Nan Mercado, my editor, asked me the other day how I came up with Gaia’s voice and how I developed it, and I had no idea how to answer her. What’s strange is that I know Gaia inside and out. I know her personality, and how she talks, acts, and thinks. Her belongings have history. How she perceives her world and how that changes are all part of her, too. I know her so completely that when I wrote a little story about Gaia at age eleven last week, the younger version of Gaia appeared to me whole and ready to go, entirely consistent with the more mature version in Birthmarked.
Yet knowing a character completely is not the same thing as knowing how I came up with her voice, let alone how I developed it, so I’ve been pondering this. It’s hard for me to isolate her voice from her behavior or gestures, as if it were coming at me over a phone line. Voice, I realize, isn’t just what Gaia says and how she says it, although there are words that have sounded wrong from her so I’ve changed them. It’s also what she thinks, and the gap between what she thinks and what she says. It’s what she doesn’t say.
Writing in third person, as I did for Birthmarked, doesn’t allow for many opportunities to deliver Gaia’s thoughts directly. I did, occasionally, with italics, but italics risk being distracting, especially if they’re too frequent. I’m looking at a passage here and I see that what I did instead was give Gaia’s reactions, and when they’re important, her feelings. I don’t usually notice this when I’m writing, because it’s all mixed in with imagining the scene, but take a look.
Here’s a passage from Chapter Two, when Sgt. Grey is examining the satchel Gaia keeps her midwifery supplies in:
He then turned the satchel inside out and examined the cloth, every seam and ripple of the brown, gray and white fabric. Gaia’s father had lovingly sewn each stitch, making a thing of beauty as well as a strong, practical bag that fit comfortably over Gaia’s shoulder. She felt like the satchel was part of her, and watching Sgt. Grey’s examination of the cloth and its contents felt like a keen violation of her privacy, all the more because his fingers were meticulous and careful in their movements.
His hands stilled on the cloth and he looked over at her finally, his expression neutral. She couldn’t tell if he was relieved or disappointed.
“You’re young,” he said.
His comment surprised her, and she saw no reason to answer. Besides, she could say the same thing to him. He straightened, then exhaled with a sigh and started putting her things back in the satchel.
“It’s okay,” she said, stepping forward to the table. “I’ll do it. I need to clean my things anyway.”
She hardly says anything, but she’s vulnerable and watching intently so we know what she’s thinking. There’s a pleasing little mental turn in the word “Besides.” Around that word, we get to see her mind move from surprise, to privacy, to a sort of annoyance, and then when she finally speaks, the only thing she reveals is her competence.
I’m afraid what I’ve discovered is that I can’t separate voice from the rest of the way I write. It’s completely enmeshed with character, scene, and plot. I’d be curious to know what other writers think about voice.