Voice p.2: World-building

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I previously discussed “Voice” as it applies to different age groups. Voice is the sum of your word choice, word order, beat, rhythm, and structure (see here for my favorite definition of voice).

Voice also creates your characters’ personalities, the mood, the setting, and your world. For this post, I’ll focus on the last one–world building. You can put the reader smack in the world of your story by using the right words for the right time, setting, and mood that your world resides in. 

For example, synonyms can create a different tone, even though, technically, they mean the same thing. Pa, Dad, Da, Pops, Papa, Father, all names for the male parent, but they each create a different world in the mind of the reader. 

Let’s apply this to various texts:

“It all began with William’s aunt, who was in a good temper that morning, and gave him a shilling for posting a letter for her and carrying her parcels from the grocer’s.”

Just William, by Richmal Crompton

What do you notice from the word choice?

For example, the character’s name is William, not Bill, Billy, Will or Willy. Replace any of those and you get a different feeling right off. William is proper and old world, especially followed up by “parcel,” “shilling,” and “in a good temper.” Not an American story, is it. 

What would happen if I changed it to:

“Billy’s Aunt started it all. In a rare burst of good mood, she handed him a whole half-dollar just for dropping off her letter and carrying a few bags up the stairs from the corner market. 

William has now moved from a white-collar English society to blue-collar American town, but clearly, there’s an elements of humor to them both.

Now examine first lines from the following stories:

“Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife.” The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum

Obviously, the setting is Kansas, but the word choice of “in the midst” not “in the middle” and “farmer” and “farmer’s wife” puts us in a time, place, and setting that’s not just Kansas anymore, but Kansas in the 1950s. 

Judith Kerr does the same thing by telling us where her character is, but word-stitching into that location the time and mood pertinent to her story: 

“Anna was walking home from school with Elsbeth, a girl in her class. A lot of snow had fallen in Berlin that winter. It did not melt, so the street cleaners had swept it to the edge of the pavement, and there it had lain for weeks in sad, greying heaps.” When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, by Judith Kerr

We know the story is in Berlin. The names Anna and Elsbeth paint a different time and culture than say Aubrey and Jasmine. The snow tells us it’s winter, but also that it’s cold, cold enough that it didn’t melt. They live in an ordered city that has street cleaners, not modern snow plows, who sweep the snow to the edge of the pavement, where it molders into sad, grey heaps–a note of the sorrow about to come. Even simple words in the right order can take us straight to the world the reader wants us in, like “snow,” “cold” and “grey.”

Take Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah Plain and Tall:

“Did Mama sing every day?” asked Caleb.

“Every-single- day?”

He sat close to the fire, his chin in his hand. It was dusk, and the dogs lay beside him on the warm hearthstones. 

We could explore a lot with this, like how this story is going to address the loss of their mother, but let’s stick with how it affects the setting. The use of “Mama” puts us in a time and place, helped along by the children sitting by a fire at dusk with dogs on hearthstones. We’re not in a Victorian mansion with servants and dinners at a great table, or in a home with central heating and pre-fab walls. The fireplace is made of stone, the children gather round it and talk of their mother together: they’re not sharing pictures of their mother they took on their phones, or solitarily reminiscing in the quiet of their own rooms. This story belongs in the time and place it’s supposed to be in.

To clarify this further, let’s take the opening lines of Charlotte’s Web:

”Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”

“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight. “Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt.

The use of “Papa” paints a different picture than Dad or Father. The ax is also telling, it’s not a scythe, or sword, or dagger or a chain saw or a shot that will put the pig to sleep forever. They’re setting the table for breakfast—except for special occasions, I’ve never set a table for breakfast. And Fern’s mom is a “Mrs.” We’re clearly on a farm before chemically euthanizing animals was common, and in a time when married women were properly called “Mrs.” We’re in a region where “Papa” and “hoghouse” are common terms.

Now, let’s take this same section and turn it into a different time, place and world:

“Where are all the Elders going with their wands?” said Fyrn to Mother Marsh as she was hurrying the village children onto the ferry. 

One of the wereboars hatched last night. It was a runt.

“If it’s a runt, why do they all need to go?” continued Fyrn, who was only eight.

Really, Fyrn, said Mother Marsh. “Didn’t you listen in kinderlore? The runts are the most dangerous. But don’t worry, poppet, unless pigs can fly, it won’t be able to get across this lake.” 

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“Where is papa going with the executioner?” said Marie to her tutor as the servants were setting up lunch.

“Out to the public square,” replied Mademoiselle Delphine. “Some piglets were born last night, and a peasant was caught stealing the runt.

“But surely father can spare a runt. He has so many pigs, and the peasants are so thin.”

“That’s not the point, ma cher. Today it’s a runt, tomorrow they’ll come for you. You can’t show any sign of weakness.”

“Mum, where is dad going with his adze?” said Ferrin to his mother as they were setting the table with a small bit of bread and roots. 

“To the Laird’s farm,” replied Mum. “Some pigs were born last night”

Ferrin’s stomach growled with hunger and anticipation. It had been so long since he’d tasted meat. 

“What if he gets caught,” whispered Ferrin. 

“He’s only taking the runt,” replied Mum. “They won’t miss it.”

I hope that was helpful, and I hope it’s a start to getting you on your way to understanding Voice as it pertains to world-building. In parting, here’s a quick video that adds to the convo:

4 thoughts on “Voice p.2: World-building

  1. Ah, “voice.” I think of it as *the personality of the narration.* Yup, narration has personality, and it speaks, sings, barks or whispers =voice.

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