A Writing Entry – Are you Fighting with the Narrator?

Hello lovely readers and thank you for your patience.  Unfortunately life is interfering with my goal of presenting you some snark or parody at least twice a week.  I am determined not to drop below once a week, although life may again interfere.  So, on with the snark/literary commentary!

Ah, the narrator, that literary device to tell the story to the audience.  Narrators generally come in three flavors – first-person, third person limited, and third-person omniscient.  Some stories have only one narrator and some have several narrators.

The first-person narrator is a character in the story.  First-person narration seems like an easy way to write, but it is in fact quite difficult.  My literature teacher parent maintained that writing in first person was in fact the most difficult way to tell a story.  The inherent problem with writing in first person is including exposition and description.  People don’t think things like, “I walked into a room that was about twenty feet by twenty feet with a high vaulted ceiling and walls that were painted a boring beige.”  There are a couple of ways to get around this limitation.  Interestingly, a lot of detective novels are written in first person, however, the nature of a detective gives the author some leeway with the exposition and description.  A detective character might actually walk into a room and think something to the effect of, “I took a good look at the room with the body.  It was twenty feet by twenty feet with a high ceiling and a white carpet.  There was only one door in and the north wall had two windows which were large enough for a person to get in or out of.”  But if the main character is not of a profession to make it easy to include exposition or description, that makes it a lot harder for the author to include these things.  Jane Eyre is written in first person, but the narrator is telling the reader the story from sometime in the future after the story is finished.  Therefore, the narrator has the flexibility to say things like, “But first, reader, let me describe the house for you.”  Bram Stoker’s Dracula uses multiple first-person narrators to tell the story since clearly only one person wouldn’t know what was going on.  Personally, I probably wouldn’t elect to use the first-person narrator.

The opposite of the first-person narrator is the third-person omniscient narrator.  This is the narrator that allows the audience to see the villain plot his dastardly scheme and then show us how worried the hero is that the villain must be plotting some dastardly scheme.  In long works, this type of narrator makes a lot of sense.  It may not be practical to try to tell the story in a first-person mode even with the use of multiple narrators.  Third-person omniscient narrators are probably the easiest ones to use in order to provide exposition and description.

However, I do not like my narrators to tell me how to feel.  I ran across this in a set of books a read to try to understand why Writer G wrote in the style he did.  As I may have mentioned before, a lot of my reading background is stuff considered “classics” so I was woefully out of touch with popular literature.  Writer G did read a lot of popular fiction, so I asked for some recommendations from a successful author.  I got two books by Mercedes Lackey – The Serpent’s Shadow and Children of the Night.  To be fair, Writer G said that the former wasn’t impressive but it was an example of Lackey writing in a historical setting.  However, Writer G said he enjoyed the latter, which is an example of urban fantasy.

I didn’t get through either book.  Having read Dorothy Sayers “Peter Wimsey” novels, it was obvious to me that Lackey had too and was ripping them off.  Now, I know that Regency England may be a popular time period for writing, but she even had a character named “Lord Peter Almsley.”  The urban fantasy wasn’t much better.  Both books had multiple issues which I may go on about another time (seriously, don’t read these unless you want to snark at something).  One big problem, at least for me, of the narrator trying to tell me what to think or feel.  For example, Character A thinks, “B’s statement really hurt my feelings.”  Then I get the narrator telling me, “A’s feelings were very hurt by B’s statement.  B is not a good person.”  I really hate that kind of thing.  The purpose of dialogue is for me to read what terrible thing B says to A.  The purpose of the action is for me to read what terrible thing B does to A.  This should be sufficient to allow me to draw my own conclusions about the kind of person B is.  Why does the narrator have to repeat the dialogue and/or sum up the action I just read and then tell me what conclusion I’m supposed to draw?  Does the writer think I’m too stupid to understand how to feel about B and therefore has to use the narrator to spell it out for me in case I didn’t come to the conclusion that B is a bad person?  Grr.  However, the exercise wasn’t without its merits.  I learned quite a bit about how I did NOT want to write.

My preference, as it turns out, is the third-person limited narrator.  My epic fantasy novel has a third-person narrator, but the narrator only tells the audience what is happening to the two main characters.  My reason for doing this was to make the story more personal without trying to get into the first-person mode.  I was probably being kind of lazy, actually, and it wouldn’t be the first time (one can be passionate and lazy at the same time).  But I like the idea of the audience only knowing as much as the character knows.  I think it helps to build suspense (which is probably why detective novels use first-person; the audience and the detective solve the mystery together).  Even “Necromancy” is from a third-person limited narrator, although in my opinion a short story is too short to require the use of an omniscient narrator because in theory all of the action should happen so quickly you don’t need to zoom to another scene, as it were.  For example, if the short story focuses on a bank robbery, there’s probably not a good dramatic reason to spend a lot of time describing what the cops are doing because by the end of the story they’re probably going to be busting some heads.

And then, fairly rarely, does the third-person narrator become something of a character in the story.  I like that kind of meta-humor, although it’s difficult to pull off.  The title for this writing entry comes from George of the Jungle which had an interactive third-person narrator and it was pretty darn funny.  But lacking the skill to pull that off, I like to hang a few lampshades here and there.

So there’s a brief entry on why I write the way I do, and why I don’t write the way some other people do.  Maybe the third-person limited narrator isn’t your cup of tea.  But I think it works for me, and now you know why.


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S. J. Drew is an aspiring writer who finally entered the blogosphere to shamelessly promote that writing (as evidenced by the title of the blog). Whether or not this works remains to be seen, but S. J. hopes you are at least entertained. And if you're actually reading this, that's probably a good sign.

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