The Midwife’s Confession is written from five different points of view, and I’m here to tell you, that was a challenge! Every one of my twenty novels has had multiple points of view, but never before have I had to balance five female voices in one story. Want to know the hardest part about multiple viewpoints? Giving each character her own distinct voice. Since this topic has come up with every bookclub I’ve spoken to, I thought I’d share my thoughts about it on the blog. (By the way, bookclubs, if you’d like me to chat with your group by speakerphone, fill out the form on my website and we’ll try to work it out).
Here’s how I handled the voices in The Midwife’s Confession. The five point-of-view characters are:
Tara: fortyish, middle class, college educated, North Carolinian.
Emerson: fortyish, middle class, college educated, North Carolinian
Anna: fortyish, middle class, college educated, Virginian
Noelle: fortyish, poorer, more rural background than the others, college educated, midwife, North Carolinian
Grace: 16 year old daughter of Tara
Hmm. Notice anything? I had a problem. I had four fortyish, college educated southern women on my hands. How was I going to differentiate one voice from another?
As usual, my first draft was devoted simply to getting the story down on paper. I’m not one of those polish-as-you-go writers. I started out that way with my first novel, but soon realized that my characters were inevitably going to change the story on me and I would only have to go back and rewrite what I’d spent hours polishing, so why bother? In my second draft, though, I began to notice subtle differences between the voices of each of my characters. Those differences emerged organically as each woman came into her own, but between Tara, Emerson and Anna, the differences were way too subtle for my liking.
Tara, Emerson, Anna and Grace are all written in first person. Since Noelle kills herself in the first chapter, I wrote her scenes in third person. It was, therefore, easiest to differentiate her voice from the others. And Grace, being sixteen, was a snap. But those three women–Tara, Emerson and Anna–were my real challenge. My goal is always this: if a reader familiar with the characters picks up the book and flips it open to any page, she should be able to tell whose point of view she’s in without looking at the chapter heading (where I’ll have that character’s name). I’ll be the first to admit that with these three characters, I may not always have met that goal. Particularly with Tara and Emerson, who not only had similar backgrounds but who were also college roommates and have been best friends living in the same neighborhood all their adult lives. Of course they ‘sound’ very similar. Still, I wanted to do my best to make each of them distinct.
The routine I follow as I near the final draft of a book is always the same. I take a printout of the book and pull out all the chapters written in the point of view of each of the characters. So in the case of Midwife, I had five chunks of chapters. Then I go to the Opium Den, settle into my comfy chair, and read only the chapters belonging to a single character as I tweak her voice. I do this with each character, one at a time, until I’m satisfied with the differences between their voices. For example, Tara has a slightly more formal-sounding voice than the others, in keeping with her personality. The sentences in her chapters are a little longer. A little more stilted. Emerson is more relaxed and colorful in her language, while Anna is a bit irreverent.
Here’s a taste of their voices. The easy ones first:
Noelle: Once all was in order she came out to the porch to watch the moon and feel the satin air and fill her eyes and lungs and ears with the world one last time.
Grace: Omigod, it had been so good! Cleve kept saying, “Holy shit!” after it was over. He was holding me and kissing my hair it was just the most amazing night.
And then the tough ones:
Tara: Sam and Grace had been two quiet souls with no need to speak to each other to communicate.
Emerson: The woman crossed the room like a drill sergeant, all sharp edges and quick movements, jutting her hand toward me for a shake. I felt like a balloon she could pop if I let her get too close.
Anna: I’d have to talk to him about it at some point. It was really pissing me off that he acted like he could waltz back into our lives without consequence.
I actually love this part of the writing process. I love spending ‘quality time’ with each character in turn. They deserve it, and so do my readers.