While I was getting ready for bed last night, I was thinking about the Narrative Voice. From this you may surmise that I am single, and also that I think about weird crap when I’m supposed to be winding down for the evening. Both of those surmises would be accurate.
The reason it was on my mind was that a friend of mine is reading my fantasy novel for me, and she’s a teacher, so I get teacherly messages from her, which is cool but also something I really haven’t experienced in nearly twenty years. At any rate, our discussion highlighted for me an issue that has had me on the fence for about a decade now with this book. I have chosen a third-person limited narrator, which is limited to a different character on a chapter-by-chapter basis. I have three or four main characters and most chapters follow one or another of them, but sometimes I break from that I get into others as well, as the story requires. The thing is that I didn’t want to look like I was ripping off George RR Martin’s “A Game of Thrones,” a book that I strongly dislike. Therefore, I chose not to do a thing that he did, which is to signpost each chapter by titling it with the name of the character the chapter will be following, but I’m not sure it works as more than one reader has been flummoxed by this, though usually they figure it out after a while. The trouble is, I obviously can’t afford to have my readers feeling lost and adrift or they won’t keep reading.
Anyway, this got me thinking about why I wrote this book with this particular narrative voice, particularly given that the first draft wasn’t like that at all, favoring instead a third-person omniscient narrator. I think the reasons are several. One is that I felt that the third-person omniscient narrator was too easy. He sees all and hears all, and can give the reader all of the information he or she requires to understand what is going on, but he also is usually objective. It’s useful but I find characters to be the most compelling aspect of story and I want to explore them in more personal ways.
Then I read “A Game of Thrones,” the first book in Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” saga, and hated it, not because it wasn’t well done, it assuredly is; but rather because it was too cynical and perverse, and often left me feeling greasy. However I did appreciate Martin’s ability to craft interesting characters, and his willingness to kill, maim, or otherwise abuse them in service of his narrative. I did thus begin experimenting with a third-person limited narrator in a science-fiction piece I did fourteen or fifteen years ago. I also began seriously making attempts at screenwriting, where showing rather than telling is a necessity of the form, and I think that makes for good writing on the whole. I learned to do less telling even in my narrative prose. To say more while typing less.
There is also the matter of my admitted fondness for pulpy detective novels. These are known for their first-person narration. The fun thing about this style is that it involves a sort of performance on the part of the author: you have to get inside the character’s head, and put him or her on like a costume. Thus the voice you write in is the voice of the character. It can be a useful exercise, a way to stretch your muscles and develop your skill set.
As an exercise, let’s look at a few different ways to approach the same scene, let’s say a scene from a mystery novel that I’m totally manufacturing on the fly here.
Third Person Omnsicient. This will be the least-interesting one, I think, because it will feel the least like a detective story and will eliminate a lot of tension by virtue of the narrator’s omniscience:
The County Courthouse had been built in 1952. It was red brick, squat and low, a faux-colonial neo-classical style, portico and columns, with a confederate monument in front, a stone obelisk on a square base in the freshly-mown grass. It was late July, and the street lights had just come on though it wouldn’t be dusk for another couple of hours. Inside, tucked away in a back corner was the sheriff’s office, a dingy yellow room that hadn’t changed much in the decades since the place was built. There was a thirty-year-old telephone and a twenty-year-old PC with a monochromatic display, but the oscillating fan on top of the filing cabinet was the original appliance.
A banged-up metal desk divided the room. Lawrence Davis, a local PI, sat in one of the guest chairs, one foot propped on his knee, and behind the desk was the Sheriff, who was reading a folder on a twenty-year-old murder case involving a tow-truck driver named Vern Siever. Lawrence hoped to get a look at the folder, as his client was Siever’s nephew and some weird coincidences had occurred. But the more the Sheriff read, he knew he couldn’t share this file. The parallels with recent events were obvious, and he knew he’d have to reopen the case.
“I’m not going to show you this file,” the Sheriff said softly.
“Why not?” Davis asked, some surprise evident in his voice.
“It’d be improper,” the Sheriff told him.
“But the case was closed twenty years ago.”
Third Person Limited. Here I can pick one of the characters to open to you.
Lawrence Davis sat in the Sheriff’s office, tucked away in the back corner of a county courthouse that was sixty years old. It didn’t look like the interior had changed much in all that time. Tile floors and cinder-block walls, cheap paint starting to peel around the edges. The Sheriff was a muscular man, short and stocky, but athletic. Maybe baseball, Davis thought. The guy was broad, like a catcher. His white hair and moustache were trimmed with military precision, and his brown uniform was neatly pressed, double creases down his chest, the star-shaped badge reflecting the overhead fluorescent lights.
Davis felt a little uncomfortable, if he were being honest. The Sheriff exuded a kind of toughness, not like some country sheriffs who were out of shape small businessmen who had greased the right palms. This guy was a professional. He had the reputation to prove it. He hadn’t spoken in nearly five minutes as he sat carefully reading over a file on a twenty-year-old homicide of a tow-truck driver named Vern Siever. Siever’s nephew was Davis’s client. It hadn’t been apparent at the outset that the nephew’s trouble was related to the uncle’s murder, but the deeper Davis got, the more obvious it was.
He had a feeling that it was obvious to the Sheriff, too, and if it was, his odds of getting a look at the file were basically nonexistent. The Sheriff had not spoken or basically even moved in about five minutes. Finally he closed the folder, squared it up, and placed it carefully on the blotter in front of him.
“I’m not going to show you this file,” he said. His voice was soft and low.
“It’d be improper.”
“But the case was closed twenty years ago.”
First Person. This is the one that will feel the most correct for the genre. It’s also the one that will give me the most leeway for humor and observation, while leaving things unstated but still generally implied:
It was a Friday evening in late July and I was sitting in a dingy office in a sixty year-old courthouse. The walls were yellow-painted cinder blocks over a checkerboard floor, and the desk was one of those metal jobs they used to make at the state prison, probably the color of wheat when it left the assembly line, now long-since worn black around the edges by six decades of abuse. There was a window behind the desk, over the sheriff’s right shoulder, too high and too small to afford much of a view, and in any case it was hung with a broken set of colorless Venetian blinds. Beside it was a framed certificate from the Virginia Sheriff’s Association.
The sheriff was a squat, square man with a white flat-top and a matching moustache. Everything about him was square: his head, his shoulders, his jaw. In his square hands was a manila folder and in the folder was, presumably, the file on Vern Siever’s murder. The Sheriff’s hooded eyes moved steadily back and forth over the report. Other than that, he was completely still. I was sitting in a guest chair across the desk from him, black fiberglass on tubular steel frame. I wondered what would happen if I put my feet up on his desk. The Sheriff seemed like the kind of guy who would let you know what to do when he wanted you to do it. I’d been sitting in his office for five-and-a-half minutes. He hadn’t spoken in five. At last he closed the folder, squared up the papers, and put it down on the blotter on front of him. His eyes lifted from the folder and met my own. I tried to take a step back, but I was still sitting down. He shifted his weight, and an ancient spring creaked beneath his probably square ass.
“I’m not going to show you this file,” he said. His voice was low, and soft.
“It’d be improper,” he said.
“But the case was closed twenty years ago.”
“What’s the certificate for?”
“Award for the most private dicks thrown out of the courthouse. That was last year. I’m behind on my quota.”
Notice that in the first example, I was able to straight up tell you what the sheriff was thinking. Among other things, it makes him less of a dick because you know his reasoning. I could just say what the conflict is between the two characters and let it play out in front of you.
In the second example, I still had to be fairly objective, but could make you privy to Davis’s concerns and could make some observations about what he saw around the room. When it came to the Sheriff, though, I could only report on how he looked and what he said. It was all I really needed, because you get Davis’s concerns and you can kind of see the Sheriff through his eyes, though not in a personal way. I could have pushed this farther, I think, closer to the first-person version, but for the sake of the exercise I didn’t want to be any more repetitive than necessary.
The third example is the most fun, I think. Here I get to BE Davis, and show you the room through his eyes, and in his words. He doesn’t mention the oscillating fan at all, if he notices it, and he doesn’t talk about baseball, either. Instead he focuses on the Sheriff’s appearance and general demeanor, which ought to give you a sense of Davis’s instincts regarding the man, without me (or Davis) having to be too on-the-nose about it. Interestingly, I feel like this version also best establishes how in control of the situation the Sheriff is, by letting the PI wink at you where his own discomfort is concerned.
I guess if I’m giving advice to any aspiring authors out there – first, why the hell are you listening to me, I’m not even published – but secondly, you grow by finding challenges, so don’t keep doing the same thing every time you write. For me, I think instinct and observation form my first impressions of people and situations, and when I tell stories I tend to base my descriptions on the kinds of things I notice and the impressions I form from them. As a result I tend to let my characters do the same.
The best thing about doing the rotating third-person limited narrator for my fantasy novel was that it let me explore the different perceptions of my various characters – whether they are driven by instinct or intellect, and whether their driving emotion is anger, fear, compassion, or perhaps a sense of honor or duty, colors the way each of them reacts to the others and perceives the people they encounter and the threats they face. It also became an interest challenge when I had to let certain moments that are important for a given character, play out as witnessed entirely by another character, and sell you based on the first character’s observed reaction rather than their feelings… it was a challenge I enjoyed, and I believe it helped me grow as a writer.
Is the book any good, though? Hell, I don’t know. But it was worth it.