Hearing Voices

From the time I learned to read, I wanted to be a writer. I also wanted to be an artist, but by age ten I realized I didn’t have the talent, so I switched my goal from becoming a writer/artist to becoming a writer/actor. Sadly not only do I have a face for radio but I also have a voice for silent films, so I soon struck that from my list of aspirations as well.

Yet I still do get to act, via my writing.

That’s largely why I gravitate toward writing in the first person. For me, writing a character is often about pretending to be the character (hence my acting out dialogue when I write). And writing in the first person makes pretending, for me, even more participatory. Like acting.

I recently finished the first draft of a novel that’s told in the first person by the two main characters. It’s a sequel to a novel I wrote several years back, which used the similar structure. My favorite aspect of writing both books was ensuring that the two voices were distinct, so that you could tell who was speaking without any sort of heading declaring which chapter was narrated by Steve and which by Cat.

For these characters, making the distinction was relatively easy. Steve is a schizophrenic in his 20s, born and bred in rural England, not particularly well educated. Cat is an American in her 30s who relocated from New York to London, a college grad, and a writer to boot. But I wanted to go beyond the obvious differences in vocabulary. So Steve’s sentences tend to be shorter, especially when his illness is manifesting itself, while Cat makes use of compound-complex sentences. Also, when Steve is having a psychotic break, like many schizophrenics he’s unable to interpret metaphors. Ask a symptomatic schizophrenic what “A stitch in time saves nine” means, and he won’t say that it suggests you should take your time completing a task correctly the first time to avoid having to redo it or fix it later; he’ll likely parrot that it means you should do one stitch now and not nine later, or go off on some tangent. So when Steve is in hospital and says that, for instance, his guilt is a vest of explosives strapped to his chest, he means he literally feels the weight of the explosive guilt strapped onto him.

The novel I’m getting ready to self-publish, however, is written in the third person.

I did this partly because I wanted to challenge myself to write in a style that doesn’t come as naturally to me. And partly because I wanted the freedom to fluidly move back and forth between the points of view of the two protagonists within the same chapter, and sometimes even the same scene.

This eliminated the need to worry about varying sentence structures and having to work with a more limited vocabulary (which is much more difficult than you might think; there’s a reason it took Dr. Seuss nine months to write The Cat in the Hat, which uses just 236 unique words). But I still wanted to show the differences in the characters within the language of the third-person narrative. Sometimes it was relatively simple: When the narrative is focused on Richard, a Londoner now living in Devon, I use British English to describe a scene; for instance, the bus stand shelter will be made of Perspex. When the focus is on Suzanne, a London who moved to the States when she was ten, the vocabulary is more American; the bus stop shelter is now made of Plexiglas. (This changes gradually the longer Suzanne stays in England, however. Over the course of the book, she begins thinking of her cell phone as her mobile, trucks as lorries.)

Then there are the elements that I’ll call out in my descriptions. Richard’s former girlfriend was a hairdresser, so when he meets someone, I describe her hair and other aspects of her physical appearance first. But because Suzanne is an actress, she tends to notice voices and accents first, then how a person carries himself. Maybe no one else will notice these subtleties, but they make writing more like acting to me. My favorite actors walk differently from one role to the other, adopt a different posture, hold their cigarette differently. I want my writing to do the same.

I try to do something similar when writing copy for clients. Say I’m writing about a figurine shaped like a lotus flower. If the target shopper is affluent, well educated, and well traveled, I might toss in a sentence about how the lotus is a millennia-old symbol of purity in China before describing the piece’s painstaking craftsmanship. If the target shopper is less affluent and educated, I would probably focus more on the lovely colors and how they’ll easily add a spot of color to even a neutral setting.

(Copywriting guru Herschell Gordon Lewis has written extensively on this subject, by the way. I learned just about everything I know about copywriting from the columns he wrote for Catalog Age/Multichannel Merchant back when I was an editor at the magazines. So thanks, Herschell, for enabling me to make a living now that I’m no longer working full-time as a magazine writer/editor.)

Getting into the head of a character, whether it’s a fictional creation that’s sprung from your own imagination or the target customer of a product you’re describing, prevents your prose from being pedestrian and makes it easier to sell your wares, be they a story about a young actress searching for her missing brother or a Limoges box. It also makes the task at hand, at least for me, more fun. And given that so much of writing is a matter of mechanics, you might as well inject fun wherever and whenever you can. Besides, if you enjoy the writing process, the reader is more likely to enjoy the reading process.

(I’ve illustrated this post with a photo of Robert Carlyle because he’s one of those actors who metamorphose among characters in the way I described above. Compare the swag of Gaz in The Full Monty to the contained vulnerability of Stevie in Riff-Raff to the repressed longing of Mr. Gold in Once Upon a Time. Of course, that he’s a pleasure to look at had a bit to do with his placement at the top of this post as well.)


  1. By no means do I consider myself a writer. I am a storyteller and I write the way I speak (although I sometimes reach for a thesaurus when writing). I only write about subjects which interest me, therefore I enjoy what I write about. Because I don't and can't write about unfamiliar topics, I cannot be considered a writer.

    I can, however, be considered an artist. But unlike most artists, I rarely challenge myself. I don't strive to better my work and I heartily admit to being lazy. I don't aspire to achieve greater heights of blah blah blah blah blah.

    I think people today have a short attention span and lately, I find my work to be quick, impactful and direct-to-the-point. Perhaps that's my experience in marketing coming through. There is the rare occasion when my writing goes off on a tangent, but only when I am trying to be funny.

    What was my point? I think it was I feel a bit embarrassed that I only know Herschell Gordon Lewis as the "Master of Gore" and I knew nothing of his marketing background. That's what I was getting at.

    1. Herschell is also an absolute sweetie, one of the courtliest men I've met (granted, that ain't saying much, given the company I keep...).