Lately, I’ve been reading the Fifty Shades trilogy. It is repetitive and misogynistic and stupid. For a sex book, it’s very unsexy, unless you’re turned on by e-mail and contract negotiation. And the writing! It’s as bad – possibly worse – than you’ve heard.
And I can’t put it down.
Fifty Shades of Grey fails at being a book so spectacularly, it succeeds at being entertaining. Now, to be fair to E.L James, she’s not a professional author. She’s just a lady who liked Twilight and fanfiction. She thought she’d make some extra money by self-publishing her popular story. It was never supposed to make her a millionaire. I certainly can’t fault her success.
I believe all art is worthwhile. Bad examples are still examples. Bad literature can teach just as many lessons as great literature, and Fifty Shades of Grey is a veritable playroom of lessons.
Let’s take a look at character voice.
The Fifty Shades series is told in first-person narration by the protagonist, Anastasia Steele.
Ana is your typical 21-year-old American girl. She likes classic British Literature and drinks English breakfast tea. She doesn’t own a cell phone or a computer. Technology in general confounds Ana. Her preferred method of birth control is the mini pill. Thoughts come unbidden to Ana, but she’s constantly pulled from her reveries by the mercurial and taciturn Christian Grey.
You see what I’m getting at here. E.L. James may have intended for Ana to be a 21-year-old American girl, but she’s written like a middle-aged English woman.
More examples, sir!
“He kisses and then softly bites my behind, making me gasp.” (At least she doesn’t call it a bum.)
“He gives me a warm, avuncular smile that makes me feel safe.” (Put down the thesaurus.)
“Oh, this is a dark morning of the soul for me.” (…sigh…)
“ ‘No Christian – I only accepted them under sufferance – and I don’t want them anymore.’ ” (No joke, the dictionary called this old-fashioned.)
“Will he let me sleep, perchance to dream?” (Even Ana thinks this one is dumb.)
Those are bad, but the following sentence made me stop what I was doing and rant to my husband for at least five minutes:
“I swallow instinctively and a frisson of exhilaration runs through me.”
frisson: a sudden strong feeling of excitement or fear; a thrill.
I don’t care if Ana studied English Literature in college. A 21-year-old girl would ever use the word frisson. But Ana Steele does – 11 times! What’s more, frisson actually appears in the trilogy 12 times, the final time as part of the bonus material written from Christian Grey’s point of view:
“Lucky? A frisson of annoyance runs through me. Lucky?”
I’m don’t even think Christian is using the word correctly here. Regardless, it’s hard to believe both Ana and Christian would use the same obscure synonym for shiver. Maybe they are soul mates.
Character voice is tough. Don’t keep it in check, and all the characters end up sounding alike. John Green’s characters (from the teenagers to the adults) are smart, witty, and deep. Just like John Green! The POVs were so similar in Veronica Roth’s Allegiant, I kept having to go back to the chapter heading to see if I was in Tris’s head or Four’s. And these guys have editors and second drafts.
What can we learn about character voice from Fifty Shades?
- Get to know your character. Know her as well as you know your best friend! Even the most bookish and innocent young adults have cell phones. There are hundreds of books and blogs dedicated to character development. Want a comprehensive character questionnaire? Try K.M. Weiland’s free e-book, Crafting Unforgettable Characters.
- Get to know your setting. Ana lives in Seattle. I don’t care if she’s into classic British literature, she drinks coffee! This quiz illustrates just how closely dialect ties to setting.
- Don’t be afraid to change everything. Did Anastasia need to be a young adult from the Pacific Northwest? I know she was originally Bella Swan, but when her name changed, she became a new character. Why couldn’t Anastasia Steele be a 30-something from Bristol?
- Finally – and this is the heart of E.L. James’s problems – revise! Even James changed paracetamol in Master of the Universe to Nyquil in Fifty Shades of Grey. Though, a frisson of terror runs through me when I think of how coherent a second draft could’ve been. A competent Fifty Shades sounds about as fun as a night in Christian Grey’s red room of pain.
A few examples of excellent character voices:
- The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Boris would never talk about furniture restoration and Hobie wouldn’t tell anyone to Vali otsyuda.
- Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. Flynn successfully juggles three POVs without confusing the reader.
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. Tom and Huck actually talk like they’re from 19th Century Missouri!
- The entire Coen Brothers filmography. John Goodman appears in six different Coen Brothers films, and plays six distinct characters.