Let's Talk: Voices in the Wilderness by Susan Tepper

Let’s Talk: Voices in the Wilderness by Susan Tepper

When you pick up a book in a bookstore, and you scan the pages, do you feel the characters coming forth, claiming their space in your mind and body? Or does the writing sound almost computer generated?

Good writers know that voice is paramount to carrying a story, and they know how to make “voice.”

Voice is not only in the dialogue, but it comes up also in the narrative sections, so that each descriptive moment is clearly part of that particular story being told.

Henry VIII would not describe a day in the woods the same way as, say, Holden Caulfield.

"Hans Holbein, the Younger, Around 1497-1543 - Portrait of Henry VIII of England - Google Art Project" by Hans Holbein the Younger - at Google Cultural Institute. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Hans Holbein, the Younger, Around 1497-1543 – Portrait of Henry VIII of England – Google Art Project” by Hans Holbein the Younger – at Google Cultural Institute. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Henry’s trees would be obstacles to be circumvented, where his enemies might be hiding, and so his “voice” in the narrative has to project this psychology of fight or flight. Strength and bravado. Everything in Henry’s narrative about the woods should be tense and reflective of the man and his time in history.

Now, with Holden, the woods might be a place where he stops to lean against a thick oak, ruminating about his life as a young man in the 1950’s. Thinking about girls and sex, most likely. Whatever Holden does and thinks in the woods wouldn’t be remotely close to what Henry is doing. So it stands to reason that the voices have to be distinctly different for these two characters.

If a book opens to Henry VIII and I don’t feel Henry in the writing, for me that book has failed. And, ditto with Holden. Of course, Salinger was a master writer and Holden never fails to come across in The Catcher in the Rye. Every moment, whether in dialogue or narrative, is exclusively the domain of Holden Caulfield.

Writers who are particularly adept at creating voice can do a great deal with a very small plot. The late author Hugh Fox is known to have said about another writer: “She takes the simplest little plots and electrocutes you with them.” Big praise. ‘Cause voice is where it’s at.

Many commercially produced books seem to overlook voice. They’ve got the craft in place, the plot line is working, but the book has no personality.

Kind of like going on a date with a robot: good hair, clear complexion, cool clothes. But the laugh track was dubbed in afterward. And you probably wouldn’t want to have sex with it!

The best books are sexy. I didn’t say there’s sex in them (necessarily), but the voice pulls at you in the same way, and you want to cuddle up with those books, make them last, and seek out the author for another rendez-vous. And another.

Want to compare the voices of Holden and Henry for yourself? Check out The Catcher in the Rye for Holden’s perspective, and The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers for a fictionalized version of Henry’s voice created by historical novelist Margaret George.