Most authors tap their own life experiences and world views when they write. And that makes sense; tapping one’s own experiences has a way of adding authenticity to a story and it allows the author to write in a more natural way. But some authors have taken interesting risks by creating protagonists who don’t have much in common with the author at all. Giving an authentic voice to that kind of character can be a real challenge. Essentially, the author has to re-think her or his assumptions about everything when writing the character. It’s not easy to do, but there are some examples of authors who’ve done it very well.
Agatha Christie created several protagonists who had different voices to her own. One of them is Captain Arthur Hastings (and I’ll bet you thought I was going to mention Hercule Poirot!). Hastings has in common with Christie an English background and wartime experience. But they are quite different, not least in terms of their genders. And it’s interesting to see how Christie goes about giving Hastings his unique voice. We see it for instance in The Murder on the Links. Hastings is returning by train to London after a business trip when he meets a mysterious young woman who is a fellow passenger. The woman, who refers to herself only as ‘Cinderella,’ turns out to play an unexpected role in the case that soon preoccupies Hastings and Poirot. Paul Renauld writes to Poirot to ask his help, and Poirot and Hastings travel to Renauld’s home in France in response. When they get there they find that Renauld has been stabbed. Poirot investigates and discovers that this stabbing is related to Renauld’s hidden past. Throughout the novel, we see Hastings’ interactions with ‘Cinderella’ as well as with other characters. His voice strikes the reader as authentic and his reactions are believable, despite the fact that he has little in common really with his creator.
The same is true of Christopher Boone, whom we meet in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher is a fifteen-year-old boy with autism. When he discovers that a neighbour’s dog has been killed, he decides to be a detective just like Sherlock Holmes and find out who is responsible. In the process of investigating, he finds out not just the truth about the dog, but also some truths about his own life. Haddon has had experience working with people with disabilities and Christopher’s character shows that knowledge. But Christopher’s voice is quite different to Haddon’s. This story is told from Christopher’s point of view, so we get an authentic look at the way a person with autism might see the world and might process a series of events. Haddon took a risk in writing Christopher’s voice and it paid off (at least in my opinion, so do feel free to differ with me if you don’t agree). The voice is very believable and that’s part of what makes this novel work.
Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce has a voice that’s very different to her creator’s voice. While Bradley has said that he has some things in common with his protagonist, the two really are different. Besides the obvious gender difference, Flavia is English and Bradley is Canadian. Flavia is interested in chemistry and Bradley’s professional background was in electrical engineering and technology. And of course, Flavia is a child while Bradley isn’t. And yet, Bradley has created an authentic voice for Flavia. For instance, in A Red Herring Without Mustard, she attends a church fête where there are several attractions, including fortune-telling. Flavia has her fortune told, but the experience ends in disaster. Afterwards, she feels a sense of obligation to the Gypsy who told her fortune. When the Gypsy tells her that she and her husband were once forced off the property of Flavia’s own home Buckshaw, here is Flavia’s reaction:
‘And that was when it came to me. Before I could change my mind I had blurted out the words.
‘You can come back to Buckshaw. Stay as long as you like. It will be all right…I promise.’
Even as I said it I knew there would be a great flaming row with Father, but somehow that didn’t matter.’
In this we see a very eleven-year-old response. Flavia is bright and observant, but like any eleven-year-old, she hasn’t thought out the consequences of what she’s offering. And when the Gypsy is later found murdered, she uses that same enthusiasm to find out who the killer is.
Karin Fossum and her sleuth, Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer, both live and work in Norway. But beyond that, they are quite different. Fossum is a poet as well as a novelist, but she has had other work experience too, including hospital work and working as a home aid caregiver. Her creation though is a cop. That’s been his life’s work. In other ways too, they are different. They have different perceptions of life just by dint of their being different sexes. And yet Sejer has a distinctive voice that doesn’t seem forced at all. He is a widower whose process of grieving his wife Elise seems natural, as does his relationship with psychiatrist Sara Struel, which begins in He Who Fears the Wolf and evolves as a story arc. He is believable as a middle-aged male cop and doesn’t strike the reader (well, at least this reader) as a female civilian’s perception of what a male cop would be like.
Shona MacLean (who now writes her series as S.G. MacLean) has created a sleuth who’s quite different to her in her Alexander Seaton series. Like MacLean, Seaton is Scottish, but there the resemblance ends. MacLean studied history; Seaton studied religion. MacLean lives in 21st Century Scotland, but Seaton lives in the Scotland of the 17th Century. And of course, there’s the gender difference. To MacLean’s credit though, Seaton’s voice is quite authentic. He inhabits his world just as naturally as we inhabit ours, and he sees the world in a believable way. His voice is very real too as he meets, gets to know, woos and marries Sarah Forbes.
And then there’s Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest. She is very different to her creator, being not just female but half-Aborigine. What’s more, her home is Australia’s Northern Territories, a very different environment to Hyland’s own Melbourne. He began by writing,
‘…a young whitefella who, whatever I did to him, always seemed to be too much like me’
Feedback from a manuscript assessment place caused him to re-think his story:
‘So I pulled the whitefella out altogether and Emily stepped forward. That forced me into a plot and some structure.’
Hyland took a risk in creating Emily, but fans of this series (of whom I am one) can tell you that Emily’s character is rich, authentic and certainly has a distinctive voice.
And that’s the thing about talented authors. They can create characters who have completely different voices and make those characters just as real as they themselves are. What are your thoughts on this? If you’re writer, have you written characters who have completely different voices to your own?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Nicks’ Leather and Lace.