Hearing Voices: A Case for Multiple Points of View

     I hear voices, and I’m grateful for them.  I eavesdrop shamelessly. I’m not above following people into a store or even a rest room just to hear the climax of their conversations. I’ve collected all manner of diverse voices in notebooks ever since I was a child and would walk to school with voices murmuring in my head. Back then they were the voices of pigs and cats and strange little creatures I called snurds. I treasured those voices–especially when the teacher said: “Now boys and girls, it’s time for spelling!”

     Later on I got into school and community theater and was able to become those characters who were so wonderfully different from my own boring self. At fourteen I played farcical Bottom in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. I can still recall Bottom’s dying scene as Pyramus, after finding Thisbe’s bloody mantle: “Thus I die I, thus (stab) thus (stab) thus (stab). Now I am dead…”  At sixteen I did a scene as Joan of Arc and almost gave up my voices because she heard voices and then she was burned at the stake.  And in community theater I portrayed an old Irish woman who’d lost her husband and five sons to the sea. In the end Maurya cries: “They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me…No man at all can be living forever and we must be satisfied.” I loved that poignant voice–the voice of a survivor.    

     But I wasn’t satisfied just hearing those voices. My own life was so humdrum in the girls’ boarding school I was stuck in from age twelve–and then the all-women’s college–that I had to create my life elsewhere. Now each morning I go to the computer and the voices come–as many as six different voices in each novel. Each character I create has a limited vision, is therefore an unreliable narrator, with a slightly warped view of events. But they cry out in my inner ear–sometimes in first person and most often in third. For third person, I feel, gives more distance, more perspective, the way the character can sometimes comment on others in the book.

     I would argue that multiple points of view can enhance a mystery. And out of these myriad voices, these often flawed characters, comes a plot.  Each character contributes a little to the story line, creating suspense,  driving the narrative forward. At the same time, though, it’s a challenge to differentiate the voices so the reader might know who’s speaking without being told (he said, she said). I don’t always succeed at this, but I try not to have the characters be interchangeable!  I suppose one can always rely on a “tag” like “jeez” or “you know,” but I think it’s a character’s attitude toward life and events that characterizes, as well as the words. 

     Here’s single mother, pragmatic farmer Ruth, feeling sorry for herself, looking out the barn window at a heifer in heat, being mounted by other cows. “The heifer was enjoying it, Ruth thought–Ruth, who hadn’t made love with a man since her husband Pete went off with that sexy actress, leaving Ruth with three kids and a hardscrabble farm.”

     Or Ruth’s ten-year-old son Vic, teased by his schoolmates because he has manure on his boots; so he uses neighbor Gerry as scapegoat. “Gerry didn’t take many baths. Or if he did, he got back in the barn right after. Gerry got the same guff as Vic and he stunk twice as bad. Wasn’t fair. It hurt all the farm kids. Wasn’t fair.” 

     Or my rebellious great-aunt Glenna, accused (in my fiction) of killing her husband,  trying to remember what happened decades before when she went after him with a pitchfork: “Glenna, who used to ride through the meadow bareback–no saddle for her! She and her horse Jenny could take any of those goddam fences. More’n that patsy, stick-in-the-mud husband could ever do!”

     And Lucien Larocque, whose voice I borrowed from our French-Canadian carpenter–assaulted in my novel and left for dead: “The phone wire was cut–they done that, too. Now, holy Mother of God, his bloody cheek full of holes like he was Jesus nailed to the cross! Close his eyes and that was all he knew: the boot in the face, the smell of fear. ”

     In poems and short stories I”ve lived in the head of a jaded woman I call Fay, who walked out on her husband with nothing but rocks in her pockets and now lives six flights above a Video King. But when she leans out the window she can see “a slice / of sky and sometimes the handle / on the Dipper.” And I currently dwell in the head of 18th-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft who told her male critics “I’m not telling women to have power over men, but over themselves.” I read her collected letters over and over just to keep that feisty, original voice in my bones and try to emulate it in my mystery novels.

     And now, dear readers, I’d love to hear some of your voices–to enjoy–not to borrow!


21 Responses

  1. I do like Fay, Nancy!
    I think word choice, as long as it’s not throwaway, is also important. I ask a lot of questions about language. I ask my 45-yr-old boss, “What do you call the guy you live with?” (“Boyfriend, she says, and I do more polling to be sure that’s the right word for my 45-yr-old character to use.) I ask kids what they say when they like/don’t like (not in the FB sense!) something, and so on.

    • Yes, Camille, absolutely vital to research for the right word. I have 7 grandkids and call them constantly for input–though not so much for my historicals. I love that “boyfriend.” So many words for that rel’p: ‘significant other, life partner, companion.’ It all depends on the nature of the relationship. So yes, you have to adapt words you hear and put them into the right context for your character to say.

  2. I have a friend who has lived with the same man for many years and she simply calls him “my beloved.” Listening is a great way to collect voices. I too depend on children and grandchildren to keep dialogue current. I recently read a book where “retarded” was used frequently used by teenagers. For me it’s a very derogatory term. Apparently for teenagers it now means just dumb.

    • I’m surprised to hear that “retarded” is acceptable now to refer to a person for any reason.

      I’m told “dissing” has had its run, as well as “my bad.” I think expressions are short-lived these days so you can never stop listening!

      • This reminds me, Camille, to try to keep all current slang out of my work–if possible. Words, as we all note here, change meaning too rapidly. I’m thinking of the word “gay.” ‘Back when’ there was a memoir called “Our hearts were young and gay,” simply meaning bright and fun loving. To me it’s still a fine word, but wholly different connotation.

    • Well, Leigh, “my beloved” is a lovely name! I’m surprised that the cruel term “retarded” is still in use. But derogatory terms will hang on, alas. And Camille, you’re right, it now has a different connotation. I’ll take “beloved” anytime. I’ll spring that on my spouse tonight!

  3. I agree, Nancy; good writers are good listeners. Different minds use different voices and vocabulary. Very important!

    • Thanks for your reinforcement, Jacquie! It’s the difference in voices that creates the challenge. I keep trying…

  4. Interesting post. Some stories and genres call for multiple POV’s. I’ve mostly written in first-person, but I’ve recently branched out for a fantasy novel that is limited third that follows three characters in different chapters. You need to do what serves the story best.

    • Right, Denise. I guess you just have to feel your way or, as I’ve sometimes done, try a few chapters in first person and then in third–and then using multiple POVs, which would necessitate third person. Although I’ve seen books with a mix of both. With short stories I usually stick to one POV–in first or third, depending on which works best.

  5. Nancy, I was nervous about whether or not my book would be accepted by a publisher because I had used multiple POVs. I had heard that many publishers frown on that technique now, but my book was published last year, so I guess a writer should do what’s necessary to get the story told. As a reader, I really enjoy the enrichment of different characters’ view points, so I wrote what I like to read.

    As for voices in my head. It felt strange to me that you hear characters’ voices, because I do too. I hear, for instance, their accents as clear as day (Scottish and Irish in my book), but I can’t read aloud those voices, because I can’t physically pronounce the accents. They are in my head, but don’t come out of my mouth. So strange. Have you experienced that phenomenon?

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I enjoyed your post very much.

    • So nice to hear from you, Coco! I haven’t encountered any editors who don’t like multiple POVs but I suppose there are, since it makes the reader work a bit harder. And I know exactly what you mean about hearing the voices/accents but not being able to pronounce them. Happens to me, too. But you’re so right about writing what you like to read. I guess most of us do this.

  6. Nancy, I, too, am most comfortable writing in close third. I appreciate writers who can use multiple points of view successfully but I’ve never tried it myself. I find the thought of sustaining different voices a bit daunting.

    • I’m not sure I’m always successful, but I love getting into multiple heads. You might try it now and then, Anita. I’ll bet you’ll become addicted. Such a great way for one character to comment on another or to create suspense..

  7. It really depends on the book for me. I’ve written two with multiple POVs, (never more than one in the same scene, and usually separate chapters for different POVs) two with a single POV in deep third and my WIP is first person. Each one is a different kind of challenge, and I enjoy all of them.

    • Sounds like the way to go, Joyce! Try them all. And you’re right not to use more than one POV in the same scene, I think hardest of all is to use an omniscient viewpoint in which you get into several heads in the same scene. I’ve always been afraid to try, but many great novels are written this way..

  8. Nancy,
    A beautiful essay on what is for me the most difficult issue in novel writing–voice and point of view. My first book, Dad’s War with the United States Marines, a biographical memoir, was split between my own point of view, first as a child with a fther off to war and then as an adult looking back, and my dad’s. Since I couldn’t be there, except through his 400 letters home, I switched to third person-close point of view for those chapters, Now in rewriting, perhaps what will become a very different book on the same subject, I find that my own first person narrative throughout will allow me to comment on my father’s choices, his personal growth, what may have been his innermost thoughts at each critical moment and my own feelings, both remembered and as considered from the perspective of age.
    In novels I’ve tried the first person point of view empolyed in Private Eye , but I find I either have to leave out essential scenes, hear them send-hand through the dialog of others or have the characters “hide behind an arras” to eavesdrop–often awkward and clumsy devices. Switching among several points of view l can heighten the conflict by showing what’s in each character’s head. As you say, it heightens the conflict, because, as Patrick MacKenna observes in Crimes of Design, “Everyone thinks he’s doing the right thing–that’s what causes wars.”
    I’m envious of your lifelong habit of eavesdropping and recording characters’ voices, as I also am of my late mother’s lifetime habit of reading mysteries, from Mary Roberts Rinehart through Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner to Ngaio March and John S. MacDonald and all the authors current up to her passing in1982. But I’m hopeful the books she passed along for me to read were the best. After all, I got sidetracked earning a living as an architect for over forty years. But I do write what I know about that.
    Thanks,as always, for your worthwhile commentary. I will buy and read a Kindle version of one of your books soon, to see how you do it.

    • Thanks so much, Peter, for your exceedingly thoughtful reply! You are indeed an “architect” of words, so your forty years earning a living were not in vain! And a very good point about the often clumsy devices we must use with first person only-I’m guilty myself of having a character “overhear”–another reason I much prefer to include other voices.
      You book on your father’s war–is it World War 2? Korean War? sounds intensely interesting, especially since you’ve had 400 letters to bring the war and Dad home to the reader. Is Dad’s War available on Kindle? Or in print for the average reader? I know others, including myself, who would be interested in that book. My oldest grandson, for one, is writing his Middlebury College thesis on Tactics and Consequences of War.

  9. Nancy,
    Thanks for your response. The book is still in print at http://www.rockpublishing.com/DadsWar.htm. As with any biographical memoir, the first edition had to include historical facts of interest only to my family and offspring, hence my second writing, but I’ve sold numerous copies to a general audience and had good reviews and comments, as you can see from my website, http://www.peterhgreen.com . I hope you will get and enjoy it. Dad was quite a character. part Luther Billis (a la Michener ) and part Sergeant Bilko, always looking out for his men. In one chapter I call him “The Highest Ranking Private on Guam.” Peter

  10. It was WW2, by the way, and
    Dad scooped news of the Japanese surrender from his outpost at Armed Forces Radio Station WXLI, Guam. I read a dozen books on WW2 in order to place my father’s letters in the wider context of the war, and by date, sine my mother had thoughtfully replaced them in in their original postmarked envelopes.

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