Philosophy of Writing – 2 – Voice & Stanislavski’s “Systems”

Posted on July 21, 2011 by


Stanislavsky as the title role in an 1888 production of Pushkin’s “The Miserly Knight”

This is Constantin Stanislavski. If you’ve ever taken an acting class, you’ve studied him. He’s best remembered for his contributions to drama theory: attempts to create training for actors that will help them portray emotion realistically.

Stanislavski’s system was at first based on the principle of “Emotional Memory”, the idea that an actor must prepare himself for his role by attempting to feel emotions his character might reasonably feel. This idea is the basis for “Method Acting”, a system attributed to Lee Strasburg — something you’ve probably heard of, because it has been highly influential to American acting. Strasburg’s system is a little more focused on the internal than Stanislavski’s original concept: Method actors tend to search for their character’s motivation and background, and try to genuinely become their characters as best they can before they perform.

But Stanislavski was not satisfied with the internal aspects of his system. Later in his life, he came to notice that the internal preparation of actors using his system did not coincide with their actions on stage. Acting, he realised, was a matter of learning the outer trappings of emotion and the ability to mimic them believably. His system became focused on the “Method of Physical Action”, which attempted to trigger emotions in an actor’s subconscious by performing physical actions of emotion.

However, the actor would only be able to portray the role convincingly if he was able to unite these physical cues with his internal emotion. Once triggered by the outer appearance of emotion, the internal feeling would reinforce the actor’s mimicry, and so on in a reinforcing loop, until the actor’s portrayal became a real emotion with real actions.

In other words, you start by learning what sadness looks like, and try to mimic it. This will help you feel genuine sadness when searching for your character’s motivation — and so on, until you’re able to feel and portray sadness 0n command, once familiar enough with your character. Method Acting is somewhat different: it focuses on first feeling the character’s emotions and knowing his motivation and background, in order to draw out physical signs of those emotions.

Theatre buffs tend to pooh-pooh Method Acting as something for the cinema — crude and inexpert, producing hammy actors. I don’t know; I’m no actor.

I do know that you have to be familiar with how to write voice before you can write believable characters in fiction. I’m a firm believer in a Stanislavski-esque technique that I picked up a long time ago for distinguishing voice. I’m going to teach it to you.

Lucky you! (?)


Three Kinds of Voice

I read a blog post recently that left me absolutely gobsmacked. A young writer wrote in with a question for the blogger.

I’ve been told that agents look for a good, strong voice,  she wrote (I’m paraphrasing, hence no quote marks). But amazing writers I admire advise against authorial intrusion, the result of a voice that’s too strong. What do I do? Are these different concepts?

The publishing industry professional who owned the blog responded with a multi-paragraph shrug. I’m not being very helpful, was the gist of her reply.

I admire this professional to the ends of the earth (else I wouldn’t be reading her blog). But her answer really, truly bothered me. Yes, it’s a knotty question. How much style is too much?

I’m not going to give you a definitive answer, either — but I believe there’s a better answer than Don’t know. Sorry! *smiley face*

It starts with the distinction between character voice, narrative voice, and authorial voice. Here are the easy definitions:
i. Character Voice: The traits that mark out a character’s personality, beliefs, manner of speech, manner of action, and all-round Being in POV chapters, and in dialogue in chapters that are not from that character’s POV.
ii. Narrator Voice: The traits that mark out a narrator’s etc. etc. (where applicable) in chapters from the POV of that narrator. (And yes, this is absolutely distinct from Character Voice, as we’ll see.)
iii. Authorial Voice: The traits that mark out an author’s beliefs throughout the manuscript.

One thing to remember about all of these is that “Voice” is always something we get directly from the source. Character voice cannot come from a character if the chapter is not a POV chapter for that character — unless through dialogue. Narrator voice is only relevant during chapters we read through that narrator. Authorial voice reaches us throughout the manuscript — but that’s only because it’s the author’s manuscript. It can’t, say, reach into another author’s short story (except in collaborative ventures).

Another thing to remember is that writing voice is much the same as editing voice. You have to keep the same things in mind when doing both. Editing is sometimes more difficult because you have to be harder on yourself when deleting phrases you might like.

i. Character Voice
Character voice is a thing built up from a series of minor decisions within your manuscript. Word choice, punctuation choice, word order, paragraph structure, even formatting can contribute to it. We get to know characters through their voices.
It’s always a problem when authorial voice becomes character voice. Either the author is writing self-insert fiction (fine unless you’re trying to sell it) in which he’s displaying his fantasies for everyone to read, or the author is writing preachy fiction. This is distinct from fiction with a message (which all fiction should be) in that it is written to lecture the reader directly, and is basically polemic with a frilly shirt on.

ii. Narrator Voice
The voice of the narrator in fiction is most commonly the same as a character’s voice or the authorial voice. Let’s say you have a chapter from the POV of Andrea. She’s going to narrate this chapter, and as such the narrative voice should be hers, and should be equivalent to her character voice (the one that represents her POV throughout the manuscript).
But character voice isn’t the same as narrative voice. The author could choose to write a book in the 3rd person about Andrea that is not entirely sympathetic to her; in this case, the narrative voice would most likely be the author’s voice. It was fashionable in times past to narrate using the omniscient 3rd person: a narrator who could see and know everything in the universe. Most of the time, an omniscient 3rd person narrator represents the author directly — you can see how such a viewpoint could lend itself to abuse using a strong authorial voice.
The best examples of 3rd person omniscient narrators, however, are in no way directly representative of the author’s opinion. Dostoevsky’s The Idiot is a scathing indictment of pre-revolutionary Russia and its corrupting influences. The titular character, Prince Myshkin, is a gentle, intelligent, kindhearted man with a nervous disposition — an almost Christlike figure. He hasn’t a mean thought in his head. The other characters in the book, shaped by the necessity of their society, gradually reduce him to a nonfunctioning, catatonic husk. The title refers to Myshkin’s societal idiocy — his goodness, which renders him incapable of survival. The narrator of The Idiot is distinct from every character (as it is 3rd person omniscient), condemns Myshkin for his stupidity, and is even pragmatic about how he’s manipulated and used. Dostoevsky’s authorial voice comes through clearly despite being entirely implicit: despite his narrator, he condemns contemporary society and puts his readers in a position to mourn Myshkin’s unhappy fate.
You can also find narrative voice distinct from author and character if you look at rare examples of 2nd person narratives. When the 2nd person narrator is not a definitive character in the book, it will often be a disembodied representation of the reader — the idea being to put the reader directly into the character, changing and filling in the character with the reader’s personality.

iii. Authorial Voice
The other two types of voice I’ve discussed are things that must be included in a manuscript. The authorial voice is a measurement of the whole, which can come from negative space (what the author pointedly does not mention, see the example of Dostoevsky, above), positive space (hints taken from every character, a “feeling”) or best of all, a combination of the two.
Themes should be presented using the authorial voice. In other words, if the author wishes to pose questions to her audience, she shouldn’t pose them directly; they should appear naturally as the reader progresses through the book.
Remember when I said that voice should come directly from the source? Yep.
Your entire manuscript comes directly from the source. Why would you ever need to put your words in the mouth of one character or one narrator? Answer: you don’t. The entire book is your voice.
Stretch out a little. Relax. You’ve got space. You can present a complex idea by scattering it delicately through the text. Kind of like oregano in spaghetti sauce. A dialogue tag here, a look there, perhaps a crack of thunder, and you’re done.

Agents look for the whole picture when selecting a novel. When they say “voice”, they mean a harmonious blend of all three types of voice. They mean that they want to see strong and believable examples of character voice, appropriate narrator voice, and they want to be able to recognise the author’s writing style from a hundred paces.

However. They do not want to see authorial voice (that is, the author’s beliefs and dreams) until they’ve read a good chunk of manuscript. An unpleasantly strong authorial voice is called “authorial intrusion” because it intrudes on a reader’s experience of the text. Authorial intrusion can also mean the intrusion of errors on the part of the author that jar the reader. For example, if an author makes every single character use the phrase, “should of” rather than the correct, “should have”, those characters aren’t revealing their own ignorance — they’re revealing the author’s. Such an obvious confrontation of a reader’s suspension of disbelief is understandably very jarring, and undesirable in a manuscript.


Writing Character Voice

Here’s where Stanislavski comes into the picture.

To write character voice, you have to learn what makes voices different. You have to get a feel for what your character would say. In order to do that, you’ve gotta pay attention to the old Russki.

Step One: You learn what outer characteristics define someone Young, someone Old, someone Male or Female, someone French or Canadian — so on and so forth. Mix them together in the right amounts to approximate your character.
Step Two: Next, start writing your character using that set of archetype-relevant mannerisms.
Step Three: Learn who your character is through writing. Change and adapt those mannerisms to suit your character. Make them unique. Throw in some things a reader won’t expect from someone Old, Female, and Canadian (for example).
Step Four: Go back and edit what you wrote to smooth everything out and make it consistent.

Doesn’t sound hard, right? It’s not, not really — but first you have to see the signifiers that tell readers what they’re looking at, waaaayyyy down deep in their subconscious. You have to consciously trigger them.

There are exercises you can do to help you see what I mean.


Exercise One: Hot McStuff

Get out a trashy romance novel. (If you don’t have one you can substitute a good romance novel, but it’s easier with a bad one.) Read a bit of it to refresh your memory.

Find a POV chapter from your protagonist. Select a paragraph from that chapter and rewrite it in the voice of a trashy romance novel hero/heroine.

What characteristics of voice did you borrow? What did your new paragraph tell readers vs. your old? Why does a particular characteristic or turn of phrase say that to you?

You should notice how the romance author’s preconceptions about masculinity and femininity shape your character. You should notice the degree to which the author genuinely understood men and women — both when constructing a psychological profile and when marketing the book. Does the author understand her audience (most likely other women)? Does the author understand her subjects? To which degree do these understandings clash? Is she successful at creating masculine/feminine ideals?

When refining a character, you want to ask yourself all of these difficult questions. “What am I saying to my audience? How am I going to do that? What characteristics define the speech and mannerisms of a person with a nervous disorder/a hobby/expertise in a field in the real world? How can I highlight those characteristics to make my character believable to my audience?”

By the time you get into your stride, you should know the answers — and your character. Don’t forget to go back and edit through to make everything smooth; all you have to do is ask yourself the same questions, and keep them in mind when editing.


Exercise Two: Make Everybody a Vampire

Find a copy of Dracula (it’s in the public domain) and flip through the book about a third of the way through, maybe three-quarters. This is so you get an example of Bram Stoker’s style in full-swing. None of that introductory pussyfootling. Now, pick a chapter and read the whole thing.

Take a short passage from your WIP, one with both narration and dialogue, and write it the way Bram Stoker would write it. You can post a link to it in the comments if you want; I’ll read them and comment.

As you do this, take note of the different voices in Stoker’s work. Female character voices are distinct from male ones — often in ways that make modern, feminist women tear out their hair and scream in frustration. Stoker’s own voice is distinct from those of his narrators; you could write Dracula and keep everything the same except for the beliefs Stoker injected into the narrative.

You could also choose to write Dracula with a modern cast — which would require modern language — and tell the story Stoker wanted to tell about femininity and sex and how frightening lust is.



Voice is something you have to practice before you can feel it. You can’t go charging in with your own emotions and expect to write other people; it doesn’t work that way.

Find people who interest you, in fiction and in real life. Watch what makes them tick. If you see a girl applying her chapstick and licking it off over and over again, think to yourself, Even if she’s not nervous, doesn’t that just shout nervousness? Maybe I should use that. Pay attention to the tricks authors use to characterise speech.

When you have a nice grab bag of stuff, use it. Every time your character is coming across as cardboard, stop. Go out into the real world and find a mannerism that real people do that fixes your problem. Repeat until your grab bag is as large as the earth. In the meantime, ask yourself the difficult questions. Define your voices. Know which words belong to which voice.