So, confession; I’m that one guy in every writing workshop who goes on about character voice.
I’m a real stickler for it. I spent all of uni (and really for as long as I’ve been reading) trying to pin-point the differences between Author voice, character voice and style. Outside of all those nebulous words and subjective ‘feelings’.
Sitting down with books, both for class and in my own time, about what makes a strong character voice strong? What makes one weak? What is the difference between the two? What is author style? How is character voice conveyed alongside author style? And the minute of all this is ongoing, and I believe, downright necessary for aspiring authors, editors, writers to think about.
A crash course in my findings for those interested; author voice is the personality of the writer coming through the language they use and the idea they present and the word choices they make. On the other hand, author style is how that voice is conveyed through punctuation, formatting, sentence structure, tone, story construction and pacing. Style is a lot broader than voice. It can be ornate—long, can consist of complex beautiful sentences strung together with purple metaphors and sweet similes. Or it can be more straightforward; sparse prose. Made up of short, simple sentences, etc.
TL,DR; Voice is what you say, style is the way you say it.
A character’s voice though, especially in YA, I think is the most important thing. We hear it all the time from professors, reviewers and editors; ‘authentic voice’ ‘realistic voice’ ‘strong characters’.
It’s the thing we fall in love with, what makes a character feel real to us. This gem comes down to things as in specific character word choices (In dialogue and—if using first person pov, in narration), how the character acts, reacts, how they relay emotions, relationships, thoughts, what they say, so on.
For this reason, I’ve rarely ever loved a book from first person perspective, in fact, nine times out of ten that simple pov choice is enough to turn me off a book entirely.
It’s really hard to write a book in first person perspective with the voice of your character instead of writing with your own voice, that authors voice.
All too often, character voice is forgone for author voice in 1st pov. Characters don’t sound realistic, whole novels read as though they’re written by thirty year olds instead of teenagers. Dull, flat, too intelligent, too unintelligent.
While style applies to the whole book and the way it is written, a character’s voice is the way the author narrates the story through the eyes of that character (i.e the way the character’s behavior, thoughts, mannerisms and dialogue are expressed in the story).
Most of us can tell pretty quickly when the voice is the character’s or the author’s (and a lot of people don’t mind either way).
Me? This bugs me, it takes me out of the story, sometimes it downright pisses me off. The characters just don’t sound real, or even sound separate enough to the other characters (side and other mains) that they share the book with.
For example: with first person pov, if your protagonist is a fedora-wearing smart arse wannabe poet then the narrative and style will have to reflect the douchebagery thoughts and speech patterns of that character. But that voice and style, character voice and author style should all compliment each other and not be each other.
Not only that, but with first pov you’ve gotta describe the rest of the world, the rest of the characters and filter everything again, through that fuck-boy point of view. That is the point of first person pov (I have a lot of thoughts about first pov, forgive me, I’ll move on).
An author can have different character voices in different books, yet their writing style may be the same. For example, our good ole Hemingway. His style’s always the same—minimalist, straight forward, unadorned—but each of his characters have different voices across all of his different works.
And well, I’m of the opinion that we should as both readers and particularly, writers strive for that consistency.
So yeah, right off the bat, character voice distinct from an authors voice is very hard to accomplish in a book and it’s something I’m a real stickler about (with my own subjective and personal world view, mind. All opinions above and below are entirely my own).
ARI AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE in 2015 was the first book I loved told through first person perspective.
But it was not the first Benjamin Sáenz book I ever read.
HE FORGOT TO SAY GOODBYE was my first Sáenz book. A good book, not a great book, but good enough that it had me looking for more of Sáenz's work, and stumbling over ARI AND DANTE with enough enthusiasm I didn’t wince when it was in first person pov.
Ramiro Lopez and Jake Upthegrove have distinct character voices, both from each other and then in comparison to both Ari and Dante. The book switches perspectives between the both of them throughout the story and I rarely was I confused or irked by which character was which, who was speaking, or thinking something along the lines of ‘no, no the Jake I know wouldn’t say this…’ or ‘hey mate you sound a bit contrived here saying that, where’s your personality?’
And then, again, I read, ARI AND DANTE and Ari’s voice, Ari’s voice, the way he thought and reacted, the idea’s he had and the way he conveyed them was so distinct and unique and utterly different to anything else I had read—it was as close to perfect as a character voice can get.
But then THE INEXPLICABLE LOGIC OF MY LIFE came along and I thought, yes, he’s done it several times before, now I am going to get another unique, heartfelt and individual feeling young male protag.
But I didn’t.
I got Ari with a different name.
Sáenz’s style is something of a common thread across all of his work (not just ARI AND DANTE). He’s a choppy but poetic writer, dealing with big picture and existential crisis ideas. His stories are small, character focused, his simple but at times lyrical (this taken to its peak with ARI AND DANTE) prose is a staple. He mainly centres on the relationships between characters and the internal thoughts of his MC’s rather than a strict course of events. He waxes beautiful philosophy one moment then stumbles over “yeah,” “yeah” in the next.
ARI AND DANTE is the pinnacle of this, HE FORGOT is something of the origin story. The O-G. Both have the same style but are made distinct from one another almost entirely by character voice.
Basically what I’m trying to get at here is that Salvador and Aristotle are utterly indistinct from one another in terms of voice. Salvador has no voice of his own, he is an almost exact copy (right down to some of his exact thoughts, right down to some of his exact feelings, right down to some of his exact lines) carbon copy of Ari.
And that ruins some of the magic of ARI AND DANTE for me, because that, more than anything else, was what made the story so compelling, is what made Ari and Dante, ARI AND DANTE.
And that ultimately, is what makes INEXPLICABLE LOGIC fall short of expectation.
In saying this INEXPLICABLE LOGIC is not a bad book, it’s a great book even, and while this was the biggest problem with the book for me (I enjoyed it yes, but in the same breath I’d be sitting there feeling just some of the specialness of ARI AND DANTE wisp away) it does have other positives and other problems.
Problems first up; let’s get real. A bunch of people have issue with how some sensitive subject matter is handled in this (attempted sexual assault), with ableist, stereotypical and homophobic language and wordage, words and phrases that aren’t challenged either in the work itself or really in the narrative of the story. With the examples I’ve seen and read in the book I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with all this personally (generally most teenagers, especially teenage boys use ableist, stereotypical and homophobic language,) if these thoughts and assumptions were challenged and confronted in the text itself, by the characters.
But they weren’t and so they are normalised, and so they are seen as okay and for that seen as not okay by me and other readers.
I was taken out of the story a bit, having something of a (really, when you think about it) sadistic giggle because every mum in this book dies.
I mean every mum.
Sal’s mum, Sam’s and Fito’s mum’s, Vicente’s (Sal’s dad) mum. The name for this novel should be One Day; All Mums Shall Perish, because, fuck they are dropping like damn dominos in this. There must be something in the water.
INEXPLICABLE LOGIC is not a small book. It is about 400 pages. And having a book utterly character over plot driven for 400 pages is no mean feet. Particularly, because this books deals with some heavy and sensitive subjects; mortality, belonging, grief, love, family, it is and also feels like a long book.
I both liked and didn’t like this aspect of the book as a lot of Salvador’s conclusions and questions just felt like rehashed versions of what Ari thought and said. Salvador just wasn’t enough of his own person, outside of Sáenz, outside of Ari, to offer all that much new and compelling material.
His family though were utter gems.
This book is a book without romance at its centre, without really any romance at all which is, gosh, I really loved that about it. It’s about the friendships that form, both new and old, that adapt and change as we adapt and change, and the family you make, not necessarily the one you are born into.
Sal was at his strongest when he had his best mate Sam or his father Vicente to bounce off of. He and Sam are best mates, both straight both cis, who have no romantic or sexual attraction to each other and are friends and are happy to stay that way. That is a beautiful thing.
The novel follows Salvador (y’all know how I feel about him, Ari my son I love you but you were supposed to be that one in a million), his father, his best mate Sam and his newer friend Fito. All of them draw together and become something of a patchwork family when tragedies (see: all the dead mums) start befalling them.
The book is all about platonic relationships (the relationship between Salvador and his Dad really striking a chord with me as it reminds me of my relationships to my parents a little).
But again, I iterate, this book passively uses ableist (something I’m working on myself personally), homophobic and derogatory language, presents these in Salvador’s thoughts and side passes an issue of sexual assault in a way that can be seen as problematic, and importantly, does not challenge any of this textually.
That does matter.
It did though raise an interesting thought of nature vs nurture in terms of heritage, as Salvador; a white boy, is adopted by a Mexican family and identifies as Mexican because of that.
I feel that less was more with the characters, finding myself more deeply invested in the characters I got less dialogue and time with, Fito for instance was endearing, Salvador’s dad Vicente I connected with immediately (reminds me of my dad a lot) and his budding relationship with Marco had me rooting from the sidelines.
Sal’s grandmother was one of the many dead mums ( *breath* seriously this is a point I can’t seem to get past, I understand Sáenz was channelling some of his own grief over the loss of his own mother into this story (which is heartbreaking.) But this novel kills 4 outta 4 mums, not they're not really different from each other and not really explored in the differences they did have in terms of grief and the children they left behind *breath out*) that I wished, got to stick around. Not for Salvador’s sake or because of his grief, more because she was genuinely an interesting character, a character with a singular voice.
*Quietly mourns, again, the loss of that special Ari flavour*
Vicente is a really lovely character, probably my favourite of the bunch. It’s not often that I come out of a book thinking the parental figure is the best character in the story, but here I did. He felt real, authentic (specifically for me, outside of writing craft and style) and identifiable.
(He deserved a better book).
All in all, THE INEXPLICABLE LOGIC OF MY LIFE is a heavy book but removes itself from some of that heaviness with Sáenz's usual sparse and intellectually/poetically removed style.
The things I generally loved ARI AND DANTE for, made me resent this book though it isn’t actually bad. If ARI AND DANTE didn’t exist (and we got rid of those couple’a lines that make everyone so uncomfortable to read, or even just, again challenged them and Salvador’s use/attitude toward them) then I probably would have loved this book on par with the love I feel (though a little dampened now, *shakes fist*) for ARI AND DANTE.
Is it fair to judge a book so heavily, so harshly because of the book that came before it?
Well it wouldn’t be, if this book had tried more to be its own, unique thing. To have its own voice. To not try and recreate the one and a million magic that was ARI AND DANTE.
Like the shot-for-shot, live action reboot of Disney’s THE BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, when you try to recreate something that’s already pretty much perfect; you’re always going to fall short, there’s always going to be that comparison. And most of the time, everyone pretty much always agrees.
What came first, did it better.