Friday, October 2, 2009

Article by ROB WALKER: Perils of Pauline

CREATING COMPELLING HEROINES or Making the Perils of Pauline Routine

The voice of one’s female lead-detective or PI in crime fiction--above all elements--must be consistent, just as your choice of words, control of weak qualifiers, adverbs, and adjectives, down to your grammatical skill all impact voice and the final product. Your lead character’s voice controls the novel and reassures the reader, even as it lulls him or her into “becoming” the leading lady.

The sound of the bell your narration and dialogue rings in the reader’s head must be unique, believable, likeable--even loveable and if you cannot make it sing then at least make it clear. The difference between confusing readers, and/or sounding wishy-washy, or sounding like ‘unto one who is awash in political mish-mash’ (like someone who cannot commit) as opposed to an assured, authentic, absolute voice (like someone who is committed) is in one’s authorial voice. This compelling voice relies on absolutes over qualifiers in the narrative. This is even truer of the feminine lead written by a male author!

To pull off the so-called impossible--getting into the head of the opposite sex and understanding from this point of view--surprisingly enough, surrounds elemental, fundamental reliance on a “woman of substance” in the voice. If you are a female author struggling with getting into the psyche and mindset of a male lead, just reverse what I say here.

Voice in dramatic, commercial fiction, in particular, relies heavily on strong active voice over weak passive voice. These basic grammatical decisions (word choice, exorcising qualifiers for absolutes, using active verbs over passives and cripplingly slow helping verbs, and exorcising the verb to be) are the crucibles about which E.B. White wrote in The Elements of Style and supported by the fine book Writing Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern. Style comes from extremely small elements you choose to make work for you--or items you fail to utilize.

As small as the choice difference between the words before and ago, maybe and perhaps, this is “shaping” voice. This becomes you--BECOMES your style. If you choose a folksy or shoddy or simplistic or complex or formal or informal voice, your reader will know it from the outset and is normally willing to follow it so long as this voice remains consistent and consistently believable. So is voice the single most important element of your story? Absolutely, and yet it is created of all the other elements and choices you choose to make from setting to dialect to no dialect to the difference between between and betwixt, leaped and leapt.

All good writing relies on the reader ‘falling for’ your narrative voice, the point-of-view (POV) speaker, the mind you set your reader down into comfortably or awkwardly. If it is an ill fit, little wonder: an author is a trick cyclist on the unicycle, juggling twenty-four plates in the air, spinning each choice, decision, and element at the ends of long sticks. Each plate, each stick, each prop is an important element, but they all culminate in the overall effect your story has on the reader’s ear and mind’s eye. If I had said the writer is LIKE a trick cyclist rather than stating it as a fact, it rings a different bell, sends a different and less powerful impact.

The use of like and as is terribly overdone in some voices in female-lead crime fiction.The use of passives, especially the was verb—a major killer of action and visualization—also riddles most fiction, especially in the first person narrative along with the personal pronoun references to the narrator: I, me, my, mine, myself, often using the personal pronoun three and four times in a given sentence. What a reader hears and pictures comes about as result of our giving him a believable sound in his head—the author’s voice, or the narrative voice (not always the same), or the character’s voice--along with providing Kodak moments in the reader’s head that look, feel, taste, smell, and sound like images.

The human brain sorts its mail via images, so it behooves us to use verbs that carry the weight of an image. We call this simile and metaphor and extended metaphor, but the absolute is even more powerful than these. Absolute detail, as in a name is a photo in the mind, as a number is an instamatic shot in the mind. Metaphorical language and verb choice create style and voice; and if we choose verbs that fire off shots of photographic moments as in slam, divorced, cuddled, crammed, leapt, jarred, frightened over the weak helping verbs as in the door was slamming, they were thinking about maybe getting a divorce, had been cuddled, was cramming, was about to leap, was feeling a bit frightened, we REDUCE the photo or blur it considerably. We clip ourselves at the knees when we overuse ly words and qualifiers.

Most assuredly, helping and passive voice verbs, such as was, slow the action and the firing of the photo in the brain of the reader--if it gets there at all. Strong female voice carries the day in crime fiction with female leads. The secret to creating strong voice--male or female--is the same!

There is/was/has been no more insidious word in the English language to insinuate itself on sentences like a parasitic leech than the verb to be, and, in particular, the word was. Take a moment and picture a was in your head; next, define the word was in the manner you might define any action/active verb. You cannot. Picture was in your mind and tell me what you see? Do the same for throw/threw/thrown or torch/torched. Jessica bolted from her seat RATHER THAN Jessica was about to maybe stand up as she was sipping her coffee. Meredyth torqued up her language whenever Lucas Stonecoat entered her office. The man enraged her.

These examples fire off mental imagery and are far more photographic and strong in voice than is this: Meredyth was thinking (in the process of) about perhaps torching up her language whenever she was confronted by Lucas’s presence in her office. Lucas, by the same token, was nervously thinking about maybe entering the room. If you wish to write passively, write speeches for politicians and Supreme Court justices.

A storyteller who peppers his tales with qualifiers and passives cuts his own throat and is easily the example to point to in an exercise about what not to do in fiction and dramatic writing.

Robert’s website is chock full with advice and examples. Visit for the fun of it or for the lessons to be had. He’s also on Facebook, twitter, MySpace, and

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