The idea of developing ‘your voice’ is not just an idea limited to X Factor. Or, for that matter, Britain’s Got Talent. It is a term publishers and agents often use when critiquing new writers. How strong is their ‘voice’? But what is meant by this term, and how can we develop our voice, as a writer, to make it stronger?
I’d argue that a voice is a prose style which captures what the author wants to say. The better the voice captures what the author wants to say, the stronger the voice is.
Let’s take the most obvious types of voice, that which is conveyed through the first person. If we can broadly agree JD Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’ is a novel exploring the alienation of Holden – a likeable but misguided young man – then the voice of its narrator captures that ‘message’ very well. Have a look at this short extract-
“I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible.”
We get a sense here of a confused person, who is almost laughing at his own confusion. But just because he is unclear it doesn’t mean his literary voice is! From the first line of the novel we hear a voice that is chatty enough to be engaging, intimate enough to be personable. It is a voice which takes us through a number of fragmented scenarios, as Holden takes us through events which show him running away from his school, and then his family, and the bizarre situations that follow as a result. The voice is strong, because it conveys Salinger’s ‘message’ well. We engage with this boy through his humorous, sarcastic and self-deprecating voice, and we are then led to explore, as readers, the concept of alienation. Salinger takes us through a series of set-pieces, following Holden’s disastrous dates and his misguided attempts to be a worldly young man. By choosing these situations to place Holden in Salinger is showing us his voice through his character. Whatever it is that Salinger wants to say to us about society, and about how easy it is for young people to feel as though they can’t fit in, the reader is able to reflect on these issues in depth through these set pieces. By creating a protagonist who arguably reflected his worldview (Salinger was also famously intolerant of ‘phonies’ in his own life) and by using the first person to explore it, we get a strong sense of voice.
Sometimes, in the first person, the protagonists voice can be very different to how we assume the author to be. Sometimes the author can play a game of cat-and-mouse with the reader as we try to guess how much their protagonist reflects what they really think. A famous example of this is probably Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. In this novel the narrator, Humbert Humbert, is at pains to tell the reader how sophisticated, sensitive and elegant he is. When the novel follows how he traps and exploits and underage girl we get a sense of why he was perhaps so keen to do win us over. The voice of Nabokov – filtered through Humbert – is strong because it confronts us with our own values. It is a lyrical, rich, poetic and pretentious voice. It is scattered with French phrases and arcane language. Here is a short example of it, from the opening page of the novel-
“She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”
We can see in this example of Humberts’ ‘voice’ that he does is not a straightforward type of man. He talks of seraphs, noble-winged seraphs. He teases the reader with the idea that he might be a murderer, plays with the idea of being on trial. Just as his complex prose style tangles up the reader, so too will his actions. His voice allows Nabokov to convey his message well. We get a sense of character – a sense of a man who uses his sophistication to hide the truth. So the style of our narrator – like with Holden Caulfield – reflects our characters truth. In both cases, the message of the author (that Holden is alienated and that Humbert manipulates) are well expressed through the voice. Where Holden is rambling, sweet, angry, and confused, so is his writing style. It takes us into winding reflections on literature, unsuccessful attempts to woo women. The form of the writing reflects the content. Where Humbert is deceptive, manipulative, evasive, so too is his purple prose. It uses heavy symbolism, multiple clauses, and riffs and refrains to give us a sense of a man who is so complex that he should be admired. The fact that in both cases the reader will come to their own conclusions about the characters, as a result of what is conveyed, shows the authors skill.
In the second part of this blog I will be discussing how the ‘voice’ of the prose can be put across using the third person.