Alarm bells and coughing fits
Handclasps, explosions, and ribbons and bows

Its own self

One of the faux-orthodoxies about creative writing most guaranteed to raise my blood pressure is the one parrotted by newbie writers with terrible writing teachers: "omnisicient narrators are Old Fashioned". Both John Gardener in The Art of Fiction and James Wood in How Fiction Works explore all the possibilities and conclude by preferring an omniscient, third-person narrator, able to enter any character's consciousness and to narrate independently of any character. Such a narrator is even able to tell us what a character doesn't understand about his/her own consicousness: it's arguably the most powerful, flexible, fluent and, you might say (as Gardener and Wood say), grown-up, way of telling a story. 

But the novel I'm about to start is that kind and, frankly, I'm just a tad worried. It's a first for me, although I've written short fiction thus. I've decided to do it partly because it suits the story, but also because I need a technical difficulty to wrestle with before I can face the long slog of writing the damn thing. But I'm also having what you might call existential angst about it.

When your narrator is a character, what's told is limited to what they know, see and understand. And when you decide to tell the story in the third person, but limit the point of view to a single character, or a sequence of single characters, the implied narrator - the entity which is telling the reader that "X did this" and "Y thought that" - is similarly limited. But as soon as the narrator could know everything, see everything, understand everything, the decisions get a bit more complicated.

If the narrator can see everything, the choices about what it transmits to the reader are relatively straightforward: which settings and bits of the story are most essential for the reader to see? But if the narrator can know everything then how do you decide what of that knowledge to give the reader? Crudely, how can you create suspense when the narrator knows whodunnit from the first page? And yet perhaps 80% of fiction works this way, and I suspect I'm over-thinking this one. Readers aren't bothered in the least about what they're not being told: they follw the road the narrator takes. (Although there is the Fair Play rule: if Sherlock Holmes "picks up certain small things" while detecting, the reader is entitled to know what they are. You can't let us inside someone's head and not reveal the important thing in it just to "create suspense".).

In first person, or third-limited, things are automatically subjective, and there's a lot of scope - fun, even - for getting the reader to understand things that the character doesn't understand. In A Secret Alchemy it's not me saying that's what happened to the Princes in the Tower, it's their mother; my project was to imagine how those stories might have seemed to her. But if the narrator can understand everything (which is the true meaning of "omniscient") then is it making an objective statement of what "really" happened, of how the novel-world, at least, actually works? I shy away from creating James Wood's "essayist" narrator, using a fictional form to make explicit, authorial statements about how things are. This, indeed, is in some ways, what gave the "omniscient" narrator a bad name, as part of a tetchy, Oedipal rebellion among Modernist writers resenting a narrative that seemed to assert that Father (or Mother, in the case of George Eliot) Is Always Right.

Or should I imagine a narrator who has, however slightly, a personality and therefore a "take" on these events? Ah, that sounds more like it! That doesn't only help me to decide whether a scene should be narrated in this way or that. It's also liberating: as soon as you recognise one point-of-view, you recognise the possibility of others. And this is also why I prefer A S Byatt's term, the "knowledgeable" narrator, to "omniscient". Because I am knowledgeable about these characters and their world, but I don't pretend to be presenting all the answers, any more than I want my novel to be arguing a thesis.

And finally, this decision about endowing the narrator - however unembodied it is - with a "take" on things, also helps with the other big decision: voice. My "natural" voice - in the sense of one un-mediated by a particular character - does have a particular cadence, structure, style, as everyone's does. Is that how I want this narrator to sound? I'm not sure. I need a voice for this novel which isn't my own, but it's no character's either. It's... itself, whatever (whoever?) that self is.

Comments