During my convalescence, I retrieved from one of the many bookshelves in our home, The Hobbit, a novel I have not opened in decades. As I remember from previous readings, I am again drawn into the book by Tolkien’s use of language, the Voice imbued in the telling of the tale. I notice tiny nuances within the delivery, lovely little humors and sentence twisting that adds to the joy and charm of the English Professor’s masterpiece.
Tolkien describes “the poor little hobbit,” Mr Baggins, flummoxed by the arrival of the dwarves. I love how the little fellow is “bewuthered” and the way he “puffed along the passage.”
You won’t see Robert E. Howard describe Conan as flummoxed: angry, yes, and not afraid to say so, and the only time he may puff is from exertion when swinging his two-handed broadsword; Conan could never be described as bewuthered (since J.R.R. invented the word) because doubt does not enter Conan’s thinking—he knows he can exact heavy casualties on those thirteen dwarves, and a wizard is not an unknown adversary to the barbarian. You also won’t see Conan described as “the poor barbarian” in any context other than not having two coppers to squeeze together.
The use of language speaks to the Voice (or tone) of the story and character. In The Hobbit, the story’s narrator is telling the story through the eyes of poor Mr Baggins, but knows things the hobbit does not, giving a unique viewpoint to the recounting. Tolkien is by most counts the master of modern fantasy, but unlike the darker and more epic Lord of the Rings, the introduction to Middle Earth was written with a different Voice and a particular audience in mind—children. The Hobbit is written in a fairy tale style, and is every bit as enchanting as the follow-up trilogy is dark.
I bring up the differences between Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy (and the style difference with Howard) to show how Voice is used, but in entirely different ways, ways that are determined by the character: Bilbo Baggins, an easily frazzled and unassuming hobbit, Conan a strapping, muscular barbarian who’s thought process rushes from an adrenalin-charged brain to strong hands clenched around the hilt of his sword.
There are several things to decide when you begin a story or novel, and Voice is one of the first. Several questions come into play, such as viewpoint by which the Voice is expressed and through whose eyes the reader views the world; first person or third, or something different? But Voice is more than that. The Voice is also the words chosen, what the character sees and what they do not, what they think and what does not even cross their minds. Voice is the “feel” of the story and the intimacy one shares with the storyteller.
While building my Submission Circle (those stories which are now in the pipeline to editors of various magazines), it was interesting how much the Voice played in each story, and how each story gained a unique perspective determined by the words the characters chose.
Here are two opening scene examples from my own writing. In each story, the Voice sets the tone of the story to follow. As it so happens, both are first person even though I normally create in third person limited.
Boys ‘N Berries
Momma always said grandma has a green thumb. Well, I looked plenty of times; her nails are yellow, for sure, but not green, and wondered if momma was colored-blinded.
I stood on the porch that circled the big-ole ranch house, momma and grandma rocking in the two-seater swing behind me. Chewing on a piece of straw, I wondered if Juliette would be at the county fair next weekend, and thinking of the brand-spanking new Schwinn in Rucker’s window. I had to have that bike; then Juliette would let me kiss her. I’d ride up like a prince on his golden stallion and take her for a ride to the river. She couldn’t help but be impressed, and heck, that Schwinn put Eddie’s three-speed to shame so I’d be the talk of the school-yard.
From this paragraph, the reader understands the character (a boy), the setting (porch) and problem (wanting the Schwinn, which hints at the time period, the mid-1960’s), but it’s the character’s descriptions—colored-blinded, big-ole ranch house, chewing on a piece of straw—that gives the story (and the character) its Voice.
In The Company of Demons
The long table stretched into the eternity of the Great Hall. I sat down at the feast table, tucked my wings behind me, trying not to arouse attention. The Master’s minions loomed all about me, forever into the distance. Some were terrifying—even to me—an assortment of strange, misshapen beasts from the Master’s many realms.
The smell of sizzling flesh intermingled with oily smoke, swirled occasionally by a companion’s fluttering wings or sweeping tail. A thousand different noises and grating voices hummed, halted by shrieks of agony in the distance; the minions laughed and regained the conversations. I did neither.
I reached a clawed hand to a platter of writhing entrails, pulled them into my mouth, hoping to hide that I no longer found humor at the suffering of the poor souls whose screams, even now, still echoed in my hearing.
Again, character (a demon), setting (A Great Hall), and a problem (he does not find joy as he once did), but it is his view—Some were terrifying–even to me–an assortment of strange, misshapen beasts from the Master’s many realms, smell of sizzling flesh intermingled with oily smoke, A thousand different noises and grating voices hummed—that gives Eligos and the story its specific Voice.
When starting your new story, do not ignore how important the Voice is, how your character’s observations and thoughts are intertwined with the plot, how each word sets the story’s tone and gives each its own unique flavor.
See you on the next page,