Creating a Voice


How do you tell your story?

When agents and editors are asked what features they look for in a novel, they often mention voice. But what is voice? And why is it so important? Well, literally it’s the way the story is told. Just as our spoken voices convey mannerisms unique to us, so our written voices should also be highly distinctive. Let’s look at the beginning of Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger, which provides a brilliant example of voice in action:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They're quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They're nice and all--I'm not saying that--but they're also touchy as hell.

Bearing in mind the novel was published in 1951, the first paragraph feels very modern. That’s because Holden Caulfield’s voice is deliberately controversial. His anger leaps across the page at us and immediately we are engaged. First of all he addresses the reader directly: if you really want to hear about it. We are involved in his story from the outset: why is he reluctant, or angry or frustrated? Why has he almost declared us as the enemy on such brief acquaintance? Nowadays we aren’t shocked by words such as lousy, crap and hell, but they certainly continue the impression of an angry young man. Clearly he has what today we would term ‘issues’: he’s reluctant to tell us about his childhood, his parents are private people, they are ‘nice’ but also ‘touchy.’ There is a lot to intrigue us. We might pick up subliminally on his use of polysyndeton (see blog article of same name) in the first sentence, comprising four ‘ands’ and one ‘but’. It is as though his feelings are spilling out without him stopping for breath: another fascinating clue about his mental state. He’s a complex character who has read Dickens and is aware of the conventional start to a novel - and why his own narrative breaks with literary convention. Within eight lines we are hooked. And it's Caulfield’s voice, so skillfully created by Salinger, that has reeled us in.

So if we want to create a unique voice we should consider language, sentence structure, address to reader, ‘leakage’ of deeper issues – and avoid the obvious or conventional. Catcher in the Rye can certainly teach us a lot.