During our second creative writing session at Worthing library we attempted to unpick the meaning of ‘voice’ in fiction. It’s a slippery concept much loved by agents, editors and competition judges. When asked what they’re looking for in a manuscript, the reply is often: ‘A strong voice’. They can’t explain exactly what’s meant by this – it’s not a magic formula, they say – but somehow they just know it when they see it.
How can beginner writers learn to develop a strong voice when there’s no accepted definition? One way of looking at voice is to see it as a marriage of two elements – the writer’s own distinctive prose style combined with the voices of strong, believable characters. Of course, even these elements can overlap. See? Slippery.
We looked at the openings of two novels to illustrate ways in which voice can be established from the very first page. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield’s casual first person narrative is instantly engaging:
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 all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
As readers, we know we’re in safe hands. We sense that this is Holden Caulfield speaking: it’s as if J D Salinger is a vessel through which the character’s thoughts and experiences are set down.
Next we discussed Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – a very different book but one which also sings from the outset, establishing character and tone through a mixture of third person narration and virtuoso dialogue.
Clearly, voice can be summoned in a myriad of ways. First person narration might seem like a short-cut (immediate, intimate, etc etc), but writing in the third person can be equally powerful. What links the novels are their brilliantly-drawn, memorable characters. The authors know their characters, believe in them, and this in turn lends a confidence to their writing – gives them a voice.
Our first practical task was to write a diary entry in the voice of an imagined character, with the date October 31st for those who might wish to experiment with a Halloween theme. This produced some excellent short pieces – sinister and edgy, with intriguing and original voices which left a strong impression.
In the second half of the workshop we looked at a more literal interpretation of voice, focusing on the use of dialogue in fiction, and how this can be used to further character development. Extracts from Ernest Hemingway and Sussex-based novelist Isabel Ashdown illustrated the possibilities.
What of our overall theme, The South? Much of the work written during the exercises was set within the Sussex landscape, including Highdown Hill, a seafront hotel and the bar at Worthing’s Connaught Theatre. I can’t make any link between Salinger and Sussex, but there is an Austen connection; the author stayed in Worthing in the autumn of 1805, and her final unfinished novel, Sanditon, is believed to have been inspired by her visit to the town.
Did we manage to nail the meaning of ‘voice’ in fiction? We didn’t devise a magic formula, but by studying some of the components we came a little closer to understanding this elusive concept. In any case, perhaps we shouldn’t search too hard for a catch-all definition. The joy of writing is in the journey, the sense of discovery. Who wants to colour by numbers?