On Character Voice (‘Split’ by Swati Avasthi)

I’ve been obsessed with character voice lately.

Especially for writers who write mainly from the first-person POV, character voice is a direct display of their writing style. Whether they’re spunky, smart-ass, introspective, character voice is how the character is revealed.

When I started writing Lambs for Dinner, I dived in with Drew’s voice ringing loud and clear in my head. It was one of the reasons why I managed to crank out 3000 words a day. Before that, I’d only ever written from the female protagonist’s point of view. Raven (When the Lilies Turn Orange), Kristen (Bedful of Moonlight), Leigh (from the defunct Mint), Ethel (Red December Skies), and lastly Skye (Lambs for Dinner). But then I read Shiver by the ever-awesome Maggie Stiefvater, who wrote Shiver from both Sam and Grace’s POVs. She drove the story along with their voices, alternating chapters that vary in length and emotion (though I feel their voices sound rather similar and not distinctive enough – although I must stress that her writing is really good nonetheless and that’s just my personal opinion). And I thought I’d try that. I don’t think I handled Lambs with Maggie’s dexterity, though, but the process was exhilarating and addictive. Now, I don’t think I’d want to go back to writing from just the female protagonist’s POV.

I just finished Swati Avasthi’s Split yesterday. It’s written from the first-person POV of the main character, a sixteen-year-old boy who was kicked out of the house by his abusive father after a particularly vicious fight. Nowhere to turn, he looks for his older brother Christian, who left two years ago to start a new life on his own. The plot sounds dire and gloomy, and the theme is nothing new, but Avasthi’s writing comes to life and pulls the story to life along with it – through the immensely likeable Jace, the main character. He’s funny, acid-tongued, private, and has real fears (like he might turn into his father – case in point: he hit his girlfriend, the first and last time he ever did it) and dreams (to be with his family again) and internal conflicts (he’s always been closer to his father, and does not know what to believe when he sees his father hit his mother and Christian; he still wants his father’s approval and love) and hesitations (he’s afraid of entering another relationship because he’s afraid he might hurt the people he loves again).

J.D. Salinger did it with Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye). Eireann Corrigan did it (see my post on Ordinary Ghosts here). Anna Jarzab did it (All Unquiet Things). And now Swati Avasthi’s done it too.

They all managed to create a character whose voice is so compelling they can drive the story forward just with this voice. The plot falls secondary to the voice, and for Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, I was sorry to come to the end and wished it were longer. I wanted to listen to Holden Caulfield’s impassioned commentary about the “phony” things in life and the “phony” people he meets. There was poignancy beneath Caulfield’s wit and disillusionment, and it was a character that stayed with me beyond the pages of the novel.

For Split, I was immediately pulled in by Jace’s voice, although he got a bit sappy towards the end, when the author decided to tie up all the loose ends and hint at new beginnings blah blah blah. But at least she didn’t overdue it to the extent of employing vomit-inducing cliches. Her writing was concise, snappy, and totally revealed the character of Jace, raw and in the flesh (figuratively speaking, of course), to the reader. Sames goes for Ordinary Ghosts and All Unquiet Things.

I doubt I can pull off writing an entire novel from a guy’s POV. Because the danger of character-driven novels is that you can get carried away. You try to reveal the character to the readers, but focus too much on voice and your story may end up plotless and wandering, and your character a rambling, self-absorbed idiot. Alternating POVs seems the safest, and yet it doesn’t compromise on the fun factor. I’m glad I’ve completed Lambs for Dinner (I completed a novel! I didn’t throw in the towel halfway!), and I’m thrilled to have completed it in a month, but then I also wish the process hadn’t been quite so short. I barely had time to enjoy it before it ended.

Anyway, I’m in my first round of editing Lambs now, having finished editing Red December Skies (I need to work on distinguishing Jerry’s voice from Ethel’s, though). Yes, I’m swamped with schoolwork. Which explains why I’m only editing and not writing. But as a fellow writer told me on Facebook, I should “just think of the experiences at school as inspiration for (my) writing”, because “at (my) age, time is on (my) side”, so I should “keep punching”. Rightly so, Paul! Thanks for that bout of encouragement.

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