Pep Talk - WHRN 2009 - Narrative Voice by ThornesQuest/Gale

Today’s offering for WHRN is not so much a pep talk about some element of fantasy writing as it is a short essay on one technical element that affects all fiction writing. Probably because I tend to hold forth about the matter whenever it comes up ;) , Tia suggested that I offer it as a pep talk this month.

Without further ado, then, friends, I offer you . . .

Some Thoughts on Narrative Voice

This whole matter is sometimes referred to as point of view, and I think that’s a helpful term. You can imagine the narrator as a video camera, and then ask yourself, “At any given moment in the story, where is the camera? Which direction is it pointing? What can it see (hear, smell, feel, taste), and what is important but out of the camera’s range? Is there any particular lens distorting what the camera picks up?”

In answering those questions, the English language (and indeed all the languages that I know of) offer us writers 3 possible narrative voices:

However, because there are some distinct and important variations in how writers make use of third person, I divide 3rd person narration further into:

First Person: The story is told as if the narrator is personally speaking. I went on a Quest. I had great struggles and many doubts about whether I would survive, but then I defeated the Big Bad, who was the most frightening being I had ever encountered, and I saved the world.

The obvious benefit of this narrative voice is that the reader can really get inside the head and heart of the main character. If First Person narration is well-written, the reader really feels like she is right there in the story, having the adventure along with the narrator. If badly written, of course, First Person narration sounds a bit like someone telling a pointlessly long story to their hair-dresser while waiting for the perm to set …

Second Person: The story is told as if the narrator is telling the reader what she has done. You went on a Quest. You had great struggles and many doubts about whether you would survive, but then you defeated the Big Bad, who was the most frightening being you had ever encountered, and you saved the world.

This is the rarest narrative voice used in fiction. One example where it is used successfully is in the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of novels, where at various points the reader is allowed to choose from two courses of actions, and flips to a different page according to whether they choose option #1 or option #2. Especially for younger readers, this can be a very engaging narrative voice, as, like First Person narration, it draws the reader right into the story. More mature readers tend to feel patronized by this voice and respond with “Hey! Don’t tell me how I feel or what I think!”

True Third Person Limited: The story is told as if the narrator only knows about the story from one particular person’s experience of it. She went on a Quest. She had great struggles and many doubts about her ability to survive, but in the end she confronted the Big Bad in his lair and defeated him. Her heart nearly burst with joy when she realized she had saved the world. More about this pov in a minute.

Rotating Third Person Limited: The story is told as if the narrator has access, in rotation, to several different characters’ experiences. Sarah went on a Quest. She had great struggles and many doubts about her ability to survive. The Big Bad, lurking in his evil lair, was certain that he could defeat her, and he felt rage and fear as he died at her hand. Sarah’s heart nearly burst with joy when she realized that she had saved the world. More about this pov in a minute, too.

Omniscient Third Person: The story may focus on one or more main characters, but the narration is greater than the sum of all that they know. Their thoughts and experiences are described, but a reflective, editorial perspective is also offered (the voice of the author). At the end of the third age, Sarah, a brave young warrior, went on a Quest. She had great struggles, but as is often the case with heros, she grew as a person as a result of them. The Big Bad had lurked in his evil lair since nearly the beginning of time, and in his hubris he was certain he was unassailable. His rage and fear as he died were of a depth seldom before felt by any living being. Sarah’s heart nearly burst with joy when she realized she had saved the world, and, indeed, her tale would be told for many generations to come.

The best known example of this pov is in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien rotates primarily between the povs of Aragorn and Frodo, occasionally dipping into the minds of other characters. But when Tolkien comments on Aragorn’s doubts about becoming King, he does not just tell us what Aragorn is thinking and feeling; he also offers his own perspective on the matter in an editorial fashion. This may seem to be an attractive pov to use, as it lets the author speak honestly in her own voice, but it can be irritating to read; most readers would prefer to let the story speak for itself and not to hear the author’s editorial embellishments.

Special Considerations, First Person and True 3rd Person Limited

If you commit either to First Person narration or to True Third Person Limited, you will be engaged in an exercise of fully entering into one character’s mind, developing that character as deeply as you are able and showing her growth over the course of the novel. This can be a great experience for you as an author; by the end you will likely have new insights about motivation and character development. However, as you tell your story, you may find yourself frustrated by not being able to report things that the pov character does not know. How will you portray what is going on in the Big Bad’s mind (assuming he is not the pov character)? How will you let the reader in on what the pov character’s friends make of what is happening? If the pov character is less than perfectly perceptive (it is very boring if she is, by the way), how will you account for the fact that sometimes she does not understand what the heck is going on and attributes incorrect motives to other people’s actions?

Here are a few techniques to use to provide different perspectives without actually switching the narrative voice.

1. Short Story Within the Novel: You can create one or more characters who are good story-tellers and have them sometimes tell the pov character detailed, even lengthy tales, which lets you introduce material the pov character was not present for. It also lets you explore interpretations and perspectives that the pov character would not normally embrace. When I use this technique, I let my story-teller start talking to my MC (who is my pov character), and then I create a section break and write the supporting character’s tale as a short story. When the short story is done, I put in another section break and resume working from my MC’s pov.

2. Supporting Character Confronts/Straightens Out POV Character: If you want your pov character to be a little clueless (always fun!) or at least less than perfectly perceptive, you can have other, more perceptive characters confront her on what she has ignored or misinterpreted. In the first two Thorne’s Quest books, Thorne had no idea what she had gotten herself into by coming to The Sacred City; her friends would periodically confront her about this and tell her how they saw things. Of course, what they said was shaped by their own attitudes and assumptions, and so it wasn’t necessarily objective truth either.

3. Written Material: Another technique to expand your pov character’s perspective is to have her read journals, military reports, letters, notebooks, etc. That’s a particularly good way to introduce material that occurred elsewhere or elsewhen.

4. Mystical Sources of Info: If you’re writing a fantasy novel, don’t forget about mystical possibilities: dreams, visions and other-worldly messengers can all provide a perspective that your pov character would not normally have. You’ll want to make sure that these mystical sources of information are congruent with your overall magic system and world-building, however: your pov character can hardly have visions from the gods if you have no gods in your novel!

Special Considerations, Rotating Third Person Limited

If you commit to Rotating Third Person Limited, which gives you the freedom to shift from the perspective of the main character as necessary, the above techniques will not be essential (although you can still use them, of course). In Rotating 3rd Person Limited, you can tell some events from the best friend’s perspective. If you want, you can shift to the antagonist (known technically as “The Big Bad” ;) ), and let the reader in on all the horrible things the antagonist intends to do to the main character (of which the main character herself remains still blissfully unaware, bwahaha). That’s the good news: you have more flexibility. Ah, but how and when to use that flexiblity in the service of your novel?

1. Why Rotate? I suggest that you develop a rationale for rotating from one pov to another. Will one character be the main pov character, but you’ll switch to other povs only when the main character is not present or not conscious? Or will you switch to a secondary pov even if your main pov character is present, because you want your readers to understand what is going on differently than the main character understands it? It’s up to you, but if you have some principle in mind for when you switch povs, your reader will likely feel less startled when the pov rotates; your reader will trust that an important, different viewpoint is about to be offered and that it is worth their while to disengage emotionally from the beloved main character and to engage with her quirky side-kick.

2. Signal Your Lane Changes: Second, I encourage you to clearly signal to the reader which pov you are narrating from at a given moment. In The Sharing Knife: Beguilement, Lois McMaster Bujold alternated povs between Dag and Spark, the 2 main characters, and she was quite straightforward about it: chapter one was from Spark’s pov, chapter two was from Dag’s, and so on. New chapter, new pov; it was very easy to keep track of and therefore did not detract from the story. If a whole chapter is too much, think about section breaks; these can be as simple as an extra blank line or as complex as a small graphic or a change in font. The point is that, within each section, the story should all be told from a single pov; it’s extremely distracting for us readers to have to stop reading to try to figure out whose mind we are in at the moment. Sometimes it’s good to mystify your readers, but I would argue that confusion about pov is not one of those times!

3. Wait! What? Who’s Talking Now? The third consideration in Rotating Third Person Limited is to be sure that there are real differences between your two or more narrative voices. Obviously, if one pov is your hero’s and the other is your villain’s, readers will not have much difficulty keeping straight whose head they are in at a given moment. Your hero is focussed on defeating the Big Bad (and staying alive), while the Big Bad is focussed on spreading his own particular brand of evil and mayhem far and wide. But perhaps your hero has a side-kick, and you want to tell the tale rotating between their two povs. This is trickier, as their motivations and perspectives may be similar – they probably both agree that the Big Bad is very bad, for example, that the purpose of the quest is to defeat him. And, yes, stay alive. If you switch from hero to side-kick, you’ll not only need to signal that switch with some sort of section break, but adjust your writing style to reflect that a different mind is now providing the material. Perhaps your main character is well educated and uses perfect grammar, but her trusty side-kick, a charming street urchin, constantly abuses the language and merrily flings about bad grammar and cusswords at every opportunity. Perhaps your main character is reflective, discussing feelings and motivations often, while the side-kick is more practical and reports just the facts, ma’am. Perhaps your hero is optimistic and sleeps easy with the surety that the gods wouldn’t have given her this destiny if it weren’t possible to fulfill it, while the side-kick is pessemistic and knows it’s a mistake to count on the gods. The options are limitless, but the point is that, even without the section break, a reader should be able to recognize the various voices of your pov characters and therefore to ascertain, in any moment, which pov the story is being told from.

Well, Gale, This Is Certainly A Lot to Think About …

Yes, it is. I’m asking you to make a choice among the possibilities of first, second or 3rd person narration. If you go with 3rd person, I’m asking you to choose from among 3 more possibilities. And then, if you go with either First Person or True 3rd Person Limited, I’m suggesting that you only step out of your main pov character if you can credibly offer another source of info that she herself experiences. And, if you decide to go the Rotating 3rd Person Limited route, I’m saying that you oughtn’t be cavalier in leaping from mind to mind, but that you must know why you are moving and that you communicate this clearly to the reader.

Or … you could ignore all this. In fact, I’m inclined to think that you ought to. When writing a first draft, the main thing is to get the story out. As ecstatically and as quickly as you can. This is the wisdom we’ve all received from Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, and he is right. Dive straight into the deep end of your tale and start swimming. Don’t worry about style or form, just stay afloat and thrash your way forward until you get to the other side of the lake, where you will find a plaque upon which are inscribed those glorious words “The End”.

However, once that first draft is done, you might want to check back here and consider some of these narrative voice matters …