Sunday, September 21, 2014


Writers of nearly every sort have a fondness for what we call “voice” – the tone and unique patois of a character, the way one speaks as opposed to the next – the very feel of a novel, a screenplay, a poem, a story.  Setting can have, and contribute, to voice.  Age and education, native intelligence, expectations, fears, and desires.

Many authors, too, read our work out loud.  It’d be impossible not to write, to some degree, in our own voices, and as important as reading a work out loud is to making sure its weight and rhythm and the feel are all right, even this imposes us upon the work.  Public readings, if we’re fortunate enough to publish, reinforce the imposition of our own voice on a work, and audio books can bring new voices, in performance, to a piece.

And through all this, we have to maintain the integrity of the characters themselves.  Characters mustn’t break under the weight of interpretations and expectations – and, the more I read, the more I know how very difficult it is for a character to remain itself.  Right now, I’m reading a novel told in omniscient 3rd person, but incorporating literally hundreds of years of voices – rendered in spoken word, chronicle, correspondence, and secondhand reportage.  It’s a piece with remarkable scope, and quite well put together – yet there are times I can see the author too clearly.  A habit of beginning sentences with the word “and” … certain unique phrases appearing generations apart, recalling some other character’s voice … the reiterations of descriptions of setting, from points of view which should be more distinct.  It’s an author’s job to notice detail.  It is not their job to put the same detail in the perspective of EVERY character, unfortunately.  Lush as certain points of interest may be, not all voices should desribe them the same – indeed, not all characters should even care.  Once seven different scenes from markedly different periods and focusing on wildly different players – scenes concerned with very different action and motivation – have pointed at the same beautiful plant in the same way, I not only lose patience with vicariously gazing at the plant, but I lose my place in the world itself.

Ahm – so plants don’t need to have voices in a novel.

Back to my point.

The problem with an author’s voice overcoming their characters’ is that, of course, the book stops being about what it is about, and begins to be about the author’s preoccupations.

Now,of course, none of us would ever write, if we didn’t have preoccupations.  It’s in some way entirely the point.

This is why we have editing.

I have a problem with “just” and “actually” – fortunately, writing historical fiction set in Late Antiquity, I am somewhat freed from this foible:  the likelihood of an ancient Frankish throwing around quantities of qualifiers is blessedly remote, and so I hope Clovis suffers little from this predilection.

My other problems, which anyone here knows all too well already, are loquacity and a confidence in my own intelligence, which are most likely the issue I have to watch the hardest.  I’ve edited and polished and worked, but have little doubt that the characters in The Ax and the Vase are perhaps more culturally and educationally homogenous than they should be.  Personalities set them apart, but I could not bear to make any of them less than truly clever (see also:  my overarching defensiveness about “Barbariansand The Stupid, Stupid Past …).  We have one boyish colt, and one oafish drunk, but as a whole, the population of The Ax and the Vase are a canny lot.  One hopes this does not constitute too much of a problem.

I like to hope that the key is *listening*.  Listening to the characters, and the story itself.  Each scene tells me what its participants need out of it, and that helps.  Each man and woman has a past, and a future.

I can discern the actual VOICE of Clovis – the breath, the timbre, the power and the volume – in everything he has said through the novel.  I know his youthful tone and the creaking changes of his voice with age.  I know the speed at which words came from his mouth, with every line he speaks, and can tell you where he breathes, where he doesn’t.  When he pauses.  When he silences others with his own silence.

I know the sound of his kinsman, Pharamond – and the rumble and grind of his other supporting player, the profligate, the comes, the older idol, Ragnachar.

It’s not enough to see their faces – to know the very quality of their skin, their hair, the color or the brightness and clarity of their eyes.  It’s not enough to know that one character has a club foot, and another is leathery and scarred, almost blue he is so tanned and aged and hard.  I have to know that that latter man has a voice reedy and thin with age, incongruously small in his warrior’s frame.  I have to hear not only the lilt and laughter of the crippled woman, but to hear how the slide of her walk syncopates with her words as she walks.  I have to know that she has hands and feet and a belly and clothes, how she moves, how her breath moves with her, how the words will be affected by that.

I have to remember Clovis is fifteen in this scene when I edit it, and almost forty-five the next day, when I’m looking at the other end of the novel.


The most beautiful speaking voice I have ever heard, live and in person, was that of Mikhail Gorbachev.  It was over twenty years ago, when he was still one of the most famous men on Earth, and realized – I had never heard him before:  only interpreters.  His voice was magnificent, not at all blustering nor loud, mellow, mellifluous, simple, and beautiful.  I found myself ignoring the translator, and lost only in the sound of this unassuming, astoundingly powerful figure, quite overjoyed to forget his speech and simply revel in the sound of beautifully spoken Russian.

I have never been a fan of French, and as much love as I have for the German language – for sheer loveliness of sound, for its curve and sharpness and audible precision, the most gorgeous language in the world, for me, has always been Russian.  I find the curved shapes of its verbal Ls  entrancing, the glottal bounce of its coupled vowels delightful.  Spoken with an honestly attractive voice, Russian is an incredible pleasure for the ear.  Its edges, sharp and pure, never cut to bleed, and its lightness and speed are exciting.  Women who swoon for the congested sound of French have never quite made sense to me.  But give me a few phrases thrown away in rapid-fire, carelessly crystal-clear Russian, and the wonder of language lights up my brain.

The deliberate and convicted sound of a man who literally changed the world, speaking with a mellow voice no less powerful for its lack of volume, was an experience I frankly treasure in a sacred way apart from politics or seeing-a-famous-person or romance or anything else.  Beauty IS, sometimes, its own reward, and Gorbachev’s speech is one of those unexpected moments in memory, which illustrated something about beauty well beyond the perfectly arched brow or a total babe everyone wants to get to know.  That I understood not a word without the translator only enhanced this.

Clovis spoke a language I would never recognize, even if I spoke all the living tongues in the world today.

But I know his voice.

Rougher and sharper than a Russian statesman.

Never quite so guttural as a brute of a “Barbarian”.

Not quite a low voice, not for a long time – he came to the throne in the barest flush of his youth.

But balanced.  Measured.  Strong, if not beautiful.

And … I hope … compelling enough to echo through fifteen centuries …

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