Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Narrators - Voices in Your Head

A common misconception about narrators is that the are always the protagonists in a story. Sometimes they are, but most of the time the narrator is someone else.

Obviously, 1st person tales typically use the character as the narrator. Many folks find this the easiest form of narrator. Perhaps it's because writers often let their own voice become the narrator. This means the writer knows the narrator very well and so the narration becomes easier.

This leads to a point I'd like to make. After the protagonist, the narrator is the most commonly overlooked aspect of a story. And yet, these two elements are perhaps the most important.

Of course, there are various ways of developing a narrative voice. It is easy to rely on your own voice, but this can be repetitive in short stories, and make all of your characters feel the same. So give some thought to narrative voice. Find one that fits the story.

For me, I must have a narrator before I can put down much text. Yes, I have written stories and changed the narrative voice after disliking the original. In the Pearson tales, I use a 1st person, Edwardian-lite narrator, who is fond of alliteration and hyperbole. This is not my own voice, honest. ;p Yet, readers often email me and write: when you were casting that spell...

They know I'm not Rudolph Pearson, yet the 1st person narrative links the author with the character. My point being that I did much work on that narrator, and now to find his voice I must sit down and re-read a bit of Pearson. Certainly, there is a bit of me in the narrator, character, and other characters.

No matter how hard we try, "we," the writer appear in our narrators and characters. But that doesn't mean we should throw ourselves into them. The challenge and fun is developing new creations.

Again, the approaches to this are multitudinous. I wonder what methods others use.


Anonymous said...

If you're worried about fans confusing you with Rudolph Pearson, it probably doesn't help that you tweet as RudolphPearson!

William Jones said...

Jeff - lol, Good points. Although I'm not really worried about it. :) As you know, my point was the close connection between the writer and the narrator, and with Pearson being a 1st person narrator, it connects: character -> narrator -> writer.

I'm certain Pearson would have much to say about such a view, however. :)

Anonymous said...

Now, on to your actual question!

I remember starting to write a story (eventually titled "The Perversion of Noble Intentions") using a modern, first-person narrative voice. Yet after only a few paragraphs, I unconsciously slipped into a more antiquated voice. I decided not to fight it, and embraced it. Style then molded story.

In general, I use the third-person viewpoint. Some editors, such as Tim Deal at SHROUD, have said that they are tired of first-person narrators.

Partly because of my background as a journalism student, I enjoy minimalist prose in the style of Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and Tobias Wolff. I tried to use a minimalist style in my story for TALES OUT OF MISKATONIC UNIVERSITY, but since I knew the editor's tastes, I wasn't entirely successful at avoiding alliteration and occasional onomatopoeia. :-)


Charles Gramlich said...

I really enjoy first person narrators, though they are limited and can't always be used for every kind of story. With other types of stories I like to try to keep the narrator pretty close to the head of the character we are living with at the moment.

Matthew Baugh said...

Hmm... when I use a first person narrator the voice tends to be very different from my own. The character I do this with most often is Mysterious Dave from my Arkham Tales and Frontier Cthulhu stories. He's a very different person than I am.

When I use a third person narrator it's a pretty neutral, omniscient voice. I should think about that some.

I've noticed that in some stories the narrator has such a distinctive voice that he or she is practically a character. The narrators of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and Christopher Moore all strike me that way.

Rick said...

This is yet another thing I've never thought about 'til you mentioned it. Is it possible that we are reassembling elements of ourselves into a new person? I can see creating artificial characters drawn from a selection of character parts taken from other real and fictional characters and hammering into a carefully constructed new character, but would that resonate as well a taking those same parts from the depths of our murky subconcious?

William Jones said...

Jeff - A number of fiction guideline do ban first person narrators. And in some genres they are very common - Mystery/detective, and Lovecraftian. :)

And there's nothing wrong with a bit of alliteration.

Charles - First person narrators do lend plenty of freedom - very easy to get inside the character's head, and expound on things. :)

Matthew - For no reason other than my own curiosity, why do you favor a neutral narrator in third person?

William Jones said...

Rick - I have no doubt there are writers who have worked hard to keep their own themselves out of their characters. But it seems to me that once a writer is deciding what/how a character will respond, there is going to be some of the writer in the response - if not directly, then in type of response.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that it is clear or obvious that the writer is interjecting his or herself into the characters and narrator. I think in most cases, it isn't obvious. But herein rests style - one of the means by which we can learn a writer's voice. The choices, words, and reactions the writer takes along with grammar, vocabulary and approach all come from the writer to one degree or another.

John Goodrich said...

I SUCK at narrator. I tent to pick a POV character, since I'm better with character, and tell the story through them.