If you follow me on Instagram, then you may know that I’m a huge fan of Liane Moriarty. I read a review of What Alice Forgot just over a year ago, bought it on Amazon, and was instantly hooked! I’ve purposefully chosen NOT to binge-read her books (over the last 12 months, I’ve read five of her seven novels) because her writing is like eating a decadent chocolate dessert – I want the experience to last as long as possible!
Not only does Mrs. Moriarty entertain me as a reader, she inspires me as a writer. I’ve learned so much from her, particularly pacing, character development, suspense building, and, as I’ll discuss today, character voice.
In the current book I’m reading, Truly Madly Guilty, Mrs. Moriarty has seven point-of-view characters: three women, their husbands, and a ten-year-old girl, who belongs to one of the couples. Each of these characters is seen from the third-person limited perspective.
If that last part made your head spin, allow me to explain…
Third-person is when the author writes in the third person, e.g., he/she/they. (duh, I know…) In the old days (think classic works by Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, etc.), the third-person narrator telling the tale was also omniscient, meaning he or she knew all things about all the characters, both past and present. Today, however, most third-person novels are not omniscient, but limited, which means the narrator, in any given section or chapter, only knows the emotions and thoughts of a single character. Popular examples of novels written from third-person limited POVS are Harry Potter, Love in the Time of Cholera, and Song of Ice and Fire.
In Steering the Craft, Ursula Le Guin’s writing manual, she provides a succinct definition of limited viewpoints:
Only what the viewpoint character knows, feels, perceives, thinks, guesses, hopes, remembers, etc., can be told. The reader can infer what other people feel and think only from what the viewpoint character observes of their behaviour.
When you’ve got more than one main character you’re telling the story through, third-person limited naturally becomes multiple third-person limited.
Okay, back to Truly Madly Guilty…
One thing (and there are many things I could ramble on about…) Mrs. Moriarty does that really makes her seven main characters pop off the page as vivid, distinct, three-dimensional people is the unique voice she’s infused into each of them.
Before I go on, here’s a brief rundown on what I mean by “voice,” specifically character voice, as defined by literarydevices.net:
“A character’s voice is the voice of the main character, how he views the world. It is a common narrative voice used with first and third person points of view. Here, the author uses a conscious person as a narrator in the story.”
Another succinct, yet helpful definition, comes from novelist Ava Jae: The characteristic speech and thought patterns of a narrator; a persona.
Liane Moriarty uses things like imagery, metaphors, figures of speech, opinions and thought patterns to make it clear whose point of view we’re experiencing the story through (challenge yourself to make it so clear which character’s head you’re in that you don’t even need to use his or her name). For instance, in Truly, Madly, Guilty, one of the main characters, Clementine, is a cellist. Throughout the novel, when we’re in Clementine’s POV, we read musical metaphors that Clementine uses to help process and illuminate what’s happening around her. Here’s an excerpt to illustrate:
“Clementine dropped her bow and tried to imagine her life without Erika in it: without the aggravation, followed always be the guilt. A melody with only two notes: aggravation, guilt, aggravation, guilt. She picked up her bow and deliberately played the wolf note, over and over, letting the sound aggravate her and worm its way down her ear canal, vibrating against her eardrum, creeping into her brain, throbbing at the center of her forehead.”
I underlined the sections that really emphasize Clementine’s voice. It’s evident from the word choice that she’s a woman whose entire being is deeply and inextricably connected to music.
Oliver, one of the men in the book, is a straight-laced, practical, erudite (okay, I mean nerdy – there’s no shame in that!) accountant. The following is from one of his POV chapters:
“Running would give him clarity. His nervous system would release a protein that stimulated regions of his brain related to decision making.”
This isn’t the type of thing the ten-year-old daughter Dakota would say, nor the type of thing fun-loving, butt-slapping, book-averting Vid, her father, would say. It’s exactly the type of thing Oliver would say, and makes us smile with fondness for his practical, scientific, often robot-like ways.
Here’s a third and final example, this one from one of Tiffany’s POV chapters. I will note that the person being described is Oliver.
“He was so straightforward and polite; a bit of a dork, with his black hair and spectacles, like a grown-up Harry Potter. He had a very small head, she couldn’t help but notice. There was nothing to be done about his pea-head, but Tiffany should tell Erika to buy Oliver some of those vintage, black-rimmed glasses; transform her husband into a cute hipster in just one move. (Vid had a massive head. You couldn’t get a baseball cap to fit him.)”
Tiffany is a young, hip, hot next-door neighbor to Oliver and his equally prudish wife Erika. She, and her husband Vid, are the Oscar to their Felix. Having her notice and comment on Oliver’s dorky appearance and then think of a way to improve it are totally in keeping with her trendy, worldly, and genuinely helpful personality. Also, the use of words like “dork” and “pea-head” would never be used by the likes of Oliver and Erika; again, word choice is key for developing strong character voices.
I hope you found this week’s post insightful and/or helpful in some way! If anything, I hope it’s encouraged you to take deep thoughtful looks at just how your favorite authors have gone about crafting characters you love.
When you hear the words “character voice,” which characters pop into your mind? Leave a comment below or tweet me @dandersontyler. I’d love to hear your thoughts!