What is your advice to other writers on how to effectively write from multiple points of view and still make each character sound genuine?
I take it as a high compliment when readers tell me I write a very convincing sexual predator. A good teenage boy, too. One of my most triumphant moments, pre-publication, was when my beta readers highly praised a scene in which the protagonist puts on contact lenses for the first time. I’ve never worn glasses. My vision is 20/20. That “write what you know” stuff? Bugger that.
One of the trickier aspects of writing a novel that makes use of multiple points of view is distinguishing the voices from one another– and somehow silencing your own “accent” among every one of them. Ever read a story where each first-person character sounds suspiciously like the same actor wearing a different stick-on mustache? I hate that. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible was a revelation for me because I could open the book up to any page– any page— and know exactly which of the women was speaking. My own challenge, with Heaven Should Fall, was to be a 21-year-old man turned homegrown terrorist. And his girlfriend. And his mom.
Some of this is ephemeral: an ear for dialogue, a sense that it “sounds right.” But other tricks are honest-to-God gadgets in my writer’s toolbox. Men use fewer pronouns than do women, and more directional terms: that’s what I learned from the “Gender Genie,” an online tool for analyzing whether a writing sample is the work of a male or a female, and I have to admit that generalization bears out. Regional speech patterns, now only a search-box away thanks to YouTube, are another good marker. In Heaven Should Fall, two of my point-of-view characters are from rural New Hampshire. Entire days of my writing process went into watching “Regional Dialect Meme” videos on YouTube and researching colloquial slang. Getting these things pitch-perfect, so far as we are able, can’t be underestimated. I loved Emma Donoghue’s Room, but when her American character jokingly calls her son “slowcoach,” my suspension of disbelief dropped me right into the abyss. When have you ever heard an American say “slowcoach”? They don’t. (Though they don’t say “bugger” either, so I suppose I make an unconvincing American author.)
The crucial point is to seek variance among the voices. My character Cade is more apt to focus on mechanical details, employ profanity, break into snarky asides and use an adverb at the end of a sentence; his mother Leela peppers her speech with the religious leanings that are never far from her mind, apologizes for herself, and will speak a whopper of a truth in five small words. Each of these qualities distinguishes them from Jill, the protagonist, who carries the burden of the unfolding narrative. None of that is an accident, because outlining in your mind how a character will speak is as important as outlining the story.
And finally, never lose sight of each character’s motivation, because motivation is the last word in informing voice. Every character wants something different, and each speaks from a place of seeking it. Bear that in mind always, and you can be confident that their voices and yours will not sound suspiciously alike. Which is a good thing, since I write a mean sexual predator.
HEAVEN SHOULD FALL
BY REBECCA COLEMAN
HEAVEN SHOULD FALL
MIRA Books; October 2012; 368 pages
$15.95 U.S./$18.95 CAN.
A dark and compelling novel, HEAVEN SHOULD FALL (MIRA Books; October 2012) by Rebecca Coleman tells the story of a young relationship that slowly corrupts in the face of tragedy and desperation—and tests the character of everyone involved.
Alone since her mother’s death, Jill Wagner wants to eat, sleep and breathe Cade Olmstead when he bursts upon her life—golden, handsome and ambitious. Even putting college on hold feels like a minor sacrifice when she discovers she’s pregnant with Cade’s baby. But it won’t be the last sacrifice she’ll have to make.
Retreating to the Olmsteads’ New England farm seems sensible, if not ideal: Jill and Cade will regroup and welcome the baby, surrounded by Cade’s family. But the remote, ramshackle place already feels crowded. Cade’s mother tends to his ailing father, while Cade’s pious sister, her bigoted husband and their rowdy sons overrun the house. Only Cade’s brother, Elias, a combat veteran with a damaged spirit, gives Jill an ally amidst the chaos, along with a glimpse into his disturbing childhood. But his burden is heavy, and she alone cannot kindle his will to live.
The tragedy of Elias is like a killing frost, withering Cade in particular, transforming his idealism into bitterness and paranoia. Taking solace in caring for her newborn son, Jill looks up to find her golden boy is gone. In Cade’s place is a desperate man willing to endanger them all in the name of vengeance…unless Jill can find a way out.
“Thanks” and “Elias” were scrawled on the bottom in a sloppy cursive that looked as if it belonged to a twelve-year-old schoolboy, not a twenty-four-year-old army infantry specialist, but it looked as if Elias had bigger things on his mind than good penmanship.
About Rebecca Coleman:
Rebecca received her B.A. in English literature from the University of Maryland at College Park and speaks to writers’ groups on the subjects of creative writing and publishing. Her manuscript for her critically-acclaimed first novel, The Kingdom of Childhood, was a semifinalist in the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition.
A New Yorker by birth, Rebecca grew up in the close suburbs of Washington, D.C. in an academic family. After studying elementary education for several years, she graduated with a degree in English, awarded with honors.
Rebecca lives and works near Washington, D.C. with her husband and their four young children. Visit www.rebeccacoleman.net