“I Spy,” With My Little Ears…

This past week, I’ve thought a lot about the issue of  voice. The ways in which we speak: the accents and volume and pitch, the timbre and lilt  of our voices, what we choose to say, the expressions we use…all tell people a lot about us.

I “buy” a lot of free books for my Kindle, many of them written by new authors. Sometimes one of these writers creates natural and distinct voices for his or her characters. But the characters created by a majority of the authors have practically interchangeable voices. Creating unique voices is a skill that I am struggling to learn, myself.

For me, Barbara Kingsolver is a master of character and voice. I don’t need to see the attribution to know who is speaking in one of her novels. Whether characters are in dialogue or narrating, their voices are distinctive. Some examples, from The Poisonwood Bible:

“Before the great adventure is all over, Father expects  his children to eat rhinoceros, I suppose. Antelope is more or less our daily bread. They started bringing us that the very first week. Even, once, a monkey. Mama Tataba would haggle with the women at the door, and finally turn to us with her scrawny arms raised up like a boxing champ, holding up  our dinner. Jeez oh man, tell me when it’s over! Then she’d stomp out to the kitchen hut and build such a huge fire in the iron stove you’d think she was Cape Carniveral launching a rocket ship. She is handy at cooking anything living or dead, but heaven be praised, Mother rejected the monkey, with its little dead grin. She told Mama Tataba we could get by on things that looked less like kinfolk.”


“The children are named  Tumba, Bangwa, Mazuzi, Nsimba, and those things. One of them comes in our yard the most and I don’t know his name at all. He’s near about big, like my sisters, but doesn’t wear a thing on God’s green earth but an old gray shirt without any buttons and baggy gray underpants. He has a big old round belly with his belly button sticking out like a black marble. I can tell it’s him because of the shirt and underpants, not because of the belly button. They all have those. I thought they were all fat, but Father said no. They’re hungry as can  be, and don’t get their vitamins. And still God makes them look fat. I reckon that’s what they get for being the Tribes of Ham.”


“Late in the fall, the milky green bushes surrounding every house and path suddenly revealed themselves as poinsettias. They bloomed their heads off and Christmas rang out in the sticky heat, as surprising as if “Hark the Herald Angels” were to come on your radio in July. Oh, it’s a heavenly paradise in the Congo and  sometimes I want to live here forever. I  could climb up trees just like the boys to hunt guavas and eat them till the juice runs  down and stains my shirt, forever.”


“Oh, that river of wishes, the slippery crocodile dream of it, how it might have carried my body down through all the glittering sandbars to the sea. The hardest work of every day was deciding, once again, to stay with my family. They never even knew. When I pried open the lock meant to keep the beasts and curious children out of our kitchen hut, I nearly had to  lock it again behind me, to keep myself in. The gloom, the humidity, the permanent sour breath of the rainy season all bore down on me like a bothersome lover. The fresh stench of night soil in the bushes. And our own latrine, which was only one step removed.”


“In following Methuselah on his slow forays through the forest, I discovered the boys and men practicing drills. This was not the Belgian Army, official conscripted protectors of white people, but a group of young men who held secret meetings in the woods behind our house. I learned that Anatole is more than a teacher of schoolboys and translator of sermons. Ah Anatole, the lot an aha!”


“Brother Anatole, I fail to see how the church can mean anything but joy, for the few here who choose Christi-an-ity over ignorance and darkness!”


The speakers here are, in turn, Rachel, Ruth May, Leah, Orleanna (the mother), Adah, and Nathan (the father/pastor).

Rachel is distinctive in her preoccupation with appearances and her shallow mindset, particular expressions like “jeez oh man” and “charmed, I’m sure,” as well as in her amusing twists of vocabulary  (malapropisms such as “Cape Carniveral”). Though there’s much to dislike  in her character, she is observant of conversations and details, as well as being colorful and entertaining.

Ruth May is also a sharp observer with a child’s-eye description of what she is seeing, based partly on her innocent and sometime comical understanding of what’s been explained to her; she is open to all that she experiences, and tells it as she sees it, with no judgement or agenda.

Leah is enthusiastic, often taken by the beauty of the world around her; she is also open to experience and learning about the place she resides – a young woman who truly blooms where she is planted. Her growth in Africa begins as she loses her innocence and begins to question her father’s judgement. She often reminds me of the Greek/Roman goddesses, Artemis and Diana.

Orleanna often speaks poetically in narrative, and with a more mature version of local southern color when she is in dialogue. She walks a thin line in speaking with or in front of her husband – she reads, she’s intelligent and is concerned for her family’s situation, which often puts her in disagreement with her husband; yet, she lives in a world in which she’s supposed to cleave to her husband, and her situation is especially restrained since she’s married to an a narrow-minded Baptist preacher who tends toward angry, sometimes violent outbursts when anyone disagrees with him.

Adah, Leah’s twin, is intellectual, somewhat bitter and frequently mocking – especially of herself and her handicap, hemiplegia; for much of the book she does not speak out loud, but watches and listens and narrates her thoughts. She refers to Nathan as “Our Father.” Her most telling “verbal” characteristic is her habit of “saying” words and phrases backwards. As she matures in the latter part of the book, her tone is no longer bitter or mocking, though she retains her intellectualism, honesty, and some degree of cynicism.

Nathan speaks in terms of moralistic pronouncements, and does not believe that he has anything to learn; he is in Africa to teach from his point of view, and his refusal to adjust his ideas despite their clear inability to jive with the world in which he’s now enmeshed, leads to his slow unraveling.

True, guilt-ridden confession: when my youngest daughter was in grade school and wanted a bedtime story to help her fall asleep, I often read to her from The Poisonwood Bible, because I loved the language, and especially enjoyed “doing” the voices of the various characters. Being a grown-up book and not necessarily her choice, it did the trick of putting her to sleep quickly so that I could get on with my  own agenda for the night (and to my relief, despite my lazy habit of reading what I enjoyed and knew would get Gena to sleep, she has in adulthood become a Barbara Kingsolver fan herself).


Since I want to learn to create character voice with something approaching Kingsolver’s skill, I’m setting myself an exercise for this week, and you’re invited to join me in the game. As you go through your week, listen closely to people. You might take yourself to a park or a coffee shop, and just sit, sip your drink, and listen. Play spy. Jot down what one or two specific people are saying, note their accents and inflections, their peculiar turns of phrases, the laughs they intersperse between sentences. Choose one of these people (if you listened to more than one). What can you tell about this person from just listening to the way he/she talks?

Create a character based on your  observations of his/her voice. What tale does this character, with this unique voice, have to tell? Use your character in a story, or as narrator for a poem.

Post your piece of writing to your blog or in a Facebook note, and share your link in a comment here by Saturday evening. I look forward to “hearing” from the unique voices we all find, and characters we create this week!


2 Responses

  1. Interesting, Bonnie. I just picked up a worn old copy at Goodwill so I could mark it up as a study for that exact same reason!

    • Kingsolver is truly the master of character and voice, in my opinion, and The Poisonwood Bible is a great book to study for any number of purposes!

      We must be operating on the same wavelength, Lara!

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