I spent a long time trying to come up with a snappy phrase for the literary concept I want to discuss. My first idea was to call it Point Of Observation, as a corollary to Point Of View, then I realized that the initials would be POO and I know the readership of the blog too well to try to discuss the POO of a story here.
After thrashing around for a bit I ended up with Voice Direction, or VD. This way the jokes will at least be sexual rather than scalogical in nature.
This post is a kind of sort of followup to my recent post on the invisible character. To recap that here, Voice in fiction is determined by both the Narrator (who is speaking), and what I called the Listener (to whom the Narrator relates the tale.)
The relationship between the “invisible characters” of Narrator and Listener forms what I am calling the Voice Direction.
Sometimes the Narrator (and less often in modern fiction the Listener) is specified. Most (but not all) fiction told in the first person is told by someone who is introduced to the reader. Usually this is done right away. One counterexample that comes to mind is Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus, which is told in first person plural (“We saw this, we noticed that”) and it’s not until the very end that the reader discovers who “we” are.
Usually, though, a 1st person narrator is identified for the reader as a particular character in the story. It may not be the main character from a narrative standpoint–Dr. Watson and Nick Carraway come to mind–but is still someone who was there during the action and is relating events directly witnessed.
First person narration affords the best opportunity for writers to develop the Listener as a character and also, in my opinion, suffer most when the Listener is inconsistent in the reader’s mind.
The Narrator in third person stories is generally not identified as a specific individual in modern fiction, but sometimes an author will construct a storyteller persona. Washington Irving’s imaginary author “Diedrich Knickerbocker”, “Lemony Snicket” of A Series Of Unfortunate Events, Norman Spinrad’s conceit of Hitler as SF author in The Iron Dream.
Whether or not the 3rd person narrator has a named identity, there should be a sense of “who is telling the story”. The subject of Narrator’s voice has been dealt with extensively in many places, however, and hear I am talking about the Listener.
I would broadly characterize Listeners in fiction as Intimate, Casual, Official, and Distant.
Intimate: The narrator is speaking to someone with whom she or he has a shared history. 1st Person Intimate stories are full of phrases like “you know how Dr. Infestation is” and “it was just like the thing with giant sloths, only this time I didn’t have a flamethrower” that imply that the listener is part of the close environment in which the story takes place. Sometimes the Listener is referred to by name (particularly in epistletory novels such as Dracula) but there is always a sense of reading some private correspondence between close friends.
3rd Person Intimate is less common, but shows up fairly often in quirky humor, such as Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
On the plus side, Intimate narration draws the reader into the action and the world where it takes place. As a negative, delivering needed information to the reader can be awkward and lead to stilted sounding “As you know, Dr. Frankenstein” digressions.
Casual: This is probably the most common narrative voice in fiction. The Narrator is speaking to a Listener who is assumed to be familiar with the world in which the action takes place in a general sense, but not with the details of the Narrator’s life. As with most elements of literary criticism, these designations are points on a continuum rather than discrete steps.
For example, if the action takes place on a college campus the writer may choose to assume that the Listener is familiar with academic politics in general or may pause to explain the intricacies of departmental infighting. Either way would fit in the category of Casual. What is important that the narrator’s assumption of a shared knowledge base with the Listener remain consistent.
Too little information can confuse the reader. Too much can slow the story to a crawl. Vacillating between the two–infodumping in one place, skimming past needed details in another–can make a story completely unreadable.
3rd Person Casual comes closest to making both Narrator and Listener truly “invisible”. It’s perhaps the most common voice in modern fiction, and gives rise to the idea that 3rd person writing means that “no one is telling the story”, which in turn leads to prose that is flat and unengaging.
Official voice is a bit of a special case. The conceit is that the story is an official document of some sort, a police report, a military briefing, a business memo. The conventions of the voice allow for more Casual–and even Intimate–phrasing than would be allowed in a genuine Official document, but the general tone of the story should be in keeping with the conceit. This voice, whether 3rd or 1st person, gives the story an immediacy and air of verisimilitude. Michael Crichton’s work is a good example of this voice.
Distant voice is when the Narrator and the Listener come from drastically different backgrounds. It is important to stress that I am talking about the Narrator and Listener, not the relationship between either and the world in which the story is set. A fantastic tale can be set in a world very alien to the one that the author and reader inhabit, but if the Narrator and Listener share a milieu, then it doesn’t qualify as Distant in my nomenclature.
A Distant narrator takes nothing for granted. Obviously this can only be approximated–the story has to written in a presumed common language, and some common ground must be assumed to describe anything. But the conceit of the voice is that the narrator is talking to someone from a completely different world.
This can be a difficult voice to maintain, particularly in 3rd person. It works best in short fiction or in brief sections in a longer work–for example a novel about an alien invasion in which a few chapters are written from the POV of the aliens.
The primary use of the Distant voice is to convey to the reader a feeling that the story being told is taking place in an alien world and the Narrator–as an inhabitant of that world–must overcome a gulf of symbol and metaphor in order to tell the story to presumably contemporary Listener.
A Distant voice also creates an emotional distance, which is often a problem in works of Fantasy but that emotional distance can be used deliberately. Having a narrator describe commonplace events in a way that denies a shared experience with the Listener is a technique which Theodore Sturgeon used to chilling effect in novels like Some Of Your Blood and More Than Human.
In conclusion, consistency is the key to voice. If the Narrator and the Listener are sharing a couple of beers and swapping tales, they can’t suddenly be strangers having an awkward conversation waiting for the elevator without knocking the reader out of the story. Keeping in mind who is talking and who is listening and the circumstances of their conversation–even if you never share that information with the reader–can keep your story’s voice compelling.