Palimpsest: In whose voice do your characters speak?

Let’s talk about “voice.” Way back in the Paleolithic era, when I was in graduate school, I had a professor whose area of research was the poet, H.D. Ok, it wasn’t the Paleolithic, it was the 80’s, and evidently it was hot to study H.D. back then because she was some big pre-feminist icon who hung out with Freud. Be that as it may, I learned nothing about H.D. or her poetry but I did learn the word “palimpsest.” Apparently H.D. wrote a poem using imagery of the palimpsest. (Or a collection of poems, or a whole book… I don’t know. See I really didn’t learn anything in graduate school!) “What, pray tell, is a palimpsest?!” you may ask. Well, a palimpsest is a page from a scroll or book made of parchment, where the writing has been removed in order to use the parchment again. (Recycling is not a new idea.) Parchment is made from animal skin and the original text was scraped and washed off using milk and oat bran. What makes it unusual and interesting is that over the course of time the original writing kind of resurfaces. Cool, right?

So now you’re probably saying to yourself, “Interesting, but why is she talking about this when she said we were going to be talking about voice?” Well, the palimpsest imagery can be pretty powerful when thinking about creating an authentic voice in fiction. The question becomes, “How much of the author‘s voice should surface through the voice of the created characters?” I’m currently reading a young adult manuscript and it’s so clear to me that the 7th graders who populate this story just would not say the things they are saying. Or thinking. Or even doing. The voice of the (probably middle aged) writer, who has written a great YA book, keeps materializing through her characters. Bits and pieces of someone who is not 13 years old keep shining through. The way a girl describes a boy’s body. The response to the self-righteousness of the bitchy step-mother. The understanding of why a bully bullies. All the author not the characters.

Of course some of the things we like about certain writers is their unique voice (think the inestimable talents of say, John Green, John Irving or Amy Tan). It’s a tricky dance. How much of ourselves can we allow to surface through our fictional characters? At a certain point, if too much of ourselves as people, our life experiences, our personalities, peek out of the characters, it becomes obvious. The character palimpsest can become unintelligible, indecipherable. Unless your character is a person just like you, they really need to speak for themselves. Our job as writers is to let our characters do that. In my (not so) humble opinion, that is what creates an authentic voice. Maybe I should go back and try to read H.D.

How much of yourself do you write into your characters? How do you think you are doing in maintaining an authentic voice in your writing?



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2 responses to “Palimpsest: In whose voice do your characters speak?

  1. Funny you should mention HD. I never studied her in school, but just the other day The Helmsman turned up in my in-box, and I liked it so much I read it aloud to the empty room.

    I also had never heard of a palimpsest before. The image intrigues me. And I love your example of the layers of billboards peeling off the wall.

    As for voice in fiction — the character’s vs the author’s — that’s an issue I struggle with in my writing all the time. The book I’m working on now is told in the first person, with the narrator recalling events that happened at various times in her life. When she revisits something she experienced at four, seven, seventeen, should she speak in the voice she would have used at the time, or should she bring the wisdom she has acquired since to bear on the situation? It’s a puzzle I’m still trying to solve.

    I agree with you in general that the best stories let their characters do the telling and keep the author “hidden.” But I have also found that done right, this “hidden” author notion is really a cleverly crafted illusion. Too much “authentic” narrative can be as tedious as dialogue that reads like a transcript of actual speech. The trick is to consistently maintain the character’s point of view and vocabulary and knowledge base while making the person a better storyteller than she could possibly be in real time.