In preparation for Cindy’s talk on Narrative Voice, I went through my bookshelves and picked out passages from four books that are very different from each other. It’s interesting to find the differences in the tone, word choice and detail and consider how that informs the type of story being told. Due to time constraints I didn’t end up sharing – I didn’t have copies to pass around at any rate – so I thought I’d post the passages here with my thoughts on what makes the “voice” of each and how it complements the novel.
I encourage you to read the passage, then for a moment, ruminate on how the voice comes across to you, and then move into my interpretation. I’ll give the novel and author at the end.
If the the heat goes over 104 degrees in South Carolina, you have to go to bed. It is practically the law. Some people might see it as shiftless behavior, but really, when we’re lying down from the heat, we’re giving our minds time to browse around for new ideas, wondering at the true aim of life, and generally letting things pop into our heads that need to. In the sixth grade were was a boy in my class who had a steel plate in his skull and was always complaining how test answers could never get through to him. Our teacher would say, “Give me a break.”
This is first person, so the voice might be more obvious. It’s informal, conversational, and thoughtful. What’s very interesting about the passage is all the pronouns. The narrator goes through aligning herself with different groups of people, using “we” to include all the people lying down, “my class” to specify how the boy in her anecdote relates to her, then “our teacher” to include her classmates. Her use of “you” isn’t directed solely at the reader, but as a you-in-general that includes everyone.
This voice is very intimate. It’s like sitting down with someone and just listening to them as they tell you a personal story, peppering it with their own musings on the events and explaining the concepts through their own experiences. The back and forth pronouns feel like casual storytelling. The long sentences attach flowing thoughts together. The narrator of this is the teenage female protagonist from The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.
The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.
Even without the reference to a unicorn, this feels like the beginning of a fairytale. Substitute “woman” for “unicorn” and try to imagine what kind of adventure this character might have. Feels the same, doesn’t it? This is the first paragraph of the novel, and it introduces it’s protagonist in a very distinctive way. No specific time or place is mentioned, but there are very specific details – lilac wood, all alone, moonlit night. What exactly is “the careless color of sea foam”? It’s not defined, it’s something conjured in each reader’s imagination. Unlike the passage above, this isn’t a conversational voice. This voice is telling a tale as if reciting it. It’s more formal and poetic and meant to evoke imagery. This is from one of my all time favorites, The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle.
Each of us has a private Austen.
Jocelyn’s Austen wrote wonderful novels about love and courtship, but never married. The book club was Jocelyn’s idea, and she handpicked the members. She had more ideas in one morning than the rest of us had in a week, and more energy, too. It was essential to reintroduce Austen into your life regularly, Jocelyn said, let her look around. We suspected a hidden agenda, but who would put Jane Austen to an evil purpose?
I am intrigued by the first person plural of this narrator. There is never an “I” it is only an anonymous “we” throughout the entire novel. The narrator(s) only make their presence known at specific instances. For the most part the novel is about the members of the book club. Each member is described and spoken about in the third person.
So what is this narrative voice doing? It’s telling the story of other people, people the narrator knows and can speak about in intimate, omniscient detail, but at the same time the story is being told through a filter. The narrator is outside of the characters and though they can bring the reader right there with the characters, it’s not directly into their heads. The voice is light-hearted and friendly, as if inviting the reader to listen but remember that this is a story. I don’t know. This one confuses me, but I really like it. If it isn’t obvious this is the beginning of The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler.
It really was a hell of a blast.
The explosion occurred at daybreak on the second Tuesday morning of September, its shock waves rippling through the beer-stained streets of Mornington Crescent. It detonated car alarms, hurled house bricks across the street, blew a chimney stack forty feet into the sky, ruptured the eardrums of several tramps, denuded over two dozen pigeons, catapulted a surprise ginger tom through the window of a kebab shop and fired several roofing tiles into the forehead of the pope, who was featured on a poster for condoms opposite the tube station.
Does this sound like it was written by a man? The voice here is a bit casual, but not very conversational. The first sentence shows a bit of an opinion, not just a blast, but “a hell of a blast”. Then come a bunch of facts that set the time, date and location. Next is a detailed reciting of more facts, but not delivered in a clinical way. It’s as if the narrator is running an eye over the whole scene and making observations. This narrative voice feels direct, detail-oriented, serious, but with a bit of wry humor. This is the beginning of Full Dark House, the first novel in a detective series by Christopher Fowler.
These are all different and I think they match the stories they tell well. The narrative voice can be the character’s voice, but I think it’s more about the voice of the story. A mystery is voiced with precision and a straight forward telling of events. A fantasy might be told through embellished descriptions to evoke imagination. Literary novels might be voiced with more introspection. To further complicate matters, though I’ve been focused on how the voice relates to the novel, the author might also have a specific voice. Think Damon Runyon, P.G. Wodehouse, or Ernest Hemingway. There’s quite a lot to think about here.