The Skill List Project: The Raconteur Viewpoint

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time around, we talked about Avoiding Viewpoint Mistakes. This time we’ll look at one of my favorite viewpoints, but one that definitely requires skill: the viewpoint of narrators who win over readers by their raconteur abilities rather than a tight emotional connection with the plot.

Raconteurs

Unlike other viewpoints, raconteurs overtly acknowledge the reader. For example, a first-person raconteur often talks directly to the reader; if background information must be explained, the raconteur may say, “Now you have to understand how this works,” rather than trying to slide in the details through sleight-of-hand. Contrast this direct acknowledgement with a different sort of first-person narrator who delivers the story like a diary: writing up the events with no sense of addressing a listener.

Similarly, a third-person raconteur is performing, like a storyteller sitting in front of an audience. By contrast, a non-raconteur aims to sound like an impersonal historian—just laying out the actions, perceptions, and thoughts of the characters within the story.

There doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing separation between the raconteur and non-raconteur approaches—a spectrum exists between the extremes. But the middle range of the spectrum is sparsely occupied; in any given story, the writer usually acknowledges the reader or doesn’t.

When I talk about acknowledging the reader, I don’t mean going meta (where the narrator steps outside the story to comment on it as a work of fiction). I’m talking about narrators who maintain the illusion that they’re describing true events, but who do so with their eyes turned outward: actively addressing the reader instead of pretending that this is some disembodied recitation of facts. (If you think about it, non-raconteur narratives are decidedly odd—the stories are told with no sense of a teller and no sense of a listener…weirdly dehumanized. What does it say about our culture that this is the most common mode of storytelling, and that it’s often considered more “mature” than the raconteur approach?)

First-Person Raconteurs

A first-person raconteur directly tells his or her story to the reader. Historical examples include much of Mark Twain’s writing (especially the stories told in dialect), many hard-boiled detective stories (e.g. the Philip Marlowe books by Raymond Chandler), and romances like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (“Reader, I married him”). My favorite modern examples include the Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher, N. K. Jemisin’s “Inheritance” novels, and a host of urban fantasies (often narrated in the first-person by a sharp-tongued young woman who’s equal parts kickass and klutzy).

What skills do you need in order to write from this viewpoint? The most important is the ability to walk the line between “charismatic” and “annoying”. The narrator’s tone of voice must be distinctive enough to engage the reader’s attention, without becoming too intrusive or distracting. It’s especially important for the voice not to get in the way of the story. For example, you typically have to tone down the quirkiness in moments of high excitement, so that idiosyncratic words and phrases don’t keep the reader from gobbling up the action.

At best, there’s a constant interplay between the narrator’s personality and the content of the story: they play off each other, the way that a comedian’s delivery plays off the material and vice versa. When you do it right, the personalized quality of the voice heightens the effects of the action, rather than taking away from it. Readers feel the effects of the action more deeply because of the storyteller’s distinctive charms. The reader enjoys spending time with the narrator and cares about the narrator’s fate.

Third-Person Raconteurs

Third-person raconteurs allow themselves to speak from the so-called “omniscient” viewpoint. A useful historical example is Bleak House by Charles Dickens, because the novel alternates between first-person sections (written by the heroine, Esther Summerson) and third-person sections where Dickens revels in snarky editorializing excess. The contrast between the two different voices highlights how much difference viewpoint makes. In modern SF, Terry Pratchett and Susanna Clarke often do the same: some sections of their books use conventional third-person narration, but others consist of “the author” directly addressing the reader in editorial fashion.

I put quotes around “the author” in the previous sentence because the narrative voice is actually a constructed persona adopted by the author for the purposes of the story. This is obvious in Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell where the author writes as if she’s from the Nineteenth Century herself. (She’s apparently a scholar of magic who’s compiling a history several years after the events described in the book.) Pratchett’s persona is usually that of an avuncular storyteller who throws in jokes to amuse himself…but he feels free to editorialize directly when the mood strikes him. His persona remains in character, never directly speaking about our real Twenty-First Century world; however, Pratchett’s persona is far more knowing than any of his Discworld characters, and he has no qualms about acknowledging the eccentric nature of the world and its people.

As it happens, I’m currently writing a book that uses this kind of narration: third-person “omniscient” with a direct authorial voice. I’ve pondered long and hard about how to make it work, especially because such a voice is relatively rare in modern SF (Clarke and Pratchett notwithstanding). It’s easy to say, “You have to create a charismatic persona,” but how exactly do you do that? How do you find the sweet spot between too bland and too over-the-top? At what point does “winsome” turn into “obnoxious”?

I’ve answered these questions for myself with a multi-prong approach:

  1. Initially, damn the torpedoes. I’d rather go too far than pussyfoot around. In the place where I write, I’ve hung a sign saying Exuberance! Ebullience! Audacity! In other words, I’m going long on personality…at least for the first draft. Restraint can wait.
  2. In revisions, I dial back whatever I think is too much. If there are places where the narrative voice gets in the way of the story, I tone it down and simplify.
  3. When the book is done, I will (as usual) send it out to several friends to get their feedback. I rely on them to smack me around if there are still places where the voice is too excessive.

Ultimately, of course, I’ll have to trust my artistic instincts. Good feedback is wonderful, but it’s no substitute for making your own decisions. Art is a mysterious numinous thing, and “Does it work?” is a question with no easy answers. (The real question is actually, “Does it work for enough people to make the book worthwhile?” No writing style appeals to everyone; the goal is to find a style that touches a sufficient number of readers deeply enough that the book wasn’t a waste of time—your time and everyone else’s.)

Okay, Moving On

That’s it; we’re finished with viewpoint. Next month, after almost a year on this project, we’ll move on to the first thing people think of when they think of writing fiction: plot. In the meantime, let’s hear your comments!

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  1. 1. Elias McClellan

    First person is the tone that scares me the most. Robert B. Parker walked all over this line. Mostly charasmatic, he regularly slipped into condescending and deminished the story with his over-wrought wit. This is what I believe, (in my ignorance) to be a failure of editor over ego. Course it’s hard to argue with success. Or so I’m told.

    Third person omniscient is almost as scary for the intense control, the author must have to keep the train of thought from flying off the rails of reason. What my writing group is fighting right now, is a third person omniscient AND an unreliable chief protagonist/narrator. We insist (counter to the author’s assertion) that this does NOT work.

    Even when done well, (supposedly) a la “Catcher In The Rye,” the unreliable narrator honks me off. What’s your opinion of the unreliable narrator/reconteur in any tone/person?

  2. 2. James Alan Gradner

    Oh hey, I’m all about the unreliable narrator. In one way or another, all my narrators are blind to various facets of their lives and are therefore incapable of giving unbiased accounts of what’s going on.

    But isn’t that true of everybody? We all have our blind spots. Furthermore, those spots tend to be the most crucial parts of our lives: our biggest hang-ups, our most hidden pains, the places where we can’t face the truth. You can get a lot of mileage out of narrators who start off in denial about something (and are therefore unreliable) but who gradually get over their own crap.

    The trick is to make sure readers know where the narrators are lying to themselves. But I seldom find that difficult — human beings are quite sensitive to noticing when others are in denial, so readers catch on quickly. Then it’s all fun and games! —Jim

  3. 3. Charlie Stross

    Hey, what’s with the lack of love for SECOND person narrative? It’s really great — once you learn to avoid telling the reader what emotions they’re feeling (which damages suspension of disbelief) it turns out to be a really neat way of doing the equivalent of first person, but with an omniscient over-the-shoulder and behind-the-head coverage so that you can depict what’s going on around the focal viewpoint character.

    (I’ve done two second person novels in the recent past, both reasonably successful.)

  4. 4. James Alan Gardner

    As it turns out, Charlie, I just finished reading “Rule 34″ last night. Great book, and definitely raconteur-ish. Since I’ve never done second-person myself, I don’t have anything authoritative to say about it…but I’d love to hear you hold forth on it if you have more to say. —Jim

  5. 5. Elias McClellan

    @ Charlie Stross, pardon my ignorance but isn’t that the “you go to a bar where no one knows your name,” narrative? I think I’m getting hives.

  6. 6. James Alan Gradner

    Since Charlie hasn’t answered Elias’s question, yes, it’s “So you walk into a bar. You check out the customers…”

    The technique is used very rarely, so it draws attention to itself and may disconcert some readers; I wouldn’t recommend it for any writer’s first novel. But personally, I like the in-your-face feel of it (just as I like in-your-face narrators in general). The voice is perfect for a certain type of novel. Check out Charlie’s “Rule 34″ and see if it works for you. —Jim

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Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.

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