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Narrative voice: how you tell your story

Just as important as who tells your story is how they tell it.

In Who tells your story? Why the theory of narrative view is important, I discuss how a grasp of the theory of narration can give you control and direction over your story.

That article focused on narrative view. ‘Narrative view’ describes who or what the narrator is, where they are and when, and how much they know.

‘Narrative voice’ is an overlapping concept that refers to how the narrator tells the story. If narrative view lays the groundwork for the methodology, narrative voice refines it. For instance, you may decide that your story’s protagonist will be its narrator. But are they relaying it through a diary? Through letters or speech? Are they even aware they have an audience?

Objectivity and omniscience: where view and voice overlap

Objectivity and omniscience, two ‘sliding scales’ of sorts that define the breadth and intimacy of a third person narrative, are a good example of where view meets voice.

A third person narrator might be ‘limited’, relaying the thoughts and feelings of only one character at a time. Or it might be ‘omniscient’, free to explore the story and divulge limitless exposition as it sees fit.

At the same time, a third person narrator can be objective or subjective. An objective narrator will stick to presenting the facts, while a subjective narrator will detail characters’ emotions and opinions.

The all-knowing commentator

One might think omniscience and objectivity were bedfellows. But in classic literature, there is a long tradition of all-knowing narrators conveying subjective information.

And now for the first time, Oliver, well-nigh mad with grief and terror, saw that housebreaking and robbery, if not murder, where the objects of the expedition. He clasped his hands together, and involuntarily uttered a subdued exclamation of horror. A mist came before his eyes; the cold sweat stood upon his ashy face; on his limbs failed him; and he sank upon his knees.

“Get up!” murmured Sikes, trembling with rage, and drawing the pistol from his pocket; “Get up or I’ll strew your brains upon the grass.”

Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

An objective narrator may know, but would not divulge, that Oliver was “mad with grief and terror”. He could tell the reader that Sikes was trembling, but would leave it to the reader to infer that it was with rage. And in divining the emotional state of both characters, the narrator partly demonstrates his omniscience.

Another mainstay of classical literature is the commentary offered by the narrator. Here, we begin to see how playful one can be with narrative voice, and how it can drastically alter the reader’s experience of a story.

Our friend Boz, again, provides a fine example:

If you should happen, by any unlikely chance, to know a man more blessed in a laugh than Scrooge’s nephew, all I can say is, I should like to know him too. Introduce him to me, and I’ll cultivate his acquaintance.

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Omniscient narration lends a sense of credibility to the story. The closer the narrator is to the singular focus of one character, the more likely they are to be unreliable. But they also narrow the gulf between the reader and the characters.

An omniscient narrator, on the other hand, risks alienating the audience from the action. But in A Christmas Carol, the narrator adds his own personality to the mix. He offers his own comments, observations, even addresses the reader directly.

Through doing so, he invites the reader to join him as a voyeur. The reader pulls back from the story to glean a sharper view without withdrawing from the characters themselves. Employing an omniscient commentary in this manner helps build a sense of intimacy without jeopardising the integrity that an objective narrative holds.

Some writers take it further still and break the fourth wall altogether. In Terry Pratchett’s The Light Fantastic, Pratchett himself becomes the butt of the joke during an expositional description of a stereotypical fantasy heroine:

Now, there is a tendency at a point like this to look over one’s shoulder at the cover artist and start going on at length about leather, tightboots and naked blades.

Words like ‘full’, ‘round’ and even ‘pert’ creep into the narrative, until the writer has to go and have a cold shower and a lie down.

Which is all rather silly, because any woman setting out to make a living by the sword isn’t about to go around looking like something off the cover of the more advanced kind of lingerie catalogue for the specialized buyer.

Oh well, all right. The point that must be made is that although Herrena the Henna-Haired Harridan would look quite stunning after a good bath, a heavy-duty manicure, and the pick of the leather racks in Woo Hun Ling’s Oriental Exotica and Martial Aids on Heroes Street, she was currently quite sensibly dressed in light chain mail, soft boots, and a short sword.

Here the omniscient commentator is employed for humour, but by knowingly, and overtly, deconstructing a trope it reminds the reader that it is not real.

In terms of a story’s internal logic and structure, it is impossible to know more than the writer does. Even the omniscient narrator can only pull back so far. But if the omniscient voice is the writer’s own, there is an implied world beyond the story to which the reader is suddenly exposed. This makes the reader examine the narrative in a different way: a useful tool if your aim is to convey something more than story. (Which Pratchett’s may well have been.)

Narrator insight: when less is more

The narrator that knows it is the narrator, then, is perhaps the most knowing, and most objective, of all. One could call this ‘classic’ omniscience. But if your aim is to build your readers’ trust in your story, it can help to have a narrator who is as credulous as you wish the reader to be. A narrator, in other words, who knows next to nothing.

Literary history is replete with unreliable narrators: from Katniss Everdeen to Candide; Patrick Bateman to Nelly Dean; Holden Caulfield to Lemuel Gulliver.

Narrators can be unreliable because they are naïve, mentally unstable or prone to exaggeration. Some deliberately lie or obfuscate the truth, while others are anarchists or jokers who toy with narrative convention.

These definitions are not mutually exclusive. Holden Caulfield, for instance, is both naïve and a self-confessed liar, and as The Catcher in the Rye develops, even shows signs of mania and psychosis.

Lemuel Gulliver, the titular protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, is an example of a naïve narrator. In the opening chapters, Jonathan Swift paints a picture of a gullible optimist who is honest to a fault and expects others to be the same. But what is interesting about this example is that Gulliver does not remain so. By the end of the book, his experiences have hardened him into a far more cynical and incredulous individual. The reader thus discovers that Gulliver’s initial depictions of himself were knowingly inaccurate, and that he deliberately portrayed himself as fallible. This prompts the reader to view the story in a different light: as a deliberate misrepresentation.

Unreliable narrators in other narrative modes

As the first-person view withholds from the reader any point of view other than the narrator’s, it is the most common form of unreliable narration.

But unreliable narrators can exist in other modes. One of the most famous examples in modern literature is the Harry Potter series, in which the third-person view is limited, for the most part, to Harry’s perspective. Harry is an ingenuous teen with a simple worldview who is quick to judge people and situations and whose conviction is difficult to shake. Through limiting the narrative view to his perspective, J.K Rowling is able to misdirect the reader and sustain the drama and tension throughout seven books.

The narrator in Franz Kafka’s The Trial is a further example. The third-person narrative is limited to Josef K., a man who is persecuted for an unknown crime by an inscrutable authority. K. is a contemptible figure with little respect for those around him. He maintains a haughty sense of optimism about his fate up until the very end, and even then feels vindicated in his arrogance. In fact, the book is so loyal to K.’s perspective, both mechanically and narratively, that the reader’s experience of the story is often as disorientating as the character’s.

Can an omniscient narrator be unreliable? This is an interesting question. In theory, they could: but as an omniscient narrator is all-knowing, the confusion would have to be deliberate.

Stephen King often addresses the reader in his books. (He even goes as far as to introduce himself as a character in a handful of them.) This is one of many ways in which he demonstrates his omniscience to the reader; thus, choosing to limit himself to certain characters’ viewpoints is a form of deliberate obfuscation.

Towards the end of The Dark Tower, he even encourages the reader to lie to themselves. Following the epilogue, a hopeful denouement for most of the story’s main characters, he urges the reader to stop there. He chastises the “goal-oriented ones who will not believe that the joy is in the journey rather than the destination” and states that “endings are heartless … just another word for goodbye”. This is, of course, another misdirection. The far bleaker coda that ties off the series—and, indeed, the Robert Browning poem printed in the appendix—are as much a part of the story as the epilogue. In my view, King fully intends the reader to follow the series to its harrowing conclusion.

By toying with narrative voice, and its relationship with narrative view, the writer can drastically alter the reader’s experience. There are many ways one can tell a story, but invariably, one combination of view and voice will complement the narrative perfectly. If you find that something about your story doesn’t quite gel, consider experimenting with the voice of the piece; it may be the seemingly small change that makes all the difference.