Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Thoughts on Voice

After I finished the Terry Pratchett book I talked about in my last entry, I picked up Steven Brust's latest Vlad Taltos novel, Tiassa. I plow through most of Brust's books pretty quickly (with certain exceptions I'll get to later), and so I knocked this one out in about half a week. Brust can be very experimental with his style and voice, and in Tiassa, it was especially apparent, so I'd like to take some time to consider what I think about his choices.

I was first exposed to Brust through The Phoenix Guards, which I picked up at a book fair and used as the topic for a book report. In the sixth grade. When I was 11. Anyone who's read The Phoenix Guards or any of Brust's other "Khaavren Romances" can see why I still consider this something of a feat. This entire subseries of books is written in the voice of a fictional historian, Paarfi of Roundwood, who's meant to represent something like the worst (or best) excesses of Alexandre Dumas and the like. Paarfi books...take some getting through.

The Vlad Taltos novels, on the other hand, with a few notable exceptions, are written in an engaging, colloquial, first-person voice. This doesn't mean they're necessarily always easy to read (honestly, I still don't know what was going on in Orca, even after reading it three times, nor do I think I ever really will), but it's a very different experience, especially in terms of how hard you have to work to get through it.

Tiassa is a Taltos novel that turns into a Paarfi romance halfway through. No spoilers, I promise, but it's simply the case that the first half of the book is written in Vlad's voice, and the second half in Paarfi's. Although it's appropriate for this book, given the topic and the characters, it's still a decision that I question, and one that I think I wouldn't have been brave enough to undertake myself. I don't know what Brust's sales numbers are like, but I would be surprised if the Khaavren romances sell nearly as well as the Taltos novels. I can readily imagine readers being thrown by Paarfi's voice if they weren't expecting it, and perhaps being honestly annoyed, if they were expecting Vlad's sharp wit for the full duration and instead got stuck with Paarfi's dry asides for half of it.

I like the idea of switching narrators. When I write, it's typically third person, but I'll go inside no more than one person's head per scene, so each scene either plays out like a movie, or is clearly being understood through the lens of one character or another. I do feel like I can accomplish a lot (especially for an astute reader) by careful selection of who the character in charge of a given scene is. But while I'll display thoughts, I generally don't change my own narrative voice. I don't think it's taboo to change voices, and I've seen novels that make it an important plot element. I would worry about it for novice writers, lest the voices start sliding together, but this can generally be made a non-issue by making the voices distinct enough (Vlad and Paarfi are very distinct). I understand why it's necessary in Tiassa, because there would essentially be no point to the second half of the novel if it were told from Vlad's point of view. On the other hand, since Brust uses only two voices, first one, then the other, it does make for a very disjointed read, and although there are common threads throughout, it almost feels like two novellas bound together, or even a collection of short stories, more than a single novel.

I think that Brust was brave for the experiment he undertook in Tiassa, and that his publishers were brave in printing it. I can't say I'm really certain how well it turned out, but I can't think of a way I'd have accomplished the same way differently. Still, the fact that it got me thinking about voice is a good thing, and I suppose if I ever come up with an answer, it will have made me a better writer, too.

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