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The Narrative Voice

STORY TELLING IS AS HOARY AS THEY COME. But, before the Renaissance, the voice of the storyteller was that of the religious-cultural orthodoxy of the time. In his magnum opus, The Dialogic Imagination, Mikhail Bakhtin (1865-1975), a Russian scholar of literature and language, whose works have influenced theories of the narrative in western literature, argued that the language or voice of the narrator was a given (dan) that offered little scope for engagement. It was the presentation of a worldview that the reader was expected to take on board. The narrative voice was representative of the authority of the church or the political power. This is, of course, a particular perspective of European cultural history tempered by Bakhtin’s own focus on the potential of language to invert and question ‘authoritative discourse’. However, it is worth noting that the concept of different points of view, or narrative voices, that we take for granted in contemporary writing was non-existent then.

E. M. Forster held that the point-of-view is one of the fundamentals of fiction writing. Forster’s work is about the novel, but we can extend this to the short story.

A simple definition of point-of-view would be:

Point-of-view is the narration of the story from the perspective of first, second or third person. The writer must determine who is going to tell the story and how much information is available for the narrator to reveal in the short story. The narrator can be directly involved in the action subjectively, or the narrator might only report the action objectively.

To paraphrase Forster, a writer can assume any of the following guises:

1. From the outside, either as an impartial or partial onlooker or what is also called a limited third person narrative voice.

2. An omniscient presence that describes the characters from within.

3. Or the writer can place him/herself in the position of one of the characters and affect to be in the dark about the motives of the rest (also called the first person narrator).

Here’s a pastiche of descriptions about the different P-O-Vs from books on novel writing, but relevant to the short story too:

First Person. The story is told from the view of ‘I’. The narrator is either the protagonist (main character) and directly affected by unfolding events, or the narrator is a secondary character telling the story revolving around the protagonist. This is a good choice for beginner writers because it is the easiest to write.

Second Person. The story is told directly to ‘you’, with the reader as a participant in the action.

Third Person. The story tells what ‘he’, ‘she’, or ‘it’ does. The third person narrator’s perspective can be limited (telling the story from one character’s viewpoint) or omniscient (where the narrator knows everything about all of the characters).

Another interesting point-of-view is the Unreliable Narrator.

David Lodge, in his work, The Art of Fiction, identifies this point-of-view as follows:

Unreliable narrators are invariably invented characters who are part of the stories they tell . . . The point of using an unreliable narrator is indeed to reveal in an interesting way the gap between appearance and reality and to show how human beings distort or conceal the latter.

Lodge cites the narrator of Kazao Ishiguro’s novel, The Remains of the Day, as an example of an unreliable narrator. According to Lodge, the narrator in this book, called Stevens, is not an evil man, but

. . . his life has been based on the suppression and evasion of the truth, about himself and about others. His narrative is a kind of confession, but it is riddled with devious self-justification and special pleading and only at the end does he arrive at an understanding of himself – too late to profit by it.

Another example is Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert (HH) in Lolita. The suave, persuasive and devious voice of HH gives us what he perceives as an all-consuming passion for his young 12 year-old step-daughter. The reader does not know what Lolita feels, thinks and wants except from HH’s perspective.

Which narrative voice do you frequently use?

Which point-of-view is the hardest to portray?

Do you have some dos and don’ts about the use of the narrative voice?

Do you use the narrative voice of a different gender, and what are the particular pros and cons of this?

– Golden Langur

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