Saturday, July 27, 2013

Narrative Techniques: Multiple Narrators Offering a First-Person Account

Today, fiction writing has evolved to provide writers with elaborate and complex choices. Sometimes more than one narrator emerges, stepping forward for a defined section such as a entire chapter. Barbara Kingsolver, following upon the advancement made by William Faulkner's imagination in As I Lay Dying, created five distinct voices for five distinct women who share the telling of The Poisonwood Bible, but multiple narrators also appear before the twentieth century dawned. Robert Browning’s murder mystery in poetic verse, The Ring and the Book, features several narrators recounting the same set of facts from individual unique perspectives, leaving readers to decide which narrator carried them closest to the truth. And, of course, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in The New Testament tell their own stories about Jesus, each from his personal knowledge and perspective, each revealing differing aspects of Jesus and his story.

Photo: An Okapi, a creature once dismissed as myth by Westerners, but now often seen outside of Africa in zoological parks and on the pages of The Poisonwood Bible.

Still many writers in earlier ages struggled to tell stories involving multiple narrators. The challenge of changing location and point of view baffled many so they often resorted to a single narrator who somehow manages to know everyone’s story. Geoffrey Chaucer invented a witness for The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales so that all those pilgrims traveling together could create a tapestry in words of the socio-economic groups of the Middle Ages and their relation to the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Cardinal Virtues. Chaucer’s witness speaks with each of the pilgrims on the night before their departure and then recounts the facts as he knows them. His impressions acquaint readers with all the personalities and character types from wealthiest to Parson most poor, from holy nuns to sullied wife, and from Knight most chivalrous accompanied by son most lascivious. Thereafter, each pilgrim speaks for him or herself, sometimes providing a prologue to the story he spins, all in the hope of winning a free steak dinner at journey’s end. The single narrator and the device of staging a story-telling contest allow Chaucer to juggle many points of view logically and clearly.

Photo: A sample Medieval text.

Emily Brontë, author of Wuthering Heights, has a complicated task in telling the story of three generations residing at Wuthering Heights and of their neighbors, the Lintons. She invents an outsider, Lockwood, unfamiliar with the region and its ways. Lockwood leases the Linton estate and stumbles into Wuthering Heights just before a terrible storm. Heathcliff’s inhospitable treatment leaves Lockwood quite frail so Nellie, the long suffering housemaid with work experience at both the Heights and the Linton estate, cares for him. During their hours together, Nellie tells him about those for whom she worked. She knows all the sordid details, including Heathcliff’s machinations, and she knows everyone’s vulnerabilities because she was a sympathetic ear for them.

Photo by Al Griffin. The Lupine of Maine in lavender.

Writers often choose a single-point of view so that just one person tells the tale. If that person is also deeply involved in the story, as Nellie was on occasion, we readers must ask ourselves how reliable the narrator is. Does she have an agenda? A secret she hides from us as well as others in her life? We must determine how reliable the narrator is and search for the moments and clues when she gives herself away.

For example, much of The Sixth Sense, a stellar film debut by M. Night Shyamalan, unfolds through the lens of Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), but poor Dr. Crowe is as unaware of his true state of being as we are until the surprise pay-off in the end when all those strange encounters between Malcolm and his wife as well as Cole Sear's mother become comprehensible. Then we realize that Dr. Crowe couldn’t tell his own story clearly and correctly because he didn't know his own truth.

Photo by Al Griffin. St. Mary's Georgia, 2010.

So Readers, be wise. Engage your critical thinking when a first-person narrator tells the tale. He may be lying, or he may be completely unaware of the truth.

A third-person limited narrator is equally untrustworthy. Consider Nick, the narrator for The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He would prefer to believe that Gatsby has the perfume of nobility rather than the taint of ignobility. He would also like us to believe that his motives were pure, that he was just caught up in Gatsby’s illusion, and that youthful indiscretion explains his naïveté and complicity. As readers, we must step away from the glamour and the glib to hold accountable Gatsby, Jordan, the Buchanans, Nick, Myrtle and George.

In conclusion, a single narrator is a writer’s good friend. You may invent a frame inside of which a narrator tells the tale as Chaucer and Brontë do. You may also create chapters or sections, each told by a different narrator as Faulkner and Kingsolver do, or you may develop a third-person narrator who does not know everything. He only knows what he witnessed, did, or was told, and these are the only facts he can share.

Remembering these models will guide you as tell stories. You have so many models, so many options with which to spin a tale.

Reading Challenge:

Read one or all of the models offered as examples for today’s post:

  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  • The Ring and the Book by Robert Browning
  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  • As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Sixth Sense directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Writing Challenge:

Invent a story, then tell the same story from different points of view. For example, several people may witness the same event (a concert, a traffic accident, an inauguration), but none of the witnesses sees and hears it exactly the same. Their locations, their backgrounds, their ideologies will affect what they see and hear so let each narrator tell his version.