“An honest man is always a child.”
This quote is attributed to the Greek philosopher Socrates, who also is credited with saying, “I know that I know nothing.” We are going to conveniently ignore that second quote because a) to put it in the vernacular: He’s Socrates; if he knows nothing, dude, where does that leave the rest of us?; and b) the first quote fits the topic of my last post: Why do readers trust a child narrator?
There’s another saying which can’t be attributed to anyone in particular, and that is that children are honest. Children tell the truth. Children don’t lie. Okay, that’s three sayings, but they claim the same thing and, pardon my French, all three are horse merde.
Children lie all the time, and they are not even good at it. A child will swear he did not give the dog his vegetables–while Rover is rolling a Brussels sprout across the floor. A child will open his eyes wide and promise he did not steal his sister’s Easter candy, while his mouth is smeared with the mangled remains of Little Sister’s chocolate bunny.
Children lie—except when they are the narrators of a book.
Last post, I shared a short list of books narrated by young characters. Most of them were Southern, reflecting my personal reading tastes. As you can see from the comments, non-Southern child narrators are popular, too. I’ve been Google-searching “child narrators” and reading about their appeal. The consensus is this: stories narrated by children are popular because readers relate to them, since everyone has been a child; and readers trust a child narrator, for the same reason. It’s a given that while real-life children will lie in their teeth about certain things, they are pure and innocent when telling stories.
Let’s work with that. What makes a good narrator? What qualities should a writer inject into the character given the task of telling the story?
This is a big topic, so I’m going to strip it down to some basics. I’ll even use an acronym. What does a writer need to GIVE a narrator to make him/her work?
GUIDANCE – The narrator is the guide of the story. He takes the reader by the hand, pulls them in, strings them along, pushes them forward, dangles them over the cliff, denouements them at the end. An author decides what kind of guide the narrator will be: Is this a solo gig? Or will there be several different narrator making a team effort? If so, how do they work with one another? Is this guide going to be straightforward and unbiased—the man behind the curtain who directs the action but never addresses the reader? Or, is this a personal journey that will allow the guide to address the reader more intimately? Is the guide going to jump around in time and space, starting with “I’m in this place and what follows is how I got here” as the impetus to share the story that is, in fact, already over? Deciding how the story will be told in terms of structure, who will tell it and in which point of view are primary decisions for GUIDANCE.
INTEGRITY – Narrators don’t have to tell the truth. They can tell the truth as they see it, as an unbiased witness to the events of the story. They can tell the truth as they perceive it, which means interpreting events to support a personal truth. They can also lie, to support their own personal agendas. Just because the narrator is telling the story doesn’t mean they are telling the true or whole story. It’s up to the reader to comprehend what the narrator is really saying. This is the fun of reading. All those words on the page—they say one thing, but they may mean another, or more, or less. So what does this have to do with INTEGRITY? Simply put, a narrator can purposefully lie to or deceive the reader, but they will not purposefully lie to or deceive themselves. Narrators can be deluded, or unreliable, or mistaken, but they don’t mislead themselves. Hence, a narrator is always true to the truth as they know it. For example, when Scout Finch tells us that Dill arrives in Maycomb in a blaze of glory, she’s telling the truth as she sees it. The reader perceives that Dill gets shuffled around from relative to relative, but Scout relays his train rides as a glamorous experience. Does this erode her integrity as a narrator? No. She is telling what she knows to be the truth. It’s up to the reader to see beyond her years and understand more.
VOICE – Narrative voice is more than language and sound and semantics; it is how the narrator delivers the story to the reader’s ear. It is the most esoteric part of GIVE, and so the most complicated. Not only does the narrator say what they say, how they say it says a great deal about them. A person from the South speaks differently than a person from the Midwest. A middle-age man who graduated from Princeton won’t speak the same narrative language as an elderly, unemployed woman who grew up on a chicken farm in Waco, Texas, or a young drug-addled runaway from Seattle. A narrator’s voice reflects both their past and current life situations. But that is only one aspect of VOICE. Another is tone. Is the narrator looking at the story through the lens of humor, even when the events are not necessarily funny? Is the narrator long-winded? Does s/he like to employ meandering sentences and long descriptions of scenery, or does s/he keep things spare? These are authorial decisions that are sometimes made before there is even a story. How many times do you read that an author heard the VOICE before they heard the story? If this happens to you, consider yourself lucky–and listen to the voice.
EMPATHY – Not long ago, I read a novel narrated by a guy I hated. He whined. He lied. He was disgustingly narcissistic. He made excuses for destroying the lives around him. He was despicable in every sense of the word—and he was not even the criminal in the story! He was also completely fascinating and, though I was appalled by it, he made me understand why he felt as he did. It didn’t make me hate him any less, but it did make me admire the writer for achieving that. EMPATHY means that the narrator makes a connection with the reader. It doesn’t mean the reader approves of or understands the narrator; it means the reader is engaged by the narrator’s story. Isn’t that the ultimate goal of a story? To connect with a reader? Creating EMPATHY is achieved by writing a narrator who is complete and full as a character, first, and then who performs his/her job of storytelling, second.
GIVE: GUIDANCE, INTEGRITY, VOICE, EMPATHY. These are the qualities I consider when I choose a narrator.
What are yours? What do you give your narrators? Tell me about it.
*Not really, but I thought it was catchy, so thanks to Flannery O’Connor. Talk about a great narrator. *shivers*