Sunday, October 23, 2005

In Search of a Voice

Are you searching for your character's voice?

If so, you might want to take a look at Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park.

Park, who received the 2002 Newbery Award for her novel, A Single Shard, isn't afraid of taking risks in her work.

Between chapters in Project Mulberry, Park includes brief excerpts from conversations that she had with her main character, Julia Song, over the course of writing the story.

Here's an example from the beginning of the book:

Me: Why am I named Julia?
Ms. Park: You're named after my sister. Sort of. Her name is Julie.
Me: What about Patrick?
Ms. Park: Oh, that's just a name I like. But his character is partly based on a boy named Mark who lived across the street from me when I was growing up....
Me: Do you know what's going to happen in the story? Do you already know the ending?
Ms. Park: I have a general idea of how I want the story to go, but nothing definite yet...

At first, I must admit, I found the conversations a bit distracting.

The interruptions felt a little like a curtain coming down during a play, with the playwright and main actor appearing onstage to discuss their relationship for a few minutes before the curtain was raised again so the play could continue.

No sooner did I immerse myself in the narrative than I found myself pulled out of the spell of each chapter, the illusion of the story completely shattered by these unexpected conversations.

And yet... by the middle of the story... Park had won me over.

Not only did the conversations, albeit brief, deepen my understanding of--and sympathy for-- Julia (as well as for Park), they expanded the boundaries of the story to include the writing process as part of the story.

In unexpected ways, I found myself looking forward to the behind-the-scenes glimpses that Park offered about her writing process as much as I looked forward to each chapter (though, of course, I'm curious about how I'd have responded to the story if Park hadn't included these intermittent intrusions.)

My sense is that Julia's voice, as well as Park's storytelling voice, gained greater depth and credibility as a result of these conversations, even if the plot's forward momentum was sacrificed in the process.

But, still, I can't help wondering what made Park decide to include the conversations and take such a risk with her story.

Here are a few of the questions that I find myself asking about her decision:

1) Why did Park feel it necessary to share this aspect of the writing process with the reader? Isn't writing a private struggle... rather than a public one? Are readers really interested in learning how the words find their way onto the page?

2) Park has written other books without using such a risky device. So, why break the traditional narrative form here? What prompted her, I wonder, to pull aside the wizard's curtain and reveal the writer's process?

3) Was finding Julia's voice an issue for Park in writing Project Mulberry? Did the conversations between chapters help Park find Julia's voice (and her own)? Does Park always have such conversations (on paper or in her head) with her characters?

4) What conversations might Park have left out? How did Park decide on the balance that she ultimately struck between the conversations and the story itself?

In any case, my guess is that these conversations helped deepen Park's understanding of Julia's character over the course of the story and, especially in the earliest stages, enabled her to hear Julia's voice more clearly.

If you're having trouble hearing your character's voice, why not take a look at Project Mulberry? Perhaps Park's conversations with Julia will help you begin a conversation with your own characters.

You might want to try, like Park, recording a conversation with your character on paper. (Or ask your character to write you a letter. Or, perhaps, your character might share a page from her diary or journal with you.)

Afterward, ask yourself if this process helped deepen your understanding of your character. Did it let you hear your character's voice--and see your story-- in a different way?

When you get a moment, let Wordswimmer know the methods that you use to find the voices of your characters.

For more information about Linda Sue Park and Project Mulberry, check out her website at http://www.lspark.com. If you're interested in taking a look at the blog that she keeps on what she's reading, go to http://www.livejournal.com/users/lsparkreader.

1 comment:

Jack O'Rourke said...

In Search of a Voice was a good topic to think about. I'll have to read Park's "Project Mulberry" to decide better whether the device of dialoguing with the character is a good idea in general. I suspect it will be interesting to many writers, myself included, but distracting to the average reader. It seems to be a serious departure from John Gardner's advice in "The Art of Fiction" about not interrupting the spell of the 'fictional dream,' as Wordswimmer noticed.

I do think a private conversation with the character is useful in finding a voice that 'fits' the character. I've done that with difficult characters and sometimes the responses that spring from the same subconcious that created the character are a wonder in themselves. Not all the information gained from such a conversation will be used directly in the story, but it may indirectly color how you describe the character's response to dialogue or action in your story. And I think you will be more apt to find your character acting more consistently to changing situations. At least that is how it seemed to me.