One of the first things you must decide when you set out to write a novel or short story is: who is the narrator? There are lots of decisions to be made. Is it first person or close third person or even second person? Nineteenth century novels were most likely to be told by an omniscient narrator who isn’t a character in the story but an observer. THE MAN OF PROPERTY, the first novel in THE FORSYTE SAGA by John Galsworthy, begins, “Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight—an upper middle-class family in full plumage. But whosoever of these favoured persons has possessed the gift of psychological analysis (a talent without monetary value . . . ” No one would write like that today.
Now the narrator is often a character in the novel. Once you’ve decided on the narrator, you must decide who he or she is, where they fit into the story, if they do, and what person to use. THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen begins with the sentence, “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces,” and it is clear that this story is going to be told in the first person by someone who is very much a part of it.
On the other hand, DEAD EYE by Mark Greaney begins, “Leland Babbitt shot through the doors of the Hay-Adams Hotel and ran down the steps to the street like he had someplace to be.” The reader’s first thought is that this is written in third person and that it’s going to tell the activities of Leland Babbitt. But when the next paragraph begins, “The chauffeur hadn’t been expecting his passenger . . . ,” you immediately realize that the reader is going to have an overview of the activities of several people and that the story is going to be told from a third person omniscient point of view.
Once you’ve decided who is going to narrate, you have to decide where the narrator fits into the story. If the narrator is a character, does the story action happen to him or her, as in THE SYMPATHIZER? Or is the narrator an observer, one who watches the novel’s characters and tells the story as an outsider, as in DEAD EYE.
I remember once going to a luncheon where a young woman talked about a novel she had written that had interested an agent. She had written the novel in close third person, but the agent thought she should change it to first person. She was at the moment deep into that process and not really happy about it. She was having difficulty telling the story in first person when it had originally been conceived in third person. Changing the voice of the narrator was really stressing the writer out, because many things, not just the voice, had to change as she did the rewrite.
The important thing about narrative voice is of course how that person fits into the story. I often think of W. Somerset Maugham who wrote several novels in the first person narrative voice of someone not involved in the action. The narrator learns the story and tells it to the reader. Certainly that distances the reader from having an emotional stake in the action. We cannot experience the joy or the terror of the characters because we are being told the story at a remove. I often wondered why he did this, but THE MOON AND SIXPENCE and THE RAZOR’S EDGE were very popular in their day.
There are many different kinds of narrators in novels and short stories. Alice Sebold’s narrator in THE LOVELY BONES is already dead when the novel begins, although she watches the action and manages to save her little sister. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor kills off her first person narrator just before the end of the story. I remember thinking as I was reading, “Well, the woman must survive,” but she doesn’t, and O’Connor carries it off.
The book I am currently reading, A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW,” by Amor Towles begins “At half past six on the twenty-first of June 1922, when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was escorted through the gates of the Kremlin onto Red Square, it was glorious and cool.” I learned a lot about time and setting from that, but I didn’t know anything about the Count except that he was an aristocrat at a time when that was not popular. The book begins almost like THE MAN OF PROPERTY, but the revelation of the Count’s character throughout the book is one of its delights. It becomes an entirely different book from a nineteenth century novel.
I find it difficult to provide a description of the narrator of my stories. Sue Grafton neatly solved that problem by having Kinsey Milhone tell the reader the background of the story she is about to tell including who she is, why she’s involved, and what her life circumstances are. These include a physical description of her. As a result, we have a picture of Kinsey in our minds almost from the first page of the story.
The old trick of having the narrator look in the mirror is definitely just that—an old trick. I’ve finally settled on doing the description in bits and pieces: I have a picture in my mind of what Andi Battaglia looks like, but I’m afraid I’ve never conveyed this completely to my readers.
How about other writers? Who do you use as your narrative voice? How do you describe him or her? Do you like to write in third person or first? Do you have a preference when you read?