Wednesday, June 30, 2010

the narrator's voice

The role played by a character's 'voice' is often stressed in fiction writing.  It may be the trait most explored by writers in getting their creations down on paper, but it is tantalizingly hard to capture in a manner that will set a story above the rest.  Perhaps just as worthy of a writer's consideration, though, is the adoption of a compelling narrator's voice.  Sometimes they may be one and the same, as when the story is told in first person.

A few that spring to mind are "Catcher in the Rye," "How Green Was My Valley," "Lolita," and "The Great Gatsby."  They all seem to have had that seamless, enfolding, fictional dream quality in both the character's voice and his narration of his own story.

In the case of a third-person story, a great deal more latitude exists for distancing the voice of a character and the voice of an independent narrator who tells the story.  Perhaps any of the Charles Dickens stories would do to illustrate this, where the narrator has an educated, intellectual voice, clearly different than the character's own, lower class voice, or that of the criminal and violent class characters' voices.

In other third-person stories the narrator's voice may closely fit the intellect, mannerisms,and diction of the main characters in the story, and the reader remains generally unaware of the presence or agency of the narrator.  This seems to have generally been the case in stories by Alice Munro, or William Trevor, for examples. 

In the matter of narrator strategy, an  author once wrote that he likes to be informed from the beginning how a particular story came into existence--how is it that it came to be written down for himself and others to read.   Not many stories try to answer that question; most just take off into the fictional dream, but some, like David Copperfield, or Moby Dick, take a shot at letting us know how the story we are reading came about.  The strategy can make for a compelling narrator presence.

A recent T. C. Boyle story published in The New Yorker, "A Death in Kitchawank," makes the case for still another strategy, the introduction of a second narrator, who inserts his own observation of the story events, and at a later point in time than the original narrator.  The second narrator's asides, included as brief, italicized paragraphs, describe the emotions and responses of one of the secondary characters to the story's events.  It didn't seem to make any dramatic changes to the original telling of events, but provided additional, bittersweet shadings toward a better understanding of that one character.   Like other innovations in fiction writing, this could be a useful tool for a writer to think about.

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