The aspect of writing fiction which is perhaps hardest to grasp when you are starting out, is that you have to choose someone to tell the story – and that person might not be you. In fact, it may well be easier if it isn’t.
I was walking in the mountains recently with a good friend who kindly let me rabbit on for far too long about my current struggles with voice and narrator and point of view, and after I’d exhausted both myself and, I suspect, her, she told me that as a reader, she’d never even noticed any of these things. Maybe there is more to writing, she mused, than just putting words on a page. Indeed.
Some writers have such a strong voice – it’s like a presence, I think, that no matter whose story they are telling, you the reader are always aware of who is in charge. Fay Weldon is one such writer, Nick Hornby another. For the rest of us mere mortals, whose voices are not out there (or at least not yet) the easiest way to start to tell the story is to let one (or more) of the characters do it for us. This has the added benefit of encouraging the reader to identify more closely with said character. However it can cause all sorts of problems too.
Firstly you can only ever show the bits of the action that your character is actually involved in. Anything else is “off stage” – and it can be difficult to fill that in without lots of horribly forced dialogue where people tell each other what the reader needs to know.
Secondly your character has to be strong enough to hold the readers’ attention throughout… I mean how many people do you like enough to sit and listen to for a couple of days, continuously? That’s what you are asking of your reader.
And which character is going to tell the story? I think this is where the genius of good writing lives – in that choice. Imagine if Sherlock Holmes had told his own stories. Or Poirot. Patronising, arrogant, would you have listened to them? But the patient, quiet, let’s face it, stupid sidekick? A perfect choice. It’s often far more effective to leave the main character to get on with it, and to choose a minor character for narration. In the process you might even find that minor character is far more interesting than you’d first imagined.
And then there is the genius of the unreliable narrator. This device can totally transform a fairly interesting plot into a fantastically interesting one. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is a masterful example as is blueeyedboy by Joanna Harris. There are others, but it would spoil the story to reveal them. Suffice to say that the shock of discovery at the end is incredibly satisfying.
Having wrestled with one narrator, several narrators, omniscient narrator (where the writer is like God, knowing all – think of Stephen King as the master), I’ve finally decided that Albatross will have an unreliable narrator. And having come to that decision, it immediately felt right. It makes sense (for now). So to press on…