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Narrative Modes

August 11, 2012

When a writer begins the process of putting ideas and characters into prose, there is an important decision to make: first person or third person? (You can write a story in second person if you want, but good luck keeping a reader’s interest when every sentence is awkward and unnatural.)

There are many pros and cons to each option. I’m going to focus on one area that had big implications for the story I wanted to tell in my novel The Tears of Things. That would be the tradeoff between objectivity and subjectivity. First person is inherently unreliable narration. Your viewpoint character is your narrator, which makes any claim to objectivity suspect. Whether this is desirable or not depends upon the story you are telling. Third person can be objective (think the detail-obsessed impersonal narrator of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) or subjective. There are many ways a third person narrator can be subjective. The narrator could be a juvenile fanboy of the heroes (I can think of no more blatant example of this than the Lensmen books – Doc Smith’s narrator has a permanent hard-on for Kinnison). Or the narrator could be disapproving of the viewpoint character (like Terry Goodkind’s villain VP’s). There is a whole spectrum of subjectivity in third person.

I wrote the first version of The Tears of Things in first person because it was important to the story to establish that Gabriel Hendel is a ticking time-bomb. First person let me do this by shading every scene through the distorted lens of an unstable mind. I was able to show rather than tell Gabriel’s mental state. His contradictory impulses let the reader know that if this guy snaps, anything can happen. He yearns for approval but loathes himself; he wants to forget his past but fixates on it; he fantasizes about dying but fights to live. This is the guy who can’t decide if he wants to save the fleet or watch it burn. If my narrator fails (and by extension, I fail) to convince the reader there is a real person behind these contradictions, then the whole story falls apart. Gabriel becomes an annoying punk who can’t make up his mind on a fairly simple issue. First person subjectivity seemed the best way to accomplish my characterization. Gabriel’s personality would filter the story, his unreliable narration simultaneously informing the reader about his experiences and his personality. And stream of consciousness would provide insight into his thoughts and reactions.

Ultimately, first person didn’t work for this story for two reasons. First, there was too much tail chasing inside Gabriel’s head. The subjectivity pro became a con. There was more obsessive thinking than action. The second issue was that due to communication barriers, distrust, and youthful ignorance, Gabriel didn’t have a clue what was happening around him. Reading Gabriel’s first-hand account was boring and confusing.

I wrote the second version in third person limited. The idea was that my narrator would provide information Gabriel didn’t know. This version was better than its predecessor, but Gabriel read as that wishy-washy idiot I was trying to avoid. I had sacrificed Gabriel’s characterization to plot when I separated the narrator and the viewpoint.

For version three (and by version, I mean complete rewrites, not drafts), I decided to use a combination of first and third person narration known as free indirect style. This is a narrative style that brings the subjectivity of first person into third person narration. It blurs the distinction between the narrator and the viewpoint character. Essentially, your narrator has been corrupted by the viewpoint character.

Let me use an example from The Tears of Things (Chapter 51):

  • Had she lied about loving him? Whatever. It didn’t matter.

This could have been written so that thoughts are directly attributed to Gabriel:

  • Gabriel wondered if she had lied about loving him. Whatever, he thought. It doesn’t matter.

So what, other than more economical sentences, did free indirect style gain me? The first version does a much better job of portraying psychological repression through those thought-terminating cliches — Whatever. It doesn’t matter. These thoughts abruptly disrupt the narration, mimicking the self-denial of Gabriel. In version two, these thoughts are faithfully reported by the narrator, but the immediacy is lost.

The right narrative point of view and style was essential to making The Tears of Things work. So the next time you sit down to write something, give a little thought to the available narrative options and how they impact the telling of your story.

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