1. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    The Impersonal Narrative Voice

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by arron89, Jun 26, 2009.

    I'm not entirely sure what I hope to achieve by posting this....maybe just to clarify this newly discovered concept for myself....but feel free to post your thoughts and we';; argue it out til we all get it :confused:

    In first person fiction, its often assumed that there has to be an indexical continuity between the narrating-I and the character being narrated. This assumption means that the narrator cannot possibly know the thoughts of other characters, for instance, and yet this often occurs in first person fiction (Moby Dick is the example provided in the account I read - in chapters 38-39, the narrator narrates the thoughts of several other characters, before returning to Ishmael in chapter 41, despite remaining in first person the whole time). Since we cannot simply write this phenomenon off as a mistake or a lapse in authorial skill, it is necessary to consider the possibility of a first person voice that is not the character referred to in the first person (the author proposes this third voice be called the Impersonal Narrative Voice, though notes that it has been more familiarly referred to as 'the spirit of storytelling, a "spirit" that is only able to be referred to in the third person, yet is capable of speaking as the first person).

    So, what are your thoughts on this? Do you think that this type of voice in fiction is something that could/should be more readily employed, or do you think that the binary of narrating-I/narrated-I should be upheld?
     
  2. Acglaphotis
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    Acglaphotis Contributing Member

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    It's just a narrative device. Things like 1st person are only as defined as you use them. If I wanted my character to read that guys mind for no reason with no explanation, it means just that. Most of the time the actual story won't have anything to do with it.
     
  3. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    It's not the same as reading a character's mind - the thoughts thought by the impersonal voice aren't known to the narrated-I, which is why the shift is necessary in the first place. It means the narrator becomes omniscient for a period (at least in that it can shift away from the protagonist, the narrated-I), which is often (on this site, and by many critics) either rejected as a mistake/innaccuracy, or simply not explained at all.
     
  4. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    Personally I would never use it. If I wanted to write omnipresent, I would write in third person.

    A first person omnipresent narrator doesn't make sense to me.
     
  5. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I must agree with archi... The fact that the example given is Melville doesn't keep the phenomenon you mention from being bad writing. He's basically changed from FP to TPO within the story and probably did so because he felt pinched and needed to get out of Ishmael's head to tell a part of the story. I wasn't there when he was putting quill to parchment so I can't tell you 100% for sure why he's done it, but that's what he has done.

    Since it's Melville we excuse what would not be excused in modern works. Kinda' the way we don't ask where Cain's wife came from because it's the Bible, but try that in any other book and see if the editor doesn't circle that passage with a red pen and write Wife? Where from? Plot hole!! next to it.
     
  6. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Don't you think its a little close-minded to claim that omniscience in first person is inexcusable? I mean, realism is just one of the huge number of stylistic choices available to an artist. So even though its not realistic to have an omniscient first person narrator (not that this is that simple...the omniscient voice is not a character, its simply an abstract voice, in the same way that the character's voice in first person is a dual voice of the writer and the character) it isn't wrong unless total realism was the aim.
     
  7. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    No one used the word inexcusable. A few people felt it was ill-advised. Turning mentions of the word excuse into the word inexcusable is a form of manipulation, a logical fallacy called equivocation.

    You asked for, and received opinions.
     
  8. RomanticRose
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    RomanticRose Active Member

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    In writing there are few inexcusable things, so long as you get away with it. Melville did.

    That being said, what Melville could get away with and what the average (or even above average) unpublished writer who aspires to traditional publication can get away with are often not even in the same universe.
     
  9. bluebell80
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    bluebell80 Contributing Member

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    I personally avoid doing that in FP. My MC can make an assumption about what another character is thinking, but then it falls into a possible fallacy of the MC, which can lead to conflict and tension between the characters, just as it does in real life.

    How often do we do that in real life? We assume someone is mad at us because they haven't returned our phone call, but the reality of the matter could be they were just too busy and forgot and it had nothing to do with us. How often do we assume what another person is thinking and then jump to the wrong conclusion, or sometimes the right conclusion. How often do we observe someone's behavior and make a character judgment about them based on not what they say, but what they do? It should be the same way in fiction.

    Fictional characters are based on our human understanding, whether they are alien or human. Thus their perspectives can and are often filled with wrong and correct assumptions.

    To jump out of a characters FP head and start talking as if it is fact that they know what some other character is thinking (without that character stating it or showing the behavior) would pull me out of the story. This is part of why I didn't like Moby Dick, though the other part is because it bored the ever living tears out of me.

    It isn't so much a matter of what you can or can't do as a writer, it is a matter of if the readers are going to want to read it should it be published. If you think you can pull it off and make a great story, then go ahead and write it. But if it is reviewed by editors or peers and they find it annoying, then you have failed in what you are aiming for, a publishable-readable-enjoyable story.

    I don't follow rules of writing. I write. Then I tear stuff apart like an editor would. Does pulling the view back from FP POV and making it into FP Omniscient POV really work for the story? Does it create tension by letting the reader in on something that the MC in FP doesn't know about? Or is it just a way to mimic TP POV without writing the entire story in TP POV?

    I personally wouldn't do it. Not because I couldn't, but because I don't want to read a story like that. It would be awkward and confusing to me as the reader.

    I don't write my character's voice in FP as a duel voice of my own and my character. I write as my character. Maybe it is from the acting training I've had, the ability to fully submerge myself in the character's mind and let the character's voice come through above my own.

    But, then again, you did ask for our opinions on rules made up by other writers. I say rules are made to be broken, but only if breaking the rules creates a more interesting piece of art. And like much else in life, a story is only worth something if someone else puts value in it. If we write a story that no one likes, then there is no value in it. As long as at least one person finds value in it, then it is worth something.
     
  10. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Close minded? Ouch. I'm many things, but rarely that.

    The omnicient first person you mention simply feels like a cheat to me, like an ace up the sleeve. The writing is going along swimmingly in the FP and then the writer comes up against a stumbling block and decides, "Ok, I was fine until now, so..... whatever with the rules of FP."

    I love breaking the rules both in my writing and in my reading. I'm sure the forum is going to boot me if I mention China Mieville once again, but... He breaks all kinds of rules in the blending of disparate genres and head hopping. I'm willing to not only accept these things but even enjoy them because, though this my break with convention, it doesn't break with logic.

    Asking me to accept that the FP narrator should know the inner machinations of another character's mind without having been told by the other person or without some explanation of ESP powers... No. This pushes me past what I personally can "buy" as the reader.

    It represents a break in logic that would make me close the book, Melville or no.
     
  11. Unit7
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    Unit7 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think I once wrote a story of sorts based on this. Then again the character was literally God so...
     
  12. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Maybe I didn't explain it well....
    The use of an impersonal narrative voice does not imply an omniscient character, its a tool used by the author to reveal things to the reader beyond the limitations of the character, the narrated-I.
    To provide another example, in Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis, the main character (in present tense) comments on a black limo that he did not notice. Given that it is in first person present tense, it cannot be explained by the character reflecting on the past, and there is no reason that the character would lie or be unreliable in his account, which means the only way left to explain it is the use of an impersonal narrative voice, a first person voice besides that of the character, the narrated-I.
    So while the impersonal narrative voice may be considered omniscience, it should not be assumed that the main character has become omniscient, instead that the author has chosen to shift the focalisation away from the character to reveal something important but beyond the comprehension of the MC.
     
  13. Hsnodgrass
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    Hsnodgrass Senior Member

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    As far as I'm concerned, all these perspective arguments are kind of useless. If your story is good it will be good, no matter if you change perspective like Melville did. Hence why the book ruled. The only inexcusable thing in writing is to write nothing. :D
     
  14. nativesodlier
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    nativesodlier Member

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    I personally like impersonal narrative. Douglas Adams only writes in this way and I read his books over and over again.
     
  15. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the only book by Adams I have on hand) is narrated in the 3rd person, which has parallels with the impersonal narrative voice in first person (which is what I've been talking about) but is not the same.
     
  16. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    What you're talking about is often called a reminiscent narrator. Whether in past or present tense, the action isn't occurring as if for the first time, but being related through the story teller after the fact, and that narrator-I can interject on his/her own story, since they're telling it.

    And I'll say it again, it has nothing to do with tense.

    I can't recall if this is the style of Moby Dick, or if it's just the sort of writing we see from that era where the writer himself can go on for paragraphs about anything they want, whether directly relevant to the story or not, simply because there wasn't as much expectation for convention as these days. Ishmael was a reminiscent narrator, as far as I remember though, telling us the story of what happened previously in his particular time-line (remember, it's not about tense, but time-line).

    It's like if you're recounting a fight you and your girlfriend had to a friend and say 'she thought I had been cheating, and was acting weird, and that's what started us arguing.' It doesn't mean you're suddenly omniscient, but adding in your own perceptions or stuff you learned after the fact to fill in the action. You're not suddenly psychic or omniscient, though, unless you knew her thoughts and motivations for a fact while the action was first occurring.
     
  17. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I don't know if you've read Moby Dick, but the section this discussion was originally concerning was a section that was entirely beyond the experience of the narrated character (Ishmael), things that he would not have necessarily known then or after the fact. There really can be no denying that in order for the narrative to be consistent a narrating figure separate from (though sometimes embodied by) Ishmael is required. The problem is more complex in contemporary fiction, such as in Bret Easton Ellis' Glamorama, where the narration (in first person present tense) focuses on events, characters, etc that are specifically beyond the experience of the narrated character.

    The notion of the reminiscent narrator explains similar phenomena in fiction, but I don't believe it explains either of these instance sufficiently or that it can be used interchangeably with what I've referred to as the Impersonal Narrative Voice.
     
  18. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think the right author can make any narrative form work in a fascinating and riveting form.

    It has similarities to the style Mist Over Pendle which is my favourite book. I think lol haven't read it in a few months.

    If it is well done to be honest the narrative form of the book should be the last thing a reader remembers.
     
  19. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I disagree with this, though, because it works in Moby Dick. It isn't awkward or weird or anything like that. At least it wasn't to me as a reader. I think beginning writers (or maybe all writers that engage in the sort of critique and commentary that goes on here) get too fixated on "Rules," which are in fact guidelines.

    If you want to be in first person POV and then hop out of it, it's fine so long as you can do it effectively. I read a Virginia Woolf story where POV changes in mid-paragraph, but does so effortlessly and effectively (and supposedly that's a no-no).

    I've read a few modern published novels where the POV switches from first person to third, and they were fine as well.

    It all boils down to how effectively you can employ a device.
     
  20. AnonyMouse
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    AnonyMouse Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think Wreybies was correct in saying this approach does not make logical sense. It has nothing to do with 'rulebreaking' or being 'close-minded.' I've never read Moby Dick, but I have read this thread and tried to wrap my head around why someone would employ this "Impersonal Narrative Voice" and simply can't see a legitimate reason.

    Again, I've never read Moby Dick or Glamorama but it seems to me the authors have leapt from first person narration to third person omniscient and, for whatever reason, kept the "I." In first person narration, the narrator is incapable of commenting on something he does not know about. There's just no way around this, unless he suddenly becomes omniscient for a moment or an alternate narrator steps in to fill in what he doesn't know.

    It's not impossible to transition from FP POV to TP POV smoothly, but this "impersonal narrative voice" does not sound like a change of narrator at all. It sounds more like the narrator becomes omniscient for a brief period, allowing the author to interject a stray factoid s/he could not have otherwise mentioned, then goes back to being a 'regular' narrator, as if we weren't supposed to notice the logical fallacy of a narrator commenting on what he could not have known about.

    If someone could clarify, I would appreciate that. Otherwise, it sounds like glorified headhopping or deification to me.
     
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  21. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I don't think that's what happens in Moby Dick - at least as I recall it. Someone can correct me if I'm wrong. From what I remember, Melville simply stops narrating from the POV of Ishamael and spends a little time narrating from the POV of other characters. Ishmael doesn't become omniscient.
     
  22. AnonyMouse
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    AnonyMouse Contributing Member Contributor

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    Ah, I see. Well, if that's the case, he's simply switching from one FP narrator to another. Nothing groundbreaking there. If done in a manner that shows consideration (i.e. don't arbitrarily 'headhop' because you've written yourself into a corner) it can work very well. :)
     
  23. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I'm pretty sure that's what happened. He moves from Ishmael to Starbuck, and then to another crew member, kind of on the eve of one of the more dramatic points of the story, where each character is lost in his own thoughts. Then returns to Ishmael when the action starts to move forward.

    But it has been a while since I read it.
     
  24. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    It's actually very straight-forward. Chapter 38 (which is about one page long), is entitled "Dusk" and includes a sub-heading, "By the mainmast, Starbuck leaning against it". Chapter 39 (less than a full page) is entitled "First Night Watch" and then "Fore top; Stubb mending a brace". Chapter 40 is "Midnight, Forecastle" and by this time reads more like a play, with Melville first giving us the POV of various harpooners and sailors, then specific sailors (First Nantucket Sailor, 2nd Nantucket Sailor, Dutch Sailor, etc), each with a separate subsection of the chapter.

    It is extremely easy to follow, and quite clear that Melville, having started with 1st person, decided to simply move the POV around as a dramatic device to build tension before the action starts. And thanks to his sub-headings, there is no confusion at all about who is telling his part of the tale.
     
  25. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Thanks, Ed. I forgot about the subheadings. You're right, there is nothing confusing or strange about it in the reading. In fact, I think it is quite effective.
     

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