Saturday, January 28, 2017

To Thine Own Selves, Be True

To whom does the narrator speak in a novel?

This question may be overlooked by the author when composing early drafts, but it must ultimately be answered. Beginning with the general assumption that narration represents a character who is usually the primary protagonist, the answer to the question needs to consider if there are to be any other supportive voices, providing a method known as multiple point of view.

Romeo is the driving force of Romeo and Juliet. Without Romeo's precipitating action of crashing the Capulet party, there'd be no story.

The multiple point of view is your favorite approach. You find exemplary uses of it in the novels of the mystery/suspense author, Robert Crais, who has a series protagonist, Elvis Cole, you quiet admire, often because he has so many qualities you dislike. Crais is as good in using surprising details to elaborate Cole as Dickens is in Dickens' use of small details to bring his minor characters to life. 

In the Crais novels, there are other well-defined individuals, but the stories are clearly built around Cole. As a result, even when Cole is off stage, you find yourself wondering not only what he's doing but what he's thinking.

One important matter informs your regard of the use of point of view as the vehicle for relating the story. Dashiell Hammett, a writer whose work you much admire and continue to learn from, began his career as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency, private security and investigative operatives. One of Hammett's recurrent narrators, who works for the fictional Continental Detective Agency and is known only as The Continental Op, has a built-in reason for being a narrator: each of his stories is intended to be a report to a client.

You often amuse and confound yourself to the point of frustration by questioning in your own work and the works of other writers the reason for the story being told in the first place. Yes, the storyteller wishes an audience. Yes, you aspire to a readership. But there is always some point in your own composition or reading when you ask yourself why this particular protagonist is telling his or her particular story.

The narrator of Poe's short story, "The Cask of Amontillado," tells the story to impress his audience with the brilliance of his plan and the effectiveness of the revenge he sought. He is, in your view of the story, every bit as imprisoned by it as Fortunate, his victim. Thus Poe is demonstrating a dramatic version of irony, which is instructive and entertaining.

Frank Chambers, the narrator of James M. Cain's novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, is telling his story because it is at once an apologia for his having gone beyond the boundary of morality with Cora, and a cautionary tale about allowing one's self to become fixated on the outcome to the point of breaking laws.

More often than not, the writer is directing the characters to address one another rather than the audience. For your part in the bargain, you tend to enjoy and get more out of reading and composing where your takeaway is of feeling like an eavesdropper, bringing as much or more insight to what you've witnessed than the characters, themselves.

The narrator is, accordingly, talking to the two essential parts of his or her being, observing with each as it argues with, learns from, and accommodates with the other.

Your definition of an ending for a narrative is some form of negotiated settlement with reality. In that same spirit, you look at a narrative point of view as an articulated and acted-upon conversation between the desires of the character and the perception of how the character accommodates those wishes.

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