Last week on Masterpiece Monday we saw sound effects making a splash in some scenes. This week I’d like to show off a great example of something that I struggle with: voice.
Giving your writing its own distinct personality is tough. It’s not something you can easily fix or add in like grammar rules or putting in more details. In order to get a good, sexy voice, every sentence – every word – has to feel like it’s coming from an actual human being with a unique personality. The second one syllable feels forced or out of place, it all comes crumbling down.
I recently read John Green’s young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars. I don’t know why or how I’ve managed to go this long without reading it, but thankfully I managed to fix that. I was blown away by the narrator’s voice starting on the very first page.
Here’s a sample from page one where the narrator (Hazel) describes her discussion session at a local church with other kids fighting cancer:
So here’s how it went in God’s heart: The six or seven or ten of us walked/wheeled in, grazed at a decrepit selection of cookies and lemonade, sat down in the Circle of Trust, and listened to Patrick recount for the thousandth time his depressingly miserable life story—how he had cancer in his balls and they thought he was going to die but he didn’t die and now here he is, a full-grown adult in a church basement in the 137th nicest city in America, divorced, addicted to video games, mostly friendless, eking out a meager living by exploiting his cancertastic past, slowly working his way toward a master’s degree that will not improve his career prospects, waiting, as we all do, for the sword of Damocles to give him the relief that he escaped lo those many years ago when cancer took both of his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life.
AND YOU TOO MIGHT BE SO LUCKY!
Now that’s one hell of a voice! You immediately get a sense of exactly what kind of person Hazel is just by her description of a church meeting. Cynical, sarcastic, brutally honest, but not in a pretentious way – it all feels very natural.
One of the ways that Hazel’s voice is so strong is through her word usage. She doesn’t let herself be limited to the mere vocabulary of any dictionary. She uses multiple words at once (“walked/wheeled”), odd-sounding words for emphasis (“lo those many years ago”), and even makes up words when necessary (“cancertastic”).
But you can’t just have one fantastic paragraph and hope that carries the voice for the rest of the story. Hazel’s voice is just as clear for the rest of the book.
Here’s just three examples I particularly liked:
(1) I woke up and soon got into one of those experimental trials that are famous in the Republic of Cancervania for Not Working.
(2) I liked that he was a tenured professor in the Department of Slightly Crooked Smiles with a dual appointment in the Department of Having a Voice That Made My Skin Feel More Like Skin.
(3) “It must be some book,” she said as she knelt down next to the bed and unscrewed me from my large, rectangular oxygen concentrator, which I called Philip, because it just kind of looked like a Philip.
From the very first word to the last, author John Green does an amazing job of bringing Hazel to life as a distinct human being. Never once as a reader did I think “This sounds like a thirty-something man wearing the mask of a sixteen-year-old girl.”
That’s something I know I have trouble with when writing; my characters often feel like they’re just Scott Wilsons wearing masks instead of their own unique beings. Hopefully by learning from great authors like John Green we can all try to turn our novels from awkward mask-wearing parties into just actual parties instead.
(Featured image via GAHAG, edited by me)