Monday, February 3, 2014

'You Look Older Than You Sound'

I was doing some thinking this weekend about ‘voice’ and how authors use it to capture and reflect the age, background, and perspective of their main characters throughout their stories. And I found myself wondering what aspects contribute most to a main character’s ‘voice’? Is it the vocabulary they employ? Their observations or opinions? Or simply the tonality and pacing of what is written?

When I was preparing this blogpost, one of the things that struck me most was how often an author mentions their MC’s age right there in the very first page. It makes sense, really, since it’s the fastest and easiest way to convey a mental image to the reader.

But what if they hadn’t mentioned age right away? What if there was no outside blurb, physical descriptions or indication of who’s telling the story and all we had to rely on was ‘voice’? Would we still have an accurate image of who’s telling the story? I’m curious. Below I’ve taken three different extracts from the first page of three fairly well-known books; each one written from the point of view of a different age group.

Based on voice alone, how old would you say each character is?

Example 1 - ‘Here is everything I know about France: Madeline and Amelie and Moulin Rouge. The Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, although I have no idea what the function of either actually is. Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, and a lot of kings named Louis. I’m not sure what they did either, but I think it has something to do with the French Revolution, which has something to do with Bastille Day. The art museum is called the Louvre and it’s shaped like a pyramid and the Mona Lisa lives there along with that statue of the woman missing her arms. And there are cafés or bistros or whatever they call them on every other street corner.  And mimes. The food is supposed to be good, and the people drink a lot of wine and smoke a lot of cigarettes.’

Example 2- ‘It has not been the rip-roaring spectacular I fancied it would be, but neither have I burrowed with the gophers. I suppose it has most resembled a blue-chip stock; fairly stable, more ups than downs, and gradually trending upward over time.’

Example 3-‘We moved on the Tuesday before Labor day. I knew what the weather was like the second I got up. I knew because I caught my mother sniffing under her arms. She always does that when it’s hot and humid, to make sure her deodorant’s working.’


Did you get an impression of how old each narrator was? What aspects do you think contribute most to a character’s ‘voice’? 

(I'll include the answers to these in the comments section later on today :)

20 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

First one sounds like a teen, the second one adult, and the last one maybe twelve years old.
It's the words used and the way they flow together. I managed to make Byron's son sound like he was ten just by the way he spoke, although I didn't state his age right away. (People were still able to guess before that.)

SA Larsenッ said...

Most? Hmm... I'd say word choice. But a close second would be gestures and mannerisms while speaking.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I am thinking teen, adult, and MG.

It's partly the vocabulary, partly the knowledge base, and partly what the narrator chooses to talk about. (Like I'd expect a MG character to talk about catching his/her mother sniffing her armpits.)

stu said...

For me, it's partly word choice, partly the things the author chooses to concentrate on and concern themselves with. Giving the age early always seems like a good thing, the same way a description does, because it helps to anchor the character in the reader's mind before they can come up with their own version that doesn't quite fit.

Laura Marcella said...

The first one sounds like a teenager, the second one like an adult–somewhere between 35 and 60?–and the third one sounds like a kid. Word choice, sentence length, and flow impacted my guesses.

Happy reading and writing! from Laura Marcella @ Wavy Lines

Hart Johnson said...

I'd go with the later teen, adult (NA), MG options, too... word choice and turns of phrase, but also what they care to mention.

Crystal Collier said...

I'm with Hart. It's totally the focus. Any character will hone in on what matters to them in any given situation, and I think that's much more revealing than anything else...although word choice is also a huge part of that.

Theresa Milstein said...

What an interesting exercise. I recognize #3!

Elizabeth Seckman said...

kid, adult, teen?

Cathrina Constantine said...

Teen, adult, child/kid. I agree with the vocabulary, mannerisms, and the pace. Good Post.

Angela Brown said...

The first one sounded very teenager. The vocabulary and references to things learned about in history class along with a certain pacing that felt youthful but not quite a little kid.

The vocabulary of the second makes me think of an adult. I'm not aware of very many new adult aged persons who would use or refer to "blue chip stocks" unless they are finance majors.

The last one sounds like a child, though an older child from the way they've had time to observe and link certain actions to situations.

Tim Dudek said...

The first sounds late teens.

The second I would say is middle aged 40 -50

And the final one pre-teen 10-12

How'd I do teacher?

WordsPoeticallyWorth said...

Thank you. Love love, Andrew. Bye.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I know the first book. That one is teen, and it sounds like it. The second one is adult and the third in MG (or lower YA). Which means I'm wrong.

Often you'll see on Miss Snark's First Victim Secret Agent contests people pointing out that the voice doesn't sound right for the age group indicated for the entry.

Jenni Enzor said...

I've read the first one, one of the best beginnings in YA. So, I'd say teen, adult, and middle grade (10-12). For the two I hasn't read before, it was what the characters noticed. #2 was talking about blue-chip stocks, a grown-up concern, and #3 was fixated on her mother, a kid concern.

Creepy Query Girl said...

You guys all did really well! The first one was from 'Lola and the Boy Next Door'- age 16. The second is from 'The Notebook' -age 80. And the third is 'Hello, God. It's Me, Margaret' - age 10.

Annalisa Crawford said...

Interesting experiment - I changed my mind throughout the first excerpt solely on the use on the word 'function'!

AiringMyDirtyLaundry said...

Teen, adult, kid?

I hope when I write that I portray the age correctly. I mainly write chick lit and the characters are generally in their 20s.

Lexa Cain said...

I didn't look at your answer yet. I'd guess 12, 40, and 16.

Now I looked - say whaa? I was way off.

I think all things contribute to a character's voice: vocabulary, idiom, general knowledge, sentence structure, apparent interests, and emotionality. But I've read a number of YA books with voices I don't believe in. Some are too dumb. Some are too smart.

Creepy Query Girl said...

Correction- I got my Perkins books mixed up. The first one is from 'Anna and the French Kiss':) Hense all the talk about France...

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