, to get his opinion on whether I had caught the cadence of the Welsh language in the speech. Because I had grown up hearing my Dad's Welsh lilt, it came naturaly to me. Where I went wrong with the novel (and why it's currently on the shelf) is because a writing instructor I had at the time kept insisting I should be writing it third person. I tried to switch and it didn't work. So I shelved it in order to work on my current w.i.p. But one of these days I'll get back to it, because Olwen is waiting for me to finish narrating her story.

In Shadow of the Lion, because it is a Homeric kind of tale, and very much a Greek tragedy, I have tried to keep the language suitable, without letting it become stilted and too formal and I avoid usuing modernisms that spoil the flow of the language.

I am dealing with various speakers, because it is in multiple point of view, from the voice of a small child (Alexander's son) to the voice of an aged Chaldean Magus. I speak in the voices of rough Macedonian generals and peasant foot-soldiers, the officers who were the educated companions of Alexander, a Persian nobleman and the Indian mahouts who accompanied the royal herd of elephants. I'm also the voice of the women: Roxana the Soghdian, Stateira the Persian, Leila, the Median nurse, Adeia-Eurydike, Thessaloniki, and Kleopatra who were Macedonian royal women, and Olympias, Alexander's Epirote mother. Each character must have their own voice.

The past few days I have been a Macedonian Regent speaking to the Assembly. Next I will be an Athenian military governor. It's tricky, but it's fun.

To make sure I am getting the correct speech patterns, tone and variation I often run passages by male friends to make sure I am not sounding like 'me', a woman. It requires a lot of imagination to take on the persona of a Macedonian commander. But somehow I've managed to pull it off.

Writers, like painters, have to be observant. It's important to observe and listen in on dialogues, conversations, try to imitate speech patterns of people you hear around you.
It also helps, when I'm writing, to have the 'image' of the character fixed firmly in my head.
For this, I have done a great deal of observing, so I can imagine what the character is like from someone I've seen in 'real life'. When I read my work to my critique group, there are several characters (male) who my listeners have suggested that certain movie stars should be cast for so I know I'm getting the male voices fairly accurate. I found watching the movie "Alexander" useful, although I did disagree with some of the movie's casting and at first the brogues of some of the speakers bothered me. But then, the Macedonian highlanders spoke in their own hill-country cants, so I understood the reasoning behind some of the choices.

The dialogue and internal thoughts of the characters are part of their development. The characters are people, so dialogue has to sound natural and be meaningful, helping to forward the plot, build tension, as well as operating as a medium for exchanging information, setting scenes, and foreshadowing. It must be realistic and appropriate for the period, not wooden, archaic or contrived. Each characters has their own speech pattern just as living people have individual speech patterns.

Being a writer is much like being an actor. You have to be versatile, a cameleon, and assume many different roles and voices.

"I thank you for your voices, thank you,
Your most sweet voices."
Shakespeare "Coriolanus" act ii sc iii 1607-1608


Sam said...

Hi Wynn!
I love hearing those voices - it means that the character is speaking loud and clear, and the writing just flows off the fingertips with no effort. It's when the voices are silent, when you're struggling to put the character on paper and there is no noise, that it gets frustrating and difficult.
Vive les voices!

ozbhoy said...

I wish the voices in my head were artistic, generally they just say stupid things that make me laugh.

I'm always surprised that people can make themselves laugh through thought, as surely we must know on some level what thought is coming to the surface and even the proccesses that have led to said thought.

Mystery of the universe I suppose.

I hope your Easter was good!

L said...

i love writing dialogue. sometimes it's hard for me to make my characters sound different from each other. i like when they say things that i didn't think of, it just comes out. i usually base their speech on people i know.
happy easter!