In Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, the first-person narrator is not the one the events happened to. In fact, he happens upon the character of Marlow, who proceeds to tell the entire story of his seeking the elusive Kurtz. What’s interesting here is the story is about Kurtz’s moral corruption. Yet Kurtz’s story is told by Marlow because he’s an innocent who’s in for some major shocks when he finally discovers Kurtz. The impact then is to experience Marlow’s reaction to Kurtz, which is more powerful in first-person POV.
Then why the set-up of having Marlow tell a different first-person POV narrator the story? Why not just tell the story from Marlow’s POV and be done with it? Because we have the additional contrast of seeing right at the beginning of the story how much Marlowe has been changed by the events he’s about to tell us. This adds suspense about what he’s going to say. We can’t help but lean a little closer.
The same technique is used in the film, The Man Who Would Be King, based on a story by Rudyard Kipling. In the film, Kipling is visited by a hunched man in rags whose face is horribly scarred. Half-blind and barely able to walk, the man tells Kipling they are old friends. When Kipling realizes who it is, we see his horrified shock. Only a year ago this man stood before him a young, energetic, tough soldier. The story then is a flashback narrative of the man’s adventures with his pal Danny.
Both of these examples use a double first-person POV. The first narrator represents us, the audience, who will be shocked by what we hear. The second narrator–to whom the adventure actually happened–also represents the audience in that we identify with that character as we experience everything through their rational eyes. But both stories are really about the third character–Kurtz and Danny–who both get lost in their adventures, having abandoned rationality to passion. And because we already know the disastrous results of their adventures on their lives, we want to know what went wrong. This increases the stakes and therefore the audience’s involvement. It’s a tricky but highly effective narrative technique.
Another variation is to have a story told from several different first-person POVs. Each scene or chapter is still from the “I” POV, but it’s a different “I” each time. This allows the reader to maintain that confessional relationship, but now with more than one character. The advantage is that, because we share so many secret thoughts, the plot stakes are multiplied by the number of narrators. There’s more suspense about how whatever happens will affect all the narrators. The disadvantage is that our commitment to any one individual can be diluted, which lowers the emotional stakes.
One of the best recent examples of this approach is Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which employs five first-person narrators–a mother and her four
The trick to employing multiple viewpoint characters, first- or third-person, is to create a distinctive voice for each one. Look at how Barbara Kingsolver accomplishes this in just a few sentences as each character “introduces” herself to the reader:
Ada Price (the mother):
In the year of our Lord 1960 a monkey barreled through space in an American rocket; a Kennedy boy took the chair out from under a fatherly general named Ike; and the whole world turned on an axis called the Congo. The monkey sailed right overhead, and on a more earthly plane men in locked rooms bargained for the Congo’s treasure. But I was right there. Right on the head of that pin.
Ruth May Price:
Our village is going to have this many white people: me, Rachel, Leah, and Adah. Mama. Father. That is six people. Rachel is oldest, I am youngest. Leah and Adah are in
between and they’re twins, so maybe they are one person, but I think two, because Leah runs everywhere and climbs trees, but Adah can’t, she is bad on one whole side and doesn’t talk because she is brain-damaged and also hates us all. She reads books upside down. You are only supposed to hate the Devil, and love everybody else. My name is Ruth May and I hate the Devil. For the longest time I used to think my name was Sugar. Mama always says that. Sugar, come here a minute. Sugar, don’t do that.
Day one in the Congo, and here my brand-new tulip-tailored linen suit in Poison Green with square mother-of-pearl buttons was fixing to give up the goat. We had to sit so close to other people there wasn’t room to breathe, if you even wanted to, being in the position to contract every kind of a germ there was. Another thing we should have brought: Listerine. Forty-five percent fewer colds. A roar of voices and weird birds lombarded my ears and filled my head to the brink. I am sensitive to noise of any kind–that and the bright sunlight both give me tension headaches, but the sun at least by then had gone down.
And now we are here, with all these colorful treasures safely transported and stowed against necessity. Our stores are still intact, save for the Anacin tablets taken by our
mother and the thimbles lost down the latrine hole by Ruth May. But already our supplies from home seem to represent a bygone world: they stand out like bright party favors here in our Congolese house, set against a backdrop of mostly all mud-colored things. When I stare at them with the rainy-season light in my eyes and Congo grit in my teeth, I can hardly recollect the place where such items were commonplace, merely a yellow pencil, merely a green bottle of aspirin among so many other green bottles upon a high shelf.
When I finish reading a book from front to back, I read it back to front. It is a different book, back to front, and you can learn new things from it. It from things new learn can you and front to back book different a is it? You can agree or not, as you like. This is another way to read it, although I am told a normal brain will not grasp it. The
normal, I understand, can see words my way only if they are adequately poetic: Poor Dan is in a droop. My own name, as I am accustomed to think of it, is Ecirp Nelle Hada. Sometimes I write it this way without thinking, and people turn up startled. To them I am only Adah or, to my sisters sometimes, the drear monosyllabic Ade, lemonade, Band-Aid, frayed blockade, switchblade renegade, call a spade a spade.
Nothing but the Truth: Reliable & Unreliable Narrators
Once you’ve chosen among the narrative options discussed in this session, you have yet another decision to make: will your narrator be reliable or unreliable? It’s not as simple as deciding whether or not they’ll be honest. It’s more subtle than that. A narrator can be telling the truth–as he sees it–yet still not telling us what we see is really the truth. For example, Holden Caufield in The Catcher in the Rye tells us the way he sees the world. It’s the truth–but it’s his truth. His reality. The novel wants us to see that Holden doesn’t see the world accurately; that’s his whole problem. His vision of the world has been distorted by the unrealistic God-in-His-heaven Hollywood happy-ending vision of the world that he’s been raised on, and the harsh reality of an indifferent universe that allowed his innocent and loving younger brother to die of leukemia. In fact, the novel is Holden’s journey to a balance of these two “realities.”
The reason this novel is so effective is that it uses Holden’s humorous and compassionate first-person POV to make us like and care for him, while allowing us to see the contradictions in his observations that he can’t see. Not only do we care for him, but we worry over him because we can see why he is suffering–even if he can’t–and we know that he is heading for a great fall.
The unreliable narrator is a major device in literature. Joyce Carol Oates’ story, “Naked,” is about a woman on a jog who is attacked by a group of young children, stripped naked, and left to find her way home. But the story isn’t about the horror of the event—which would reduce it to merely a plot-driven story. Instead, Oates has taken a true-life incident (the “wilding” of the woman known as the Central Park Jogger) and looked for a truth beneath the incident itself.
Now, Oates could have focused the story on illuminating the evils of a society that produces such children, but that would have been obvious and preachy. Instead, the
incident is used as a vehicle to strip away the woman’s illusions and misperceptions about her own life, to eventually leave her “naked” of the rationalizations that have allowed her to hide her true self from herself.
The only way this story can convey this insight is by creating a character who throughout the story tells us about herself, only to have us realize that she has no idea who she really is. At one point she describes her own sobbing after the attack as at least not being hysterical, “for she was not a hysterically inclined woman; she was a woman who might quell hysteria in others.” But immediately after telling us this, she decides not to seek the help of two men who are jogging nearby. She decides to sneak home–naked—through several blocks of underbrush rather than have people think of her as less than competent. The reader realizes that she is imprisoned by how others might view her. Here are two passages from the story that illustrate how to show an unreliable narrator:
She was by nature and training an unfailingly friendly woman; she practiced friendliness as a musician practices an instrument, and with as unquestioned a devotion.
This excerpt tells us how little insight into herself this character has; to practice friendliness is not the same as actually being friendly, it is merely an imitation.
She had had her children after all as she’d determined to have them. She would not have had two children had she not wanted them, for one would have done. Two was incontestable proof.
This second excerpt is interesting because Oates didn’t have it in early drafts of the story; she added it later, obviously because she wanted to emphasize how far this woman would go to fit in. Her explanation of why she had two children–because now others would know for sure that she chose to have children–reveals just how deeply mired in denial she is.
These tips came from the course Fiction Writing 101: Fundamentals
Give voices and stories to the characters that fill your imagination. Whether your fantasies take the form of short stories or a novel, this workshop prepares you to write fiction. You will apply the techniques that generations of fiction writers have used to bring their characters and stories to life. You will also develop your individual style and creative expression.
You will work with a published fiction author to write and revise short stories or a novel chapter, up to 3,000 words total.
- How to develop believable characters and let them speak – and act – for themselves.
- How to set the stage, and make readers feel as if they are right there with your characters.
- The basics of plot – enough to tackle any kind of fiction project.
- The keys to successful revisions.