Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Personality of the Narrator

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative voice. Not which person to use, but which personage. The narrator's personality is such a make-or-break element of a novel from the very beginning. A really strong narrator grabs you from the first line. For example, Scott Westerfeld’s dystopia Uglies begins with this image: “The sky was the color of cat vomit.” Original. A bit graphic. Also highly descriptive—at least to any cat owner! But also angry. Maladjusted. What a way to see a sunset! Right away we see that the narrator is no Sugar Plum Fairy; it's not going to lead us into the Land of the Sweets.

Westerfeld's heroine Tally Youngblood is bold, frank, original; restlessly counting down the days till her 16th birthday and the total makeover that will turn her into a flawless, bubble-headed “Pretty.” With this first line Westerfeld sets up a tension with the scenario he’s set up for Tally; we know a girl that who sees sunsets as cat vomit won’t find it easy to conform. He sets up a tension between his scenario of seeming perfection and his view of that world. (In this case the narrator is third person, but very close to Tally's point of view most of the time.)

Choosing the narrative voice is one way of choosing what kind of writer you want to be. How do you choose your narrative voice? Do you think about it consciously? Or does it just flow out of you?


  1. Good question. I don't consciously select voice. I feel it organically. I have to get to know my characters so well, I hear their words as I type them.

    Of course, I'm not always right. When I revise, I know those characters even better (as do my crit buddies). Then I realize - he wouldn't say that, or, she wouldn't do that.

    That's whaen the fun begins.

  2. Interesting question, Ariel! Like J.A., it often just flows out of me. At least on a first draft. And, like J.A., I might play with it more when it's time to revise.

    Your post made me think about the narrative voice of Auggie in Wonder. This story was so incredible and I definitely think a big part of it was the wonderful narrative voice of Auggie (a boy with a severe facial deformity). He is such a wonderful ordinary kid confronting extraordinary challenges because of his appearance.

    I absolutely love the opening paragraph: " I know I'm not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an XBox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary. I guess. And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don't get stared at wherever they go."

    For me, this narrative voice was a critical element in making Wonder the incredible book that it is!

  3. Agree entirely with Brianna about Auggie's voice in Wonder. Without that, the story could have been both unbelievable or a sappy, feel-good message book.

  4. First off - LOVE the Uglies series. My son had to read Uglies for school and while he stopped at the first one...I continued!

    And great question - I agree with J.A, - I don't think I consciously choose a voice...it chooses me. Which sounds hippie dippie but it feels that way. Of course it's fine- tuned during revision but the underlying voice is always there in the first draft.

  5. Brianna and Gale: I also loved the narrator in Wonder and thought it saved the book from being saccharine. I think our attachment to the narrative voice may be why it's so frustrating to have the narrative voice change too frequently in a book. We settle into that voice as if it were a blanket and we don't want it snatched away.