Narrative Voice: The Lit Crit Version

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Conveniently following on in the same theme as last week, this university module is currently looking at the narrative voice. More specifically, the detailed differences as according to one Mr. Wayne C. Booth who, in The Rhetoric of Fiction, had an awful lot to say on the subject in not terribly clear terminology.

“…to decide on first-person narration settles only a part of one’s problem. What kind of first person? How much aware of himself as narrator? How reliable? How much confined to realistic inference; how far privileged to go beyond realism?… the sensitive author who reads the great novels finds in them a storehouse of precise examples, of how this effect, as distinct from all other possible effects, was heightened by the proper narrative choice.” – Booth

The Simple Version

You can narrate a story in one of four ways:

  1. First person perspective, which can be divided into basic (you get internal monologue) and deep (you see the entire story through their eyes – for more on this, read Kristen Lamb’s blog post).
  2. Second person perspective, where the reader is complicit in creating details of the story. Really rare, with serious technical challenges. Not for the uninitiated. The only decent example I know of is Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, and frankly I’m not even a fan of that.
  3. Third person perspective, which again can be divided into distant (e.g. Jane Austen, Emma) or close (e.g. Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat).
  4. Omniscient, where you get to see a bit of everyone and all of no one. This used to be the staple of epic fantasy, but it’s falling out of fashion now.

The trouble with the simple version is that it doesn’t allow you to distinguish between very different types of, say, close first person, or between the narrator’s agenda and the author’s agenda. Or a whole host of other things. So hang onto your hats, because we’re going to take a crack at Booth’s terminology.

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The Less Simple Version

Firstly, Booth points out that you don’t just have one narrative voice in any given story. It’s much broader than that. There’s the voice of the narrator, the voice of the author, and the voice of secondary characters who narrate important information to both the audience and the protagonist. He used the following terms to distinguish all these:

  • Implied author – most commonly found in omniscient or distant 3rd POV. This is where the agenda of the author is distinct from that of the character narrator, or providing information/opinions the character narrator doesn’t have.
  • Dramatized narrator – found in 1st POV and 3rd POV, where there is an obvious character agenda/bias in how the story is being told
  • Undramatized narrator – found in 3rd POV and omniscient, where there is no obvious character agenda/bias
  • Disguised narrator – found in all forms, where a secondary character relates off-screen actions. Basically, a messenger who tells a story (factual or not) within the story.
  • Reflector narrator – usually found in 1st and 3rd POV, where the narrator conjectures or flat-out relates the internal monologue of other characters because the audience isn’t granted access to that information directly. This can also apply to the narrator’s own internal monologue from a different time (e.g. Pip in Great Expectations talks about his younger self’s thoughts).
  • Observer – usually found in 1st and 3rd POV, where the narrator has no direct impact on the action of the story. Basically the same as frame narrators.
  • Narrator agent – can be any of the above. Basically, a narrator who is directly involved in the story.
  • Self-conscious narrator – 1st (or, at a stretch, close 3rd) POV, where the narrator is aware that they are either writing or speaking to an audience. Even if that audience is just themselves. They are deliberately engaging in the act of narration, which therefore impacts how they convey the story. Unconscious narrators are, obviously, the ones who don’t know they’re narrating.
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A self-conscious, dramatized narrator. No, not the sheep.

Back to Unreliability

This leads me neatly back to what I was discussing last week. Self-conscious narrators are more likely to be unreliable because they have a conscious agenda. Helpfully (or, y’know, not), Booth defines reliability a bit differently. He describes reliable narrators as those that share the norms of the implied author, and the work as a whole. Unreliable narrators are not necessarily those that are being deceptive, but those who have a different agenda to that of the author/work. Any narrator that “makes stronger demands on the reader’s powers of inference” in order to work out the real path of events counts as unreliable.

That means that 1st and close 3rd POV for self-conscious dramatized narrator agents is particularly dodgy. The more we see of the internal monologue, the more we are presented with the character’s agenda and bias, and the more skewed our overall picture becomes. Which is great for getting the reader to identify with your narrator:

“Generally speaking, the deeper our plunge, the more unreliability we will accept without loss of sympathy.” – Booth

Booth reckons that the distinction between the implied author and the unreliable narrator is absolutely crucial. Once the narrator is discovered to be unreliable, the voice of the implied author enables the reader to judge that narrator. It also enables the reader to reject the narrator’s story without rejecting the work as a whole, because there is still trust in the implied author (who is distinct from the narrator). It’s a good point, but a tricky line to walk. Having an implied authorial voice can easily slip into showing red thread, which is poor technique and will turn readers off.

As discussed last week, unreliable authors aren’t just liars. Sometimes they tell the truth as they know it, which is incomplete or false. Booth calls this privilege:

“…privileged to know what could not be learned by strictly natural means or limited to realistic vision and inference. Complete privilege is what we usually call omniscience.” – Booth

So, basically, 1st and close 3rd POV characters have limited privilege which therefore gives the audience limited privilege. The more privilege you have, the more reliable your narrator.

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Calculating Relative Distance

Don’t panic, I’m not going to drag you into mathematical equations (because I don’t really know any). Booth has this thing called aesthetic distance, which is the distance between the narrator and everybody else, on any type of differentiator. Basically, you need to distinguish between your narrator, your secondary characters, your authorial voice, and your reader. Treat those four as separate entities. Now, work out what their norm is for a whole bunch of stuff, such as historical era, geography, class, fashion, speech pattern, morality, politics, etc etc etc. The distance between any of the four entities on any of the differentiators provides you with possible sources of tension.

Some of these tensions are good – the narrator and the secondary character have radically different politics, for example, or come from opposing socio-economic backgrounds. That drives plot.

Some of these tensions are structural – the narrator and the implied author have different biases, which implies an unreliability. Ditto the narrator and the secondary character(s).

Some of these tensions are bad – the narrator and the reader have radically different morals, and a failure to ease the reader into this leads to disengagement.

Some of these tensions are unavoidable – the author and the reader come from different eras or cultures, which means there’s a certain knowledge gap that has to be bridged in order for the reader to engage.

What I think this all boils down to is that choosing your narrative voice has way more decisions involved than I initially realised. Frankly, until relatively recently I was largely going on instinct rather than calculation. I hope that this has provided tools with which to make a better informed choice, rather than putting you off the idea of writing altogether!

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One response »

  1. Interesting post. I’ve got to say I don’t consciously pay an awful lot of attention to voice either, although I think I’d be more likely to if I knew I was trying to problem-solve the way a particular piece was working.

    Second person seems to be popular in fan fiction. I guess fanfic supports experimental writing styles well, and fabfic readers are always keen on immersing themselves as much in the story ask possible!

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