Sunday, November 7, 2010

These Are the Voices In My Head :: The Narrator

One of the reasons I like doing NaNoWriMo is that it gives me a sort of short-form method to explain the sort of decisions that lead from the initial kernel of an idea to a written story.

When I was a kid, my fabulous Great Aunt Cookie would periodically sweep into town like Mary Poppins and shower us with gifts.  On the surface -- as as far as my young mind could tell -- Aunt Cookie was the textbook maiden aunt.  She wore very proper hats and had exquisite taste* and smelled of lilacs..  it was almost as if she'd studied under the great maiden aunts of yore in an unbroken line from some ur-aunt in the depths of very stylish history.

In reality, she was also a very successful businesswoman and patron of the arts.

Because I was a kid, though, I knew her by her presents and one of the best presents she ever got us was a record player and a set of Disney storybooks that included read-along LP records.  My favorite was Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day.

(I warned you a long time ago I was ever so slightly nuts. 
It's not my fault if you don't take the tee shirt seriously.)

To this day, whenever a narrator speaks in a book, the voice I hear in my head is the clipped and oh-so-proper tones of Sebastian Cabot, the narrator of those records and the voice of Bagheera in The Jungle Book, another favorite of young Scottie.  Even in books where the narrator was silly, such as Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in my mind it is the faintly-disapproving voice of Mr. Cabot reading the part.

I wasn't very far into the preparations for Howard Carter Saves the World before I began to realize I was going to need to stand quite a bit further back from the characters than I normally do.

When I'm writing mysteries, suspense or thrillers, I usually stick to what some people call 'Limited Third Person' or 'Close Third' which means I'm writing in 3rd person, but I don't let the camera float around, but keep it following one or two characters. Furthermore, if they don't know it, the reader doesn't hear about it until the focus characters find it out. 

That's a great strategy for writing suspense.  It gives you some of the the immediacy of first-person without necessarily shackling you to viewing the whole story through your main character's eyes.  In my case, I tend to have two main characters, AJ MacLeod and Jordan Elias, so the camera follows them around more or less interchangeably as the story progresses.  The 'camera' sits just over his or her shoulder and sometimes pulls back to view the wide-angle shot.  You're not inside their head, but you don't get to see things they wouldn't notice.

Third person was never in question as the POV that would be right for the Howard Carter story.  The book is going to involve a lot of actions by characters and entities and robots and aliens, not all of which would become lead characters.  I was going to need an omniscient narrator to tell the reader what was going on in the secret government bunker, the mad scientist's lab, the boy genius' room... without that guide, I feared the reader would quickly get lost.

Thankfully, in the sort of semi-humorous science fiction I wanted to explore with the Howard Carter story, there's often a narrator actually setting things up for you à la Rod Serling in the Twilight Zone or interjecting and interfering in the story as Sebastian Cabot did in my Winnie the Pooh storybooks.

I've always liked finding humorous ways to tell stories and I always sort of liked the idea that the narrator didn't entirely approve of all of the characters in the story he was telling.  Sebastian Cabot was frequently beset by the demands of Tigger and this led to the self-deprecating narrative stylings of Jim Henson and then Douglas Adams and all of those bled into the works of Christopher Moore (that specialist in the art of the unreliable narrator) and Eoin Colfer.  All of which dovetailed nicely with the mission statement I gave my wife: "If Nick Adams was written by Douglas Adams..."

Until I made this decision, Howard Carter was just a kid with some robots.  A bundle of ideas but no real story.  Sometimes you have to settle on the storyteller before you can choose the tale.

And that's as close to a definition of my "literary voice" as you're likely to get.
*  Considering I was a bit of a puddle-splashing, rocks-in-his-pockets, frogs and pollywogs kind of Huck Finn of a boy, let reassure you by saying that this was the estimation of my sister and you should take her word for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).