Says who?

My recent decision to change from a first person to a third person narrator of my novel, The Sleep of Reason, requires me to decide who my new narrator will be.

My first person narrator, the protagonist, is a bit of a pompous man. He is well educated and has a good vocabulary, so his narration is packed with compound sentences and expensive words. I’m not sure that my new narrator should be the same. He will have the advantage of knowing the protagonist’s thoughts, motives, and decisions, so he can be a bemused narrator. (He knows everyone’s mind, though he isn’t telling about the others.) But I’m not sure that he needs the ostentatious language of the protagonist.

I’ve insisted on this blog and elsewhere that a writer must have the narrator as clearly defined as any character in the story. This is true even if the narration is in third person. For one thing it adds integrity to the narrator. A consistent voice will tell the story throughout. But I’ve also considered things like the actual voice of the narrator. Imagine your same story — the very same words — being told by Sean Connery and then by Kate Winslet. Whose voice should you hear in your head as you’re writing? Half of the story is in the telling, and your narrator is the one doing the telling. For your purposes, you might choose to have your story being told by one given familiar voice or another, but you must choose. Similarly, and maybe stretching my point a bit far, just where is the story being told? In front of a group of gentlemen sharing drinks at the club? In an auditorium. At a coffee klatch? Before a campfire?

All of these things can influence narrative voice, and they are the kinds of things that I need to consider seriously before I begin the great rewrite.

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3 Comments on “Says who?”

  1. J.M. Reep Says:

    I agree that a writer must be very careful when constructing the narrative voice, and things like the narrator’s diction are very important to pay attention to. In a sense, the narrator has no existence other than the words he/she/it uses, so diction is crucial.

    You also make an interesting point when you consider the identity of the narrator and where the story is being told. I’ve sometimes thought wondered whether a female or male narrative voice would be better for my stories, but I’ve never really thought about where the story is being told.

    The way that you describe your new narrator suggests that it is an omniscient third person narrator. If that’s the case, then I wonder if personifying the narrator (giving it a very specific voice and a very specific location for its storytelling) is the right thing to do. If the narrator is omniscient, then perhaps it isn’t really human. In other words, maybe it doesn’t exist within the fictional universe that you are constructing for your story. So while the words that it uses are important, the identity of the narrator and the narrator’s location in time and space are less important.

  2. paullamb Says:

    J.M. – You’re right about my new narrator being 3rd person omniscient and not really existing in the universe of my story. My point in this case is merely to ensure that I am consistent in the narrative voice by knowing all of these qualities of my narrator.

  3. Brian Keaney Says:

    In my opinion a strong narrative voice is one of the primary things readers look for in a text. It’s what enables you to pick up a novel, read the first few paragraphs and make a snap decision about whether or not it’s your kind of book. The exact process by which readers recognize a voice that attracts them is almost as mysterious as the alchemy through which someone intuitively understands that the person they have just met is the one they want to spend the rest of their life with. But I’m fairly confident that a strong voice is a powerful recommendation to the reading public.


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