Friday, 22 February 2008

The Voice of the Narrator

At last night’s meeting of Deal Writers one of our group brought her work-in-progress for us to discuss. It’s a Victorian-set story, a kind of whodunit with a nicely original theme. It set me thinking about how difficult it is to get the ‘voice’ right in these cases. The author has to decide whether the narrator should be modern or Victorian, and that will reflect the style of the novel. For example, in Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night, Cox used the device of pretending he had ‘found’ a lost Victorian manuscript. That way he could write a first person confessional using pure Victorian syntax. When John Fowles wrote The French Lieutenant's Woman, on the other hand, he decided on having a modern narrator who repeatedly interjected to point out the differences between ‘then and now’. Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White is even more outrageous, addressing the modern reader directly in his brilliant opening paragraph:
Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you’ve read, that you know it well, but those stories flatter you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.
When I was studying creative writing at university I was told every writer has, buried somewhere within them, a unique ‘voice’. By the end of the course I was beginning to write a bit like Nick Hornby used to, the way Jonathan Tropper writes now. My tutor congratulated me on ‘finding my voice’.

Now I’m not so sure. I wrote like that because I was writing semi-autobiographical ‘romantic’ fiction, and a Hornby/Tropper style just happened to be the right ‘voice’ for a male writing about modern sexual/romantic encounters. When I write fiction for women’s magazines I seem to adopt a completely different persona and my ‘voice’ is softer and less matey. And when I’m writing crime fiction I have a third persona – more hardboiled and cynical.

I’m not sure if this means I haven’t really found my ‘voice’. I just think a writer is different from the narrator of the story she is writing. This is obviously so in first-person narratives. But I think it is equally true of third-person (and the rare second-person) narrator, too.


DBA Lehane said...

What a wonderful blog discovered via the wonderful vagaries of accidental web surfing!

I believe as writers we have many different voices and much depends, as you allude here, on the market in question. In many ways I think as a short fiction writer being able to tap into different voices is a big plus.

Considered yourself linked and a regular visitor now found!

Mary Witzl said...

I change my voice depending on what I am writing. I've been working on an MG novel about a boy who moves up to Scotland from London with his American mother and a group of her friends. He has a jokey, angsty male voice, but my daughters keep finding things that they swear a boy would not say (distinguishing colors, for instance, or noticing that someone's feelings are hurt). Clearly I have much to learn, but since I spend a lot of my time listening to kids talk, I feel I ought to turn it into something useful.

Whatever voice I aim for, the one thing all my protaganists have in common is a certain sarcasm. I don't know why that is; I'm not such a sarcastic person myself. Maybe I am living it vicariously through my characters?

Paul said...

Cheers, DBA - And thanks for leading me to your own excellent blog. Consider yourself reciprocally linked!

Mary - I definitely live vicariously through my characters! That's more than half the fun, isn't it . . .

Kanani said...

I'd say the writer has a very big problem if they've started the novel and can't decide on the style.

The only advice I'd have to her would be to rewrite a scene. First one way, then do the other.

She'll know which voice feels the most natural for her characters. Why? Because they'll choose.

Paul said...

Good advice, Kanani.

By the way, I tried leaving a comment on your blog but none of the links seem to be working at the moment . . .