Thursday, August 17, 2006

Voices, Voices Everywhere...

One hears a lot as an aspiring writer about voice and letting the reader get to know characters through their dialogue. You don’t want your characters to sound alike, whether they are narrating (meaning first person from the character’s POV) or speaking. One book that impressed me greatly in this regard is “House of Sand and Fog”, by Andre Dubus III, published by Vintage Books, 1999.

"House of Sand and Fog" tells the story of two (well, actually three, but the two following are the main characters) people. Colonel Behrani moved his family from Iran to the U.S. in the wake of political violence that threatened their lives. Wealthy in Iran and now almost broke, he uses the last of his savings to buy a house at auction. This house will be the start of a new life of financial independence. Kathy Nicolo is the previous owner of the house, which was mistakenly siezed by the city and put up for sale. Her house, left to her by her father, is one of her sole possessions, and one that helps hang onto her sanity. The story centers around the two characters as they both fight for possession of the house. Of course, the story is much better than I’ve made it sound here (go read it! Oprah even recommends it).

The story is told in the first person, alternating between Kathy’s and the Colonel’s points of view. Dubus distinguishes the voice of the characters by using different language, sentence construction, and word choice. The Colonel’s sections are also told in the present tense, which usually drives me up a wall, but in this case, just added to the tone of those sections. You can flip this book open to any page, read a sentence or two and instantly know who is narrating – the differences are distinct.

For example, here is the Colonel narrating:

“Many summer evenings, instead of sleeping on the sofa in my office, I rest on the carpet near the sliding door of the terrace with my head on a pillow beneath the leaves of the tree plants my Nadi cares for like her own children. Last evening the sky was clear, and sleep came for me as I watched the stars through the screen.

I rise with the first light from the east, and, after a shower and shave and a breakfast of toast and tea, I wake Esmail for his newspaper route. Then I dial the Highway depot and inform them of the summer flu I am suffering.” (pp 23-24, TP edition, 1999)

And here is Kathy narrating:

“My husband got to miss all this, that’s what I kept thinking, that he didn’t have to be around for any of this, and I was stuck at the El Rancho Motel in San Bruno. It was a shitty little one-story L of rooms wedged between an electrical parts warehouse and a truck-stop bar near the 101 Freeway ramp…

…I was dying for a cigarette, which made me even madder because I hadn’t smoked one since a month after Nick left, and I hadn’t craved one in five. So I chewed
gum.” (pp 34, TP edition, 1999)

I highly recommend this book, whether you care about characters’ voices or not.

P.S. TP edition means trade paperback edition - not something else y'all might have been thinking.


Ms. Karen said...

I have found that when I actually think in what I feel my character's voice sounds like,(whether it be a southern drawl or chopped northern rapidfire) it helps me to keep the right sound coming out in my writing.

Oh, that didn't sound right... helps me keep ...helps me ... help...

Julie Doe said...

I know what you mean.

I've been struggling with a short story (OK, well about 8000 words, so not that short). It's currently written in third person from the two main characters' viewpoints. But the story feels flat. After re-reading HoSaF, I'm thinking about revising the story so that it is told from two alternating first person POV's.

The story's theme involves our concept of identity, and one of the characters struggles with hers. I'm wondering if I can show this better through a change in her voice. Hmmm.... We'll see how it turns out.