f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 5 of <i>Gilead</i> – Building a Voice

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Day 5 of Gilead – Building a Voice

Since Gilead relies so much on voice, I thought we’d spend a quick day talking a little about what it means to build a voice. Here are some building blocks which will help shape the voice of the narrator. (There’s also the voice of non-narrator characters, too, but they come out only through dialogue.)

POV: We need a separate and distinctive voice for each narrator in a novel.

In Gilead, it’s a first-person POV—John Ames.

Perspective: What is special about where the narrator is focusing his attention?

At first, the perspective is focused mostly back through time and flashbacks. However, soon current happenings force the action into the present and the perspective is on the hear-and-now.

Form: Is there anything special in the method of narrative?

Gilead, as I’ve mentioned, is an epistolary novel. It’s “written” not oral.

Narrative Character: What are some major outer traits of the narrator that will define voice?

John Ames is seventy-five. He is a pastor. He is dying and writing his memoirs for a young son who, assumably, will not remember his father.

Setting: What in the setting will influence voice?

It is 1950s Iowa. Small town.

These are the most major building blocks of voice. If I gave you what is above and told you to write a novel, you would have a running start. If you didn’t know, you’d have to figure out how the 1950s might influence voice, or being 75 years old, or being from the Midwest. But otherwise, you could get a pretty good leap.

The magic of writing comes as we begin exploring the details a little more closely.

What kind of pastor is he? Fire and brimstone? Liberal? Compassionate?

How does his impending death affect him? Is he frightened? Contented? Sad?

These questions may not have definitive answers. He could be frightened at one point in the novel and grow to contentment. Voice is not necessarily static. It needs to be steady and trackable—but never static.

Finally, what idiosyncratic flourishes can an author dream up to add personality to a voice. These are things, in particular, that help differentiate narrators in multiple-narrator novels.

Word use is one. Cultural references are another. The books and theologians John Ames quotes, for instance, should reflect his character. Another pastor wouldn’t necessarily look to the same sources.

Finally, I want to point out one little “literary” peculiarity that Marilynne Robinson gives John Ames.

Ames has a habit of concluding thoughts with what seem to be non-sequitors. He’ll speak for a length on one topic and then conclude with a quick remembrance or allusion to something else. It’s a habit he repeats enough that it is evident, but not terrible annoying. It gives you a picture of a mind awake, a mind constantly searching for links and connections between things. Meaning that emerges from juxtaposition.

This is just one example. Read any good novel and characters often emerge with a few of these little traits. Just something to help make them more real, more alive in our minds as we “hear” them.
Go to Day 6 of our discussion of Gilead.