The Challenge of Fictional Voices

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I used to read a lot of cozy mysteries. In fact, they launched a lifelong love of mysteries…Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayer, and so forth. As the years passed, I found plenty of new cozy authors whose protagonists were bakers, bookshop owners, and artisans, among other things. The plots weren’t overly complex and there was usually only one subplot, but part of the attraction of cozies is that they’re light, fun reads, and sometimes I need that.

Whenever I came across an author I really enjoyed, I tried another of the individual’s series, but it usually proved to be a bit of a letdown. The reason for this was the protagonist’s voice. That character sounded identical in vocabulary, tone, and favorite catch words to the previous series’ protagonist. I felt as if I was reading the same book. For some readers the similarity might be okay, but I wanted a little more. What I’ve learned from firsthand experience, though, is that doing more isn’t easy.

Many of us create protagonists that are composites of people we’ve come across in our lives. These characters might also be completely fictional, however, the phrasing, word choices, and reaction to situations, are often drawn from our own background and experiences. As a starting point, that’s fine, but do we want to spend our entire writing lives creating the same protagonist?

Maybe the answer’s yes for some, particularly if you’ve created a complex, multi-faceted character; however, I’m trying to create something different from what I’ve done before, especially now that I’m working in a separate genre. It’s been challenging. All those notes I’ve made about unique and hopefully memorable characters don’t always fully appear on the page until a few rewrites later, and even then I still wonder.

One of the many things I admire about Agatha Christie is that although Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are both intelligent, thoughtful, and introverted, they’re very different characters, beyond Hercule’s accent.

I read somewhere, quite some time ago, that authors (regardless of genre) also tend to focus on the same theme in their work. They focus on a certain type of character, a certain type of problem, which is tackled from different angles with every book. Have you noticed this? Is repetition in characters’ voice and theme a problem for you as a reader? As a writer?

Author: debrapurdykong

I'm a British Columbia author who's been writing for over 30 years. My volunteer experiences, criminology diploma, and various jobs, inspired me to write mysteries set in BC’s Lower Mainland. Employment as a campus security patrol and communications officer provide the background for my my Casey Holland transit security novels. I'm also a part-time facilitator in Creative Writing Workshops through Port Moody's Recreation program. Feel free to contact me at dpurdykong@gmail.com

15 thoughts on “The Challenge of Fictional Voices”

  1. Well said. In mysteries and other genres, it happens all the time and I end up no longer wanting to read that author’s books anymore.
    But, and it’s a big but, when I read a series with the same protagonist, it’s okay if the setting, plot, sub-plot, e.t.c., are very different. It’s also important to me that the protagonist matures along the way or at least shows that they’ve learned something they can use further along. I like the protagonist also to have a life surrounding what they are doing in the plot.

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    1. I do, too, Julie, but some readers like things to stay exactly the same, which was part of the appeal of Agatha Christie’s characters. Cozy fans, (those who read only that particular genre) have very different tastes from other mystery readers.

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  2. Oh yeah, I certainly have realised that a lot of the themes keep reappearing in the different books I write, so that’s telling me that I’m either highly uncreative, or I have some issues I need to work out, lol. Anyway, thanks for this post!

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    1. You’re very welcome, Stuart. Yes, many of us have issues to work out, and they’re often so complex that it takes different approaches and angles to fully comprehend and work through the many layers and complexity 🙂

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  3. That is my experience – much like a favorite restaurant. I return to an author because I enjoyed his characters, his humor, and a developing journey of a character. I return for another course from the chef.

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    1. Interesting, Jacqui. The difference between the two writers suggests the difference in each writer’s own ‘voice’, the tone, phrasing, and overall style that makes each author unique. A writer’s voice isn’t really something that can be taught, I think; and perhaps not even copied.

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  4. In Horror, a lot of protagonists are also writers… it is either as if the authors are actually being somewhat autobiographical about something, or that the writers in question live by their writing and have lost touch with what it means to NOT be a writer, and/or that it is devilishly hard to isolate a character these days, so we need a really good reason a character self-isolates…like writing!

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  5. It has been my observation that in the arts in general (writing, art, music), the artist only really has one song and everything else is a reworking of that one song. Eventually, the audience realizes this truth.

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    1. That’s really Interesting, Bernadette. I’ve seen repeated themes reflected in paintings, but hadn’t realized this was a similar pattern in music. It makes sense, though. I’ll have to listen to lyrics more closely 🙂 Thanks for dropping by!

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