Whose Voice Is It Anyway? Avoiding Literary Chateaus

Post Date: August 7th, 2010

The other day when Facebook tested me to see if I was real and not a robot before I posted a link, I received this challenge: type

literary chateaus.

Hmm, I thought. That sounds possible (as opposed to “morph zeitgeist” or “flared hemlock”). In fact, it sounds a lot like the castles of fancy-schmancy phrases I build in the air of my prose, just because I love the sound of ’em.

Note to self: whether in draft 8, 9, or 2000 of a story, listen up for those literary chateaus. Then sweep away those castles that don’t fit your character’s point of view.

This is particularly challenging when writing third-person limited. We forget that everything is through the lens of that one character we’ve decided to follow. We can’t let stray narration creep in that sounds like us or worse, the thesaurus.

Here’s an outtake from my writing: Andy, the protagonist of my story “Facing It,” is riding with his wife in the car. A song comes on the radio. I, not Andy, write: “‘Tainted Love’ warbled its mournful anthem about obsessive pain.”

Andy, due to Asperger syndrome*, has trouble distinguishing gradations of emotion (“mournful” and “sad” are to him, essentially, the same thing). He has difficulty reading social cues. He also doesn’t like music a whole lot unless his wife says she likes something, and then he’ll listen. All these character details I’d established prior to this moment.

So all of a sudden, the guy calls a song “mournful”? He can’t bond with Soft Cell’s lead singer as he “warbles.”

Andy is also a science teacher whose idol is objectivity.


New line: “‘Tainted Love’ blasted the car.”

Now that sounds more like Andy. It’s his voice, not mine, that needs to drive this story. Of course, all of it comes through my lens, but writers want the reader to disappear into the work, forget the storyteller, and not ask, “Who’s talking now?”

There are so many levels to revision, and the “sound check” is just one of them.

By the way, note to Facebook: it’s “chateaux,” not “chateaus.” If you’re going to demand proof of humanness, then spell it the way French humans do.

*I am still learning much about Asperger’s and welcome any corrections if I need to consider other characterizations. My understanding is that the syndrome can have a lot of diverse manifestations. The love or lack of love of music may be one of them and isn’t necessarily related to the syndrome.


  1. bobmust says:

    I’m reading a book of interviews with Andre Dubus, and the one thing he says head the hardest time teaching himself was to know his characters. In 3rd limited, the narrator’s voice should at least refrain from clashing with that of that character’s POV. Which means know EVERYTHING about that character. BECOME that character.

    TMSAISTI (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.) 😉

  2. Becoming that character means emphathize. And I find I’m a better human being after writing stories…I walked in the moccasins of another and got all my revenge and angst and dysfunction worked out until I found the human truth. 🙂