I love reading up on different philosophies and approaches to character development. Some people roll them up like RPG characters, some people find pictures to use and then fill in the backstory. I’ve used tons of different methods depending on the story, but one of the characters that gets the least work – and needs the most attention – is the narrator.
Who’s telling this story, anyway?
Take a look at this paragraph:
“The town spread before them, a festering boil of humanity too calloused to burst and too painful to tolerate. The decaying bricks were being eaten by voracious plant life, an unforgiving and unrepentant vengeance of Nature attempting to cleanse the stain of Man from that corner of the world. The sickly light of the streetlamps cast an even sicker pallor on the passersby, a portent of what awaited them in the smoke-filled bars.”
Okay, now look at this one:
“The insects buzzed their songs of lust among the rich verdant streets, moss and lichen lending an ancient feel to this ancient city. The dance of Man and Nature adorned every wall and fence, with thick vines heavy with honeysuckle pointing the way towards a boisterous and welcoming neighborhood. Jazz music beckoning the passersby with joyous tones, promising comfort, joviality, and maybe a touch of forgetting to weary souls.”
They’re both describing the exact same scene in roughly the same amount of words, but the former is very dark and derisive while the latter is hopeful and loving. No action characters spoke, and yet we have a distinct tone with which we can now envision the scene. We know what kind of story to feel.
The narrator has a distinct attitude and a distinct perspective. The narrator knows more than he/she/it tells, and it can mean the difference between a crime scene and a mystery. The gender of the narrator counts, the dialect, the slang…
Oh, yes! Don’t think that slang is purely limited to your dialogue characters! Your narrator has a specialized word-bag, too!
The difference between the writer and the narrator
It’s easy to think that the narrator is just the writer’s voice, but I’ve seen that actually get in the way of actual writing. We are deeply concerned as writers with “finding our voice”, when in reality, it’s not about finding – it’s about deciding.
Samuel L Jackson is going to use a different turn of phrase when describing an action than Benedict Cumberbatch. Felicia Day will paint a very unique verbal picture from Helen Mirrin. None of them are going to sound anything like “you”.
Try this little experiment. Read something that someone else has written. Now, read out loud something that you have written. Word usage variation was noticeable, wasn’t it? Try this a few different ways with stories written from different perspectives – first, third, even second, if you can find it.
Now, try this: Narrate your life for a little while, and record it so that you can play it back later. Get your cohorts in on it and have them fill in their own dialogue. Have fun with it, stage scenes to act out, improvise, but most of all, observe how you put the words together. How are you deciding what to describe? In what order is the action taking place?
With this tidbit of insight, you’ll never have a problem “finding your voice” – although you may have a hard time picking the best one out of many.