Thursday, January 6, 2011

Looking For The Right Voice

I have been reading the Harry Potter books to my daughter for a while now.  At bedtime, we get through about half a chapter, sometimes a little more, a night.  We're up to Order of the Phoenix right now.

I know that she's way too little to really understand what is going on in the story, but she still seems to enjoy the time.  It helps set up the bedtime routine for later on down the line, and it also shows her that the big books without pictures can be just as interesting as the card books she plays with every day.  Also, the earlier I can get her to soak up and develop a love for Harry Potter, the better.  I am enjoying this time as well, especially because I know it is short-lived.  It is only a matter of time before Baby Girl realizes how much better her daddy is at reading stories to her (he does the voices remarkably well, a task at which I usually fail spectacularly) and demands that he be named the official Story Reader of the house.  But for now this is our time, and I am loving it.  Also, it gives me a chance to read through the Harry Potter books yet again, and that's never a bad thing.

But in reading these books to my daughter, I have discovered a couple of things.  The first is that I am pretty sure these books really weren't meant to be read aloud.  While the narrative is incredible, Rowling's sentence structure and overall narrative style doesn't lend itself to the translation from page to voice.  Part of this is because with the way she writes it is ridiculously easy to get caught up in the scene, carried away with what is going on, and you want to read at the pace of the characters.  Doing this aloud leads to all kinds of tongue-tripping craziness.  These books are meant to be devoured in large chunks at a time, while you are curled up on a sofa, under a blanket, with a nice cup of tea, lost to the rest of the world.  Which leads me to the second thing I have discovered.

I want to write like J.K. Rowling does in these books.

I don't mean that I want to write YA, because I really don't.  But I have noticed that while I am reading Harry Potter, I feel like I am in the room with these characters, experiencing what they are experiencing as it happens.  That's because in addition to telling (and showing) us what Harry, Ron, and Hermione are up to, Rowling also takes the time to slip in what is going on over in that other corner (Fred and George testing their Skiving Snackboxes on a group of first years, perhaps), or maybe down that corridor over there behind them (Mrs. Norris eying Lee Jordan suspiciously as he walks to class with his hands shoved firmly in his pockets and a mischievous smirk on his face).  The reader gets the sense that while we are going through the story with Harry and his friends, they are not the only people in this world.  Very rarely does Rowling have the trio secreted in a private dining room where they can talk about their plans in complete assurance that they won't be overheard.  There is always a risk of an eavesdropper at Hogwarts, always the chance of being interrupted.  Interruptions are as likely to come from a well-meaning friend as from a malicious foe.  As a result, it feels so much more natural than most stories do.  So much more real, despite that it is set at a school for witches and wizards. 

She also has given these stories the most amazing voice.  Despite the heavy and dark nature of the overall story, or perhaps because of it, she manages to keep a lighthearted tone throughout.  These people are just silly, and in the best way possible.  Just as I read through the scenes in which Harry is in grave peril wanting to bite my nails and both hesitant and anxious to turn the page, I read through other scenes trying to control insane fits of giggles, often failing.  Because, well, goodness, who doesn't laugh out loud when Neville causes a brief distraction by turning into a canary?

I don't know why, but something about the silliness strikes a chord in me.  It makes the scary stuff more real, somehow.  It also manages to give a sense of truth to the characters.  They seem to react more naturally to the events that occur around them.  That voice, that balance between preposterous and real, that is something I want to capture in my own writing.  I'm not really convinced of my own brand of humor enough to try to be funny when I write, and often my characters are coming up against some heavy, end of the world sort of foe (which is a crutch I rely on far too much and am trying to be aware of and avoid).  I think, no, no, being silly just wouldn't fit.  But then I read Rowling and I think to myself, maybe it can.

At the very least, in Rowling's books I have a fine example of stellar world-building and the use of humor to infuse some reality into a very unreal situation.  I doubt I'll ever quite capture lightning in a bottle the way that she did, but that won't stop me from trying.  Sometimes that's all you can do.

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