Who Is Talking?: Narrative Voice and the Writer

William Faulkner's Underwood Universal Portabl...

Plato and Aristotle identified three basic kinds of narrator:

1.  The speaker or poet who uses their own voice.

2.  The speaker or poet who assumes the voice of another person or persons, speaking in a voice not their own.

3.  The speaker or poet who uses a mixture of their own voice and that of others.

T.S. Eliot also makes an important point in his essay The Three Voices of Poetry:

“The first voice is the voice of the poet talking to himself — or to nobody.  The second is the voice of the poet addressing the audience, whether large or small.  The third is the voice of the poet when he attempts to create a dramatic character speaking in verse; when he is saying, not what he would say in his own person, but only what he can say within the limits of one imaginary character addressing another imaginary character.”

The narrator of the text is not necessarily the writer or the author, and it is important for a writer to understand this important fact.  Many times when writing large texts, writers will emulate their favorite writer.  If we try to do this, make our favorite writer the narrator of our tale, we sell ourselves short.  We stifle our own voice or our own style.

I published a post a few weeks ago entitled “Who Do You Write Like?” which was really intended to give writers a little boost of confidence.  I would say that if you plug your work into the machine and it comes up consistently as sounding like Stephen King or Robert Ludlum, you need to probably work on the narrative voice.  If it comes up with various authors, you are on the right track, because the machine is having a hard time nailing down your style, therefore it is more unique.

I read a lot of Faulkner, Portis, Stephenson, Heinlein and Berry.  I also read the Bible every day.  I find that my writing in my latest book This Broken Earth ends up reflecting many of the writers I read.  The narrative of the book is in the shape of As I Lay Dying where each chapter is a different first person narrator, giving the reader various perspectives on the story.  I did not choose this narrative style because William Faulkner’s book was so cool and I wanted to write like him.  I chose this narrative style because my book is a story about faith and my personal view of faith is that all of us have different perspectives about what faith means.  How better to illustrate this than by having each character have a say in what we see.  I love that Charles Portis does not judge his characters, and because of this I have taken a lesson from him and let my characters “be”.  This narrative style has allowed me to do that.  Wendell Berry has taught me that writing has to say something greater than the story, and so the end-times events portrayed in my book are simply a backdrop for a greater message about faith.

Good books have big questions.   The big question in my book is: If you have faith in something, how willing are you to keep that faith in the face of horrible adversity or even the threat of death?  This helped me to create a narrative voice that best suited the question at hand, made it more real, and gave it life.

Questions you should ask yourself:

1.  What is your favorite narrative voice?

2.  What is my “big question”?

3.  How can I share my thoughts on my “big question” through my favorite narrative voice?

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4 thoughts on “Who Is Talking?: Narrative Voice and the Writer

  1. Good advice, Roger. The most interesting stories are the ones with a unique voice expressed by the narrator. An author may want to emulate their favourite writers, but they should still present their own unique perspective to the story. 🙂

  2. Interesting post Roger, and yes, authors sometimes DO need to make it clear to readers that the narrator is not necessarily the writer. In my book A Garden in Africa I deliberately DIDN’T make that clear but it has rebounded upon me because real life characters mentioned in the book, or their descendants, have taken issue with me because they don’t like the way they have been portrayed and believe I, the author, am giving vent to personal opinions. Which in a way I am, though the book’s fictionalised narrator in the main is repeating second hand the opinions and experiences of the fictionalised protagonists. Because this book is set well in the past and any less-than-complimentary material about real life figures falls into the public domain I am safe enough from libel actions. Nonetheless, writing with one’s own voice, however disguised, can be a trap for the unwary if one is writing about real people and there is any danger this can be seen as vengeful or spiteful – some authors HAVE been known to settle old scores this way!

  3. Excellent post. As a memoir writer, I use my own voice, but this post makes me want to try writing in another voice (which, of course, I could try risk-free in a blog post). Anyway, thought provoking. Thanks.

  4. Great post, Roger. When I tried the “Who Do You Write Like” exercise, I came up with many different authors who write in all genres – although James Joyce had the most hits with my poetry. I didn’t think at the time how that reflected on my narrative voice; but what you say makes sense … and now I’m glad there was so much variety, lol. 🙂

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