Voice as Character
II of III
For many, one of the challenges of writing is making sure each character has his own unique voice. Who hasn’t received a rejection that referred to our “puppet” or “cardboard” characters? Attending to the body and physicality of our characters can help.
An improv theater exercise has each student walk across the room with a different part of his body leading the way. Try it. Walk across the room with your chin leading the way. Then, with your right shoulder leading the way. By the time the student gets to the other side of the room the way he carries his body has begun to create a particular voice that is not the author’s own.
How does a four-year-old walk across the room? How does an exhausted father walk across the room? Body contributes to voice.
Another way to explore voices is to sink into images (even caricatures) of different people. William Steig’s drawings done long before he thought of SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE can help our minds play and discover.
Given their body posture and facial expression, how does each of the following characters express their reaction to the scene next to them?
The differences in each character’s response is what makes them unique and interesting.
THE STEIG ALBUM by William Steig. Duel, Sloan and Pearce, 1953.
Voice as Character
I of III
In many ways voice comes down to character whether we are referring to characters in a story or the author/narrator telling the story. Voice is communication and the desire for connection between people. This connection may be face-to-face or leap over years and miles through reading.
A character’s dialogue and action are guided by back-story, but primarily by her immediate wants or needs of the other characters. If a character has no needs or wants why is she in the story? So…what do we, as writers, want or need from our readers? What does our narrator’s voice reveal about us?
As writers and storytellers our primary “want” is capturing and keeping the attention and emotions of our audience. Even if our desire is to do something supposedly more important than keeping their attention such as teaching them something we need answer this reality: How can you teach or inform anyone unless you have their attention? The vital next question is: What are we doing to achieve that “want” of keeping their attention? Volume? Tone? Attitude?
If we encounter resistance to achieving our want in life, we eventually learn that the best tactic is to try another approach. Then another and another. As picture book writers we want the same toolbox of approaches. And, to always being aware of what our storyteller’s voice reveals about us. Warm? Comical? Demanding? Bossy? Scolding? Condescending? Playful? Challenging? Most of all, is it a voice eager to share an experience with an equal?
The Right Word
As writers we know the power of the right word. It is a significant part of writing and revising. Still, many of us feel a resistance toward revising or a sense of failure that must be repaired.
Once again the right word can make all the difference. I was at the Bonn International School in Germany last week to help students with their writing. During a visit to Jen Whitman’s second grade class I learned a new right word. Her students do not revise a manuscript. They revisit a manuscript. What a generous difference and shift in perspective that change of word creates.
When we revisit a place we know what we want to see again, what spots or activities weren’t as engaging as expected, and also what new things we’d like to explore. Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to revise a manuscript, and enjoy revisiting it instead.
We’ve all felt the warmth of a kind voice, the burn of a scolding voice, and the confusion of a dithering voice. We also know which of these voices kept our attention. Our readers also experience this interaction thanks to the array of picture books today. Later this month we’ll explore the range of voice on two levels. First, the voice of the narrator toward his audience. Second, the differences between a child’s voice and an adult’s voice in fiction.
I’ll be away the next three weeks, but wanted to leave you these wonderful visualizations of voice by Saul Steinberg. Do we write to confuse? To overwhelm? Or connect?
THE CATALOGUE by Saul Steinberg. World Publishing, 1962.
We Will Survive!
While sales figures for picture books are down and many pundits have proclaimed the picture book to be a thing of the past, I loudly disagree. If you’re reading this I know you also disagree. We all have a friend in Julie Hedlund. If you don’t already know her blog “Write Up My Life,” you’ll be grateful the day you find it.
Julie honored me with the request of writing a guest post this month as part of her 12 X 12 in 12 year-long adventure. You can find my guest post titled “From Flicker to Final Manuscript” at <www.writeupmylife.com>.
Thank you, Julie.
DRAGNET’s detective Jack Webb was famous for supposedly asking for “Just the facts, ma’am.” While that may be advisable for police work, “nothing but the facts” rarely keeps readers engaged. One of the most satisfying developments in recent years has been authors’ ability to blend facts or nonfiction with humor. One of the best is perfect for sharing this time of year–GROUNDHOG WEATHER SCHOOL by Joan Holub. Attempting to impart information about weather, weather forecasting, and groundhogs might have easily induced hibernation amongst readers. But instead, Holub and illustrator Kristin Sorra created a lively, tongue-in-cheek graphic story that’s packed with facts and lots of play.
Find a copy soon. Share it with children, and see what new twists it inspires in your own writing.
GROUNDHOG WEATHER SCHOOL by Joan Holub. Illus. by Kristin Sorra. Putnam, 2009.
One Picture Book Text: Multiple Interpretations
Charlotte Zolotow both edited and wrote many of the outstanding children’s books of the last 60 years. Thanks to the expanse of her writing career, several of her earlier picture books have been re-illustrated in recent years. The differences in styles, trends and printing technology demonstrate once again how many ways there are to interpret a single picture book text.
pigeons illus. by Bobri
pigeons illus. by Plume
cranes illus. by Bobri
cranes illus. by Plume
As picture book writers, we write to communicate with our young readers, but we also write to communicate with our future illustrators.
Picture Books to Explore
IF YOU LISTEN by Charlotte Zolotow. Illus. by Marc Simont. Harper, 1980.
IF YOU LISTEN by Charlotte Zolotow. Illus. by Stefano Vitale. Running Press, 2002.
ONE STEP, TWO by Charlotte Zolotow. Illus. by Cindy Wheeler. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1981.
ONE STEP, TWO by Charlotte Zolotow. Illus. by Roger Duvoisin. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1955.
THE SLEEPY BOOK by Charlotte Zolotow. Illus. by Vladimir Bobri. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1958.
THE SLEEPY BOOK by Charlotte Zolotow. Illus. by Ilse Plume. Harper, 1988.
THE SLEEPY BOOK by Charlotte Zolotow. Illus. by Stefano Vitale. Harper, 2001.