Two People, Two Voices; Author, Reader and Narrators

Yesterday, I addressed the matter of measurements. Today I cut to the heart of Damon's question, reprinted here:

The [friends] think it's distracting or that it's wrong because it's not Gortogh's actual thoughts but the narrator who is not a character (or should not be at least) in the story.

Damon's friends, and indeed, his wife, are complaining about his use in narration of an expression that he uses in everyday speech:

n feet long if it was an inch!

which he then goes on to echo and repeat (one repetitions and two echos in three paragraphs; see yesterday's post for details).

They complain that they hear Damon's voice narrating, and that this intrudes on the point of view that is presented, weakly, in the passage, the POV being that of the goblin (see yesterday), Gortogh.

Setting character points of view aside for a moment; who or what is the narrator?

I contend that the narrator is not the author. The author is a real person, who sits in front of a screen for much of the day, spending anything from 50% to 95% of his time "researching" (surfing the 'net), and anything from 50% to 95% of the remaining time cleaning his fingernails and staring out of he window. The remaining time is spent tapping away at the keyboard with 20% to 100% of his fingers. (I use 90%).

The narrator is voice, chosen by the author, in which to tell the story. Sometimes, though not always, the narrator is also a character in the story. In Sherlock Holmes, Watson tells the story, and Conan Doyle uses Watson's voice to do this, however he takes care to write as Watson would write, not as Watson speaks. Fairytales are traditionally told in the "Mother Goose" voice; a benevolent parent who is all knowing and gentle, even when dealing with violence and death. Tolkein uses this voice for The Hobbit, but in LOTR he uses a more worldly voice, though no less authoritative. Chandler popularized the use of vernacular in the first person; but notice that while both Spade and Marlowe are voluble and opinionated in their narration, they are sparing and occasionally monosyllabic when speaking. Narration is not about how people talk; it is about how they narrate.

It is one of the great arts of the author to choose, establish and maintain the narrator's voice. Narration is not the same register as normal speech nor as normal writing (essay or letter writing, f'rinstance). Nor is narration character nor point of view dependent. The author makes choices about what the narrator knows and what the narrator chooses to reveal. The author makes choices about how the narrator communicates to the reader. I describe the narrator as a voice. The narrator can't be called a person - as the author seldom if ever narrates as himself. The narrator isn't a character, even if he is presented as such; Watson is himself narrating, not living, the events. Spade reacts in his narration in ways that he does not react in his action, and in any case he doesn't always tell you everything. This is the author's choice.

The author is one of the people. The author's choice of narrator is one of the voices.

The other person is the reader. Reading, the reader "hears" the narrator's voice. Even if the author is excessively skilled or gifted, however, the voice the reader "hears" narrating will not be identical to the one that the author hears while writing. The reader brings to the book all his personal baggage, all his reading history, all his listening history; this colors the narrator's voice that he "hears"*.

The reader is the second person. The reader's narrator is the second voice.

Characters are subjects, objects, agents or agonists of the story; they are ciphers rather than people. Indeed, in French, we describe a convincing character not as 'realistic' as we might in English, but as vraisemblable - literally "able to seem true". This trueseeming is the test of a good character.

Narration presents Points of View (POV). A POV is a narrator's choice, and is used to control the flow of information to the reader, for a particular effect. Strong POV has two main purposes: to limit the amount of information available to the reader to what the character knows, and: to bring the reader into closer sympathy** with the character. Weak POV serves to keep the reader's focus on a specific character without limiting it.

Sometimes strong POV feels like the character is telling the story even when the narrator employs the third person.

The POV known as "omniscient narrator" can pick and choose between strong and weak POV's, depending on the requirements of the narrative.

The issue Damon encountered with his beta readers is a special case. They know him. As a result they can't help hearing his voice when reading his work. When his narrator uses as distinctive idiom that Damon likes to use in everyday speech, they find it intrusive because Damon's voice (the author) interferes with their personal narrator (reader's narrator). This won't happen to readers who don't know Damon. That is not to say that it is not a good indication that the author should, perhaps, revisit the passage in question (or ask his editor to!), and see if the narrator's voice needs to be made more consistent.

My initial reaction (see yesterday) is that an interlude is a good opportunity for the author to play and experiment. I may change my mind depending on how closely the events of this section interlock with the events of the story proper.

* I'm using scare quotes here because many, possibly most readers, don't actually hear a voice in their heads while reading, at least not consciously, unless the author has made a specific effort to make that happen. However it is something like hearing, for which English doesn't seem to have a word.
** In lit.crit., sympathy does not imply liking or identifying with a character, only that you recognize what the character feels.


Richard Finn said...

I disagree somewhat. I don't necessarily hear Damon's voice when reading his work (and I told him I don't recall him ever saying the phrase in question). I do hear his voice when I read his e-mails, but that's personal correspondence. Not that it's impossible to hear his voice in my head, but that's not the issue I was pointing to with this line.

When we originally read the Ogrosh's Champion chapter I actually skipped right over these lines. My wife is the one who noticed that the metaphor repeated so quickly after it was first used. To her, it read like a mistake - like he forgot to remove it from one of the paragraphs. We often do that in writing, right? We take a snippet and copy it up (or down) and then reword the original sentence without it because it works better in the new location. I write mostly nonfiction research papers these days and my wife is my first editor, one good reason she makes a good beta reader for Damon and another author friend of ours (where, again, she caught a lot more than I did and was able to put a finger on why the protagonist wasn't working as well as she could).

It wasn't until I was falling asleep Sunday night (3/18) that I recalled a similar repetition to Damon's in The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie (which Damon turned me onto). In that book the phrase was part of the inner dialogue and utterings of one of the characters - helping define and develop him. That's when I noticed that these lines in Damon's chapter are doing the same thing, but for the narrator - who isn't an actual character in the story. It's like the narrator used a colloquialism, but he's not a bard sitting around a campfire entertaining us our way to Canterbury - the narrator is simply reality with limited omniscient viewpoint. So, I pointed out my new insight - not to demand it be changed, but to give insight which may be used to further paint - either more "development" of the narrator or less. I often do this, came back and belabor some point well after we're past it because I spend too much time in introspection just so I can give two sides of a discussion. It's why I'd make a terrible politician (maybe I need more trueseeming).

To me the question here is: how much and how soon do you develop the author's style and/or narrator's voice? Is the narrator simply a conduit for information with only a little flavoring from the setting - or does it take on a lot more personality with its own phrasing and interjections? For instance, had this metaphor been used towards the end of the chapter, it might not have raised a flag. Certainly, if it appeared later in the book it wouldn't. On the other hand, can the inner dialogue of a goblin (which you labeled "intelligent", which is technically true when compared to animals, but... I digress) be more articulate than his actual speech? Can the phrase be modified to make it seem like the goblin's own thoughts?

I appreciate this discussion, it's been a lot of fun. It'll be useful when I get around to writing myself one of these days. It's a lot of hullabaloo over one phrase appearing in two sentences, but the implications for narration are much broader. Thanks!


Unknown said...

I'm obviously speculating as to what your (and Damon's other friends) experience might have been, in order to address the broader issue of the nature of the narrator as a person or as a voice.

I feel that this incident reveals that for many readers, the narrator feels like a real person to them, and when that person talks in a way that seems inconsistent — sudden changes in register or use of unexpected turns of phrase — it can jar the reader out of the world of the book.

Something like that seems to have happened in this case. Thank you for elaborating further!

My attitude is that we should encourage Damon to play with language this way; that is one of the ways authors develop a distinctive style.