Narrative Voice: First-Person

These two essays will be introducing and exploring voice within narrative literature, with this piece focusing on first-person narration.

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© 2016 Epytome / Used With Permission

Voice is the idiosyncratic speech and thought patterns of a narrator, establishing a persona. As the voice has so much to do with the reader’s experience of a story, it is one of the most important elements of a piece of writing.

For a long time the idea of voice in a novel had eluded me. It could be because until recently I was writing from the perspective of third person omniscient, and a lot of the work I was reading at the time was like this. The idea was to be as objective as possible, even though not all third person omniscient is necessarily like this, as described later.

It wasn’t until my A-level course in English Literature and Language, when I was introduced to the concept of the unreliable narrator, did I get a taste of what voice is actually like. Intentionally misleading the audience, not through omission, was exciting. It brought new meaning to works I had enjoyed before, when I had not realized the narrator could have been lying or biased.

Then, when I started writing novels in first-person perspective, I started to get a better idea of what the voice is like and how it affects the story that is being told.

Late last year I started writing a novel that I had no intention of writing, but the voice captivated me to the point that I couldn’t ignore it. While I had a vague outline of the plot of the story, it was the voice that really centred the work and gave it a spine strong enough stand on its own. Then once it was standing, the voice started moving my story in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

I couldn’t make my protagonist do something that went against her voice. Her voice cements her personality, and her personality becomes impossible to ignore. In some ways this means that writing dedicated to the voice keeps me faithful to the story I intend to tell.

If you are writing in first-person, for example, the narrative voice is the voice of a character—not the author. Their voice is layered by the character’s history, from social class to where they’re from. Even how they were raised can have an effect on they speak. This is reflected in the smaller nuances in the way they think (narrate), their manner of speaking, word choice, dialect and so on.

An example of this would the opening to ‘The Catcher and the Rye’ by JD Salinger.

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

The Catcher and the Rye

Holden’s character is quickly but effectively established in one sentence. In fact, pick any sentence of a first-person narrative and one should be able to feel the character voice.

Death in ‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak is a character that does not interact with the rest of the characters within the book, but is an established character, thus making it a first-person perspective, rather than an omniscient third. From this perspective we learn that Death is tired and wants respite from taking souls, and that it is ‘haunted by humans.’ Unlike most omniscient narrators, which this voice is quite like in many respects, Death has a form and actively interacts with the world. Acting as an invisible character amongst the main story, observing what is happening, Death’s perspective is most unusual to read but could have potentially have been redundant without its interesting voice.

“I studied the blinding, white-snow sky who stood at the window of the moving train. I practically inhaled it, but still, I wavered. I buckled — I became interested. In the girl. Curiosity got the better of me, and I resigned myself to stay as long as my schedule allowed, and I watched.”

The Book Thief

The question here would be why Zusak decided to write from the perspective of Death. Not just any version of Death, but one that is bored with its perpetual existence. Most writers, myself included, would have immediately thought the protagonist, Liesel Meminger, should be the one that told this story.

Yet, that wouldn’t be the story that Zusak had in mind. By having the story in Death’s perspective, Zusak is able to bring about a new perspective on mortality. As ‘The Book Thief’ is set during World War II, death is an omnipresent theme that runs in the background, but the physical character, Death, adds depth to this destruction of life. It explains the reasons behind each passing, something that we as humans often wish for when we have lost loved ones, or when facing our own mortality. It portrays death not as something to fear, not as something malicious, but as something less distant or vague.

Not only that, by Death has thoughts and feelings, such as having a love of colour or becoming overexcited by an event in the story and revealing it early to the reader. Then apologising. Death is also bothered by humans’ perceptions of him, right down to the scythe imagery, and wishes it to be corrected. That is a lot of personality and detail for a character that could have easily have been written as a gloomy, neutral third party in a much grander story.

Adding the disillusionment of the reaper, and we have opportunity for our narrator to grow by the end of the book, not just the protagonist. This development is all established in use of language, and is often just a subtle shift in how Death describes something, such as a word, effects how a reader interprets the meaning.

These elements enable Zusak to write a very effective story about love and loss, and what it means to be human.

One example of not meeting character voice would be Anastasia Steele in E. L. James’ ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. Not only suffering from the predisposition of being a puppet protagonist, Anastasia’s voice slips between her lacklustre American voice and that of her British creators’. This is why establishing dialect is so important.

If a character who normally says “ain’t” suddenly says “isn’t” it can genuinely throw a reader out of their groove, and momentarily ruin that suspension of disbelief. Of course, if an author themselves writes “isn’t,” it can be difficult to remember that small nuance when in the middle of a writing flow, or even overlook it during proofreading. These little details can be edited and cemented in later drafts.

Yet, this isn’t the only flaw with Ana Steele. That lack of spark in her personality rids the narrative of a distinctive voice. In a first-person narrative this shouldn’t be an issue, and yet it is.

“I scowl in frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair–it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal … Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up.”

Fifty Shades of Grey

While there is voice in the opening paragraph, with Ana’s use of the word “damn” twice in a row, it reads much like an add-on; an afterthought that does not suit the rest of Ana’s voice, and therefore builds up as the book carries on. It appears as an attempt to try to make Ana feel more fleshed out, and given the numerous criticisms into her bland character, it didn’t work.

Though I did previously state that voice can be added in later drafts, I will now punctuate that point by remarking how it is important to treat the voice as its own element—not a throwaway addendum.


Next: Third-Person Narrative Voice

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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