Writing Voice in Fiction: Examining MS. BIXBY’S LAST DAY, by John David Anderson
Voice is one of my favorite craft topics in writing. In order to capture a character’s voice, you need to start with a well-developed character. Your story will change and develop and you need to know how your character’s personality and desires will adapt to every situation. You could start your writing day with character exercises written in first person to get inside your character’s head. What did your character eat for breakfast today and what was playing on the radio? This helps to develop your character’s voice.
Voice also includes the author’s own voice and influence. Voice is driven by how you look at the world around you and how you describe it. Nobody talks the same and therefore nobody should write the same. What drives an author to write and what elements from the writer arsenal can by pulled out to make a scene your own? I personally lapse into the young adult smartass teenage voice and swear too much (no comments on my personality here), but it is important for me to adapt into a middle grade innocent ten-year-old boy or a picture book giraffe if needed. The first aspect of writing is mastering the material I am writing and then fine-tune the voice.
An excellent example of voice done well is in Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson. There may be spoilers involved here, but this is a remarkable middle grade novel and a must read book. Three young boys embark on a journey to create the perfect last day of school with their favorite teacher after her diagnosis of cancer.
Ms. Bixby’s Last Day is written in multiple point of views with a different chapter dedicated to one of the three boys: Topher, Steve, or Brand. The challenge of writing a multiple POV novel is keeping each character’s voice distinct and unique in a way that the reader would know who is speaking by the nature of what is being said or their actions. That is the nature of voice. Finding the word choice or quality of language that makes a person unique and keeping that voice consistent throughout the novel. If a character tends to whine or be shy in the beginning, this should be consistent but is allowed to change.
Steve was characterized as a walking encyclopedia spouting facts and figures and a germaphobe. Topher lived in a fantasy world and often transitioned into thinking and talking through imaginary walkie-talkies as secret agents and he drew in his sketchbook. When things were stressful, he babbled. Brand was newer to the threesome and held mystery and a liking to making up his own words combinations such as frawesome – freaking awesome. He was tough on the outside, but hid his loneliness inside. He’s the M&M that refuses to melt in your hands. The bond that tied the three boys together is a special connection with Ms. Bixby and a goal to skip school and spend one more day with her.
The author, Anderson, captures voice in many examples that stay consistent throughout the novel. One scene with Topher and Steve:
Still no sign of Agent Walker.
“He’s a loose cannon,” I say. “He’s jeopardizing the mission.”
Steve shakes his head. “Cool it with this secret agent act, all right?”
“Fine,” I say, a little annoyed. Steve usually goes along with whatever scene’s playing in my head. He’s been a paralyzed soldier, a stranded astronaut, a captured sidekick, a flaxen-haired princess, a zombie shoe salesman, and a raging Wookie. Of course, he’s probably right. Skipping school for the first time ever is exciting enough without me having to pretend. I just can’t help it. Comes with having to entertain yourself all the time.
“Did you know that kids with perfect attendance throughout their primary school years are three times more likely to go on to college than those students who have missed a day or more of school?” he tells me.
I’m sure he just looked that up this morning. Either that or it’s something his parents told him. Or it’s written on his sister’s bedroom wall. “You already missed three days this year with the flu,” I remind him.
The scene includes few dialogue tags, but we know each of character’s personalities and the unique aspects of their voice make reading the passage easy. Steve is the fact man and Topher always talking in imaginary secret-agent world. The banter of the characters throughout the novel flows because their voices are perfectly meshed. A monologue from Brand:
Dad would really have loved this toilet.
Sitting there, thinking of the great white about to take a bite out of my skinny white bottom, I think of a new word, or at least a new way of thinking about an old one. Squaring. As in “I just squared one.” Pretty much the same as “going number two” or “dropping a deuce” except even more scientific. Its’ going potty to the power of two. Plus it’s more appropriate for dinner conversation than “making fudge nuggets” or birthing a Baby Ruth.”
Topher, Steve and Brand make Ms. Bixby’s Last Day a fun and enjoyable read despite knowing it’s about their dying teacher within the first chapter. The VOICES of the characters are unique and consistent throughout the text and dialogue, and this novel can be used as an example of voice done well.
The only critical thing I feel I need to say about this novel (any children that may be reading this – PLEASE STOP READING NOW!), there is a chapter in the novel that discusses the tooth fairy in great detail and dispels any possibility of existing magic in the world. It broke my heart. Middle grade readers read UP and it is hard to know when children stop believing in magic? For this one page in the book – I don’t want my ten-year-old daughter who still believes to read it yet, and that makes me sad, because I absolutely love this novel.
For everyone else, go read Ms. Bixby’s Last Day and have a great laugh and possibly a cry. I hope this helped to understand voice for anyone interested. Thank you for visiting my blog and feel free to contact me anytime! Pat