Narrative Voice, and other stuff

This morning, dear readers, I’m a bit of a mess.  My head’s swirling, my thoughts won’t sit still and behave, and my poor brain feels like it’s trying to tapdance and balance plates on its head simultaneously.  So, before we begin, I beg your forgiveness.  There were so many things I was going to blog about this morning – I flicked through my memory-book from childhood in order to pick out some juicy reminiscences, and then I thought maybe I’d comment on some current events.  Then I discounted that in favour of yammering on yet again about how much I love books, or perhaps lamenting the fact that I need not only to replace my clapped-out mobile phone, but also my end-of-life (and much beloved) CD player.  Sigh.

(I might yet mention all these things – we’ll have to see how this thing pans out!)

For lack of any other point of beginning, though, let’s start today by talking about the book I stayed up late last night to finish – ‘The Obsidian Mirror’, by Catherine Fisher.  My poor tired husband had to put up with my reading light for far longer than he should have, and for that I thank him.  I really loved this book, but that’s no surprise to anyone who knows me, because Catherine Fisher’s work always meets a warm reception in my house.  This book is also somewhat connected with my blog from yesterday, where I wrote about feeling as though your cherished ideas are no longer ‘yours’ when you see something similar on a bookshelf; when I saw ‘The Obsidian Mirror’ my heart first leapt, then sank.  It leapt because I love few things in life more than collecting a new Catherine Fisher, and it sank because the book proclaimed itself to be about the theme which has been occupying my mind these past few years: time travel.  Well, my WiP isn’t about time travel, strictly, but there is a certain similarity of theme going on, and I had to read the book immediately to see if there was any point in my continuing with my own novel.

As it happened, the plot of ‘The Obsidian Mirror’ is brilliant, and nothing like my own work, which was a bit of a relief.  I won’t spoil anything for anyone who wants to read it (I recommend it highly), but I do want to talk about some of the things which I feel Catherine Fisher does very well, namely dialogue and narrative voice.  I’ve always enjoyed reading her interactions between characters, especially when they ‘speak’ in their Welsh accents, as they do in some of her books (not ‘Obsidian Mirror’, though).  One of the special beauties of her work is the fact that the reader can ‘hear’ things like accents and intonation, just from the way she writes.  Her dialogue is among the least flat and sterile I’ve ever read, and I know enough to realise that’s a talent she has honed through years of practice.  This skill is immensely useful near the end of the book, when we’re hopping from character to character and from storyline to storyline; it’s never unclear who is speaking, because Fisher is able to differentiate each character’s voice so perfectly.

‘The Obsidian Mirror’ is written in the third-person, but I’d hesitate to call it omniscient – the reader finds things out at the same time the characters do, more or less, but it’s not exactly limited strictly to their points of view, either.  We (the reader) get hints at the start of each chapter, when there are excerpts from diaries, letters or ballads to give us some idea what we’ll be facing.  My own WiP is written in the first-person (with one small exception, yet to be written, at the very end), and I’ve been thinking about the benefits and drawbacks of that choice since finishing Catherine Fisher’s book.  Of course, with first-person, you get the chance to really explore a character’s development and personality; you get the chance to allow your readers to love your character as much as you do.  But there’s so much you miss out on, too.  For instance, my protagonist is ignorant of a lot of very vital knowledge about her world and her family, and because of the way I’ve chosen to narrate her story, it’s difficult to write about her learning process without having other characters tell her things, or without having her overhear conversations, and that sort of thing.  There are things she needs to work out in order to survive, and I want to express her intelligence and resourcefulness, of course.  But because (through me) she’s narrating her own story, that doesn’t always come across – she’s not the type to blow her own trumpet, so the challenge is to hint at it through other characters’ reactions.  Things she might notice, or dispassionately comment on, are far more meaningful to a reader than they are to her.

This works, up to a point, but I know I’ve loads of room to improve.  The last thing a writer wants to do is have page after page of a character gently explaining to your protagonist things like, ‘Well, darling, you really should know that your mother was a flatulent swamp-monster made of broccoli – it’ll make certain aspects of your life now seem much clearer.’  Instead, you want to have your character feel a mysterious pull towards broccoli, which leads her to investigate further and uncover an arcane mythology about broccoli and swamp-monsters which bears some uncanny resemblances to her own life – we should see her put the story together herself, instead of being told what to do or think.  Or, if the story must have explanation, it should ideally be ‘off-camera’ – as in, a character learns something without the reader being privy to it.  Again, this is difficult when you’re writing in the first person.

How do you write, in terms of narrative voice?  Do you have a preference for first- over third-person, omniscient or limited?  I’m interested in how others find ways around the challenges posed by each type of voice.  My current WiP demanded a first-person limited narrative voice – I couldn’t have written it any other way, though I really do feel a third-person would have been easier.  If anyone has any narration tips, I’m all ears!  I’d love to know if there’s something I’m missing…

8 thoughts on “Narrative Voice, and other stuff

  1. Jenn

    Looks interesting .. Ive not read her books but will have a look now 🙂 as to writing fiction, thats not my forte, but i love reading it 🙂

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Great! I hope you enjoy them. My favourite of her books is ‘Corbenic’, but she’s written a wonderful, very imaginative YA book called ‘Incarceron’ which is also excellent. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Rand Howard

    Great post! I am struggling with what narrative voice to use since I have various bits and pieces in all different voices. I feel, I do not do dialogue very well and most people say I do description very well. At first, the story was going to be told in the third person from observation of a nobleman in the kings court. But, I do want some meaningful dialogue between various characters and there will have to be parts of it that said nobleman should not know about.
    I have never read anything by Catherine Fisher so I think I will give The Obsidian Mirror a read and see how she does dialogue. Right now, my head is kind of messed up from trying to read Cloud Atlas. I am not sure what it is about that book that bothers me so much, but I need to get away from it and back on track in my world.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Hi Rand – thanks for your comment. Narrative voice is a real problem, isn’t it? There are drawbacks and advantages no matter what way you go. I think perhaps the best thing (maybe even for your project?) is to have a different character narrate each chapter, or something like that. I think I’ll do that in my next project! I think your WiP sounds really interesting, and I look forward to picking it up in a bookshop someday. 🙂

      I hope you enjoy Catherine Fisher – she’s a YA author, and so vastly different to David Mitchell, I’d imagine! As I said to Jenn, above, my favourite of her books is ‘Corbenic’, but truthfully, they’re all great. Plus, as you’re writing about Irish/Celtic themes, her Welsh-tinged work might be beneficial to you. Maybe ‘The Glass Tower Trilogy’ would be a good start. Enjoy!

  3. Rand Howard

    Hi Sinead, I am looking forward to picking up your book, as well, not far off in the horizon, hey. 🙂 The idea of a different character for each chapter is what David Mitchell did in Cloud Atlas but he didn’t tie the chapters together very well. But, the real problem is I have not found a chapter yet that I like.
    Having, said that, your suggestion will work nicely for my WiP. My outline has the first part of the story taking place in Seattle and the second part taking place in Ireland, so different narrator for each part. Then, I have to figure out some way of getting the two parts to merge as our hero tries to save the heroine from what, he thinks, is a delusional character that likes to party too much. But, not everything is as it appears on the surface.
    I could use a good YA book and the Welsh-tinged sounds perfect as the big challenge is going to be writing an Irish dialect. Going to a library book sale tomorrow so maybe I can stock up on Catherine Fisher books.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks, Rand – it’ll be a while before my book is on any shelf but my own, but thank you! 🙂 Yep, from what I know about your WiP I definitely reckon changing narrators between chapters or sections would work really nicely.

      I hope you hit the Catherine Fisher jackpot at your library sale. Good luck with your Irish dialect work! Have you been to Ireland?

  4. Sam Seudo

    Thank you for yet another great post! I’ve been pondering whether I prefer writing in the 1st or 3rd person for the past week or so. Your points on the limitations of the 1st person voice are well-made. Personally, I do think I enjoy writing in the 1st person more, though. I find that I get more attached to my characters that way, because I’m truly writing things completely from their perspective. I think I struggle with depicting their emotional reactions to situations realistically, however, particularly when writing in the present tense. Doing a few writing exercises to help me start working on that is one of the many things on my to-do list at the moment! I’d be curious to hear what other people consider to be the pros and cons of the two respective voices…and of course I’m also curious to find out whether or not you ultimately decide to stick with your WiP!

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Hey! Yep, the first person is a bit of a pain, I think. I don’t think my WiP would work with any other style of narration, though, because the fact that my protagonist doesn’t know stuff is very important for her character. Having an omniscient voice letting the reader in on things she doesn’t know about would be a bit of a cop-out. But it’s hard, and if you’ve read my latest blog, you’ll know all about how I haven’t quite made it yet! It’s hard to balance her process of discovery with all the things she needs to know, without resorting to techniques like ‘letting her find a diary’ or ‘letting her overhear everything’. I haven’t cracked it – I may never crack it – but I’ll keep trying! 🙂


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