Posted tagged ‘narrator’

Always the first person

May 19, 2010

“In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained;
that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not
remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking”

from the “Economy” chapter of Walden
Henry David Thoreau

Obviously, I’m not the first person to make this observation!

I’ve noted here before that, ultimately, all narration is done in the first person. Someone is telling us the story that we read. And I’ve asserted here as well that the narrator of our fiction must be as much a character, at least in our own minds, as every other character in our story, even if the narrator is not a participant in but only an observer of the story. The narrator’s personality may be subsumed in the telling, or it may emerge as important to the telling. But as writers, we must make this decision consciously. Who is our ambassador to the reader?

When we sit down to read a book, we sit across the table or the campfire from the person telling us the story. Even if the story is written with a third-person narrator, there is a narrator who is speaking.

*   *   *   *

The quotation above from Walden goes on in the very next sentence to deliver one of the more famous aphorisms of the book:

“I should not talk so much about myself
if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.”

Says who?

May 29, 2009

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.

I think I need a new narrator

May 2, 2009

My thoughts about my novel-in-progress, The Sleep of Reason, are in a tumult right now. I’ve stumbled upon a new revelation at the very end that will reveal a much larger story behind the literal one in the narrative, and so the creative part of my brain is busy offering me insights on how this could be done and how it would need to be prepared for. (I say I “stumbled upon” this revelation — and I really do think it would be the very last words of the story to be most effective — but I think the story was inevitably going to require this, so I think it’s more the case that I stumbled toward it rather than upon it. I’ve been a little slow in seeing where my story was taking me.)

Anyway, because of the nature of the ending, plotwise, I must have access to the protagonist’s thoughts in order to deliver the full impact of these new final words that give such added meaning to the story. For the last 90,000 words I’ve written, this has not been a problem since my protagonist is the first-person narrator of the story. I have had complete access to his deluded thoughts. But, again, given the nature of the plot at the very end, my protagonist is not going to suddenly be very clever and discerning, and while he could have some intimation of this bigger story, his understanding of it would necessarily be incomplete: thus the reader’s understanding might be as well.

And so, dancing at the dark edge of my consciousness, has been this insistent little idea that I need to change the narration of the story from an unreliable first person to a limited omniscience third person. As the days have passed, the rightness of this change has become more clear (and more insistent), and now I am all but resigned to it. The problem is that I have written 90,000 words in first person narration. Yikes! I have never made a wholesale change in the narrator in any of my writing at such a late stage.

I knew that the rewrite was going to involve some significant reworking to address plot and tone issues, but I never thought it would be a fundamental restructuring such as this.

Nonetheless, this would solve some other issues in the story. I have several instances where the coincidences needed by the plot have seemed too convenient. By having the third person narrator relate them, this unlikely serendipity would be fixed (though I can’t say more without giving away too much). I gave a cursory read to Chapter 13 yesterday, just to see how well it would lend itself to being recast it in third person, and it didn’t seem that difficult. So now my question is should I finish writing the novel in the first person? (I’m inclined that way.) Or should I embark from this point in third person? Given the frame of mind I’ve sustained for the last year of writing, I think I will finish the first draft in the first person. I want to stay consistent with the manifold influences in the story telling so I don’t drop a thread or plot device because I’m in unfamiliar narrative territory. I think it will be easier to redo the whole (rather than parts) later.

This postponement also gives me time to ponder the nature of my new narrator. I’ve long thought that a narrator must have as much substance (at least in the writer’s mind) as any character in the story. My new narrator won’t be a character in the story given that he or she must have access to another character’s thoughts, but I want to know what kind of voice this new person uses, where the story would be told (around a campfire? over drinks at the club? in the witness box?), how intelligent the narrator is, and all of that kind of thing.

As told by

January 12, 2009

I’ve said a few times in a few forums that you must treat the narrator of your story, especially if your narration is in the omniscient third person, as another character. A narrator must have a personality as much as any of the other characters in the story, even if this personality doesn’t make much of an overt appearance.

At least half of the story is in the telling, and you need to consider just who is doing the telling of your stories. It shouldn’t be you. Not really. (Well, ultimately it is, but whose voice are you going to use on the page?)

Consider this: how different would the same story be if it was narrated by Ralph Fiennes, Garrison Keillor, Robin Williams, Emma Thompson, Boris Karloff, or Ricky Gervais? Listeners would have a very different experience in each case. Each would give a memorable performance, but which narrator is best going to bring across the story you want to tell? That’s what you have to decide.

And let’s take this a step or two further. Where and when is your story being told? Are you sharing drinks at the club with your narrator, listening avidly as he or she relates the tale of your protagonist? Are you gathered with friends around a campfire? Are you on a long drive with a family member? And just what does your narrator think of your protagonist? Does he see the character as a clown? Is the story tragic to your narrator? Does your narrator despise your protagonist? All of this will affect how the story is told, and if it is fixed in your mind it will affect how consistently you maintain voice and tone.

Your narrator can be someone of your own invention, especially if he or she is a character in the actual story, or you can hear your story being told in the voice of an actual person you know whom you consider ideal for telling it. But the narrator must be a whole character.

Is your careful and meticulous uncle the right voice for your story? Or is your free-spirited niece the best person to tell your tale? Do you hear the story as told by Peter Lorre or Cate Blanchett or Sean Connery? You may be the only person who ever really hears the story in the voice you have chosen, but your narration will suffer if you haven’t given it a voice.

Knowing who the narrator is helps us maintain a consistent voice throughout the story. (Note that I consider voice to be a quality of the narrator, while style is a quality of the writer.) It also gives the reader a familiar touchstone throughout the telling. Finally, I think it shows a seriousness in our approach to the craft.