On Voice Or The Who Who Tells The Tale


As you read this book, you no doubt get a strong impression of its author. You are aware, I hope, that this book was not written by a machine. A personality is coming through the writing. You have probably noticed the narrator's sense of humor and strong opinions.

You may believe that the "I" of the narrator and the "I" of the author, James N. Frey, are one. Not so. The "I" of the narrator is not the "I" of James N. Frey. When James N. Frey sits down to write, he takes on a persona and it is this persona that is the "I" of the narrator. It is an idealized projection ofJames N. Frey, not James N. Frey the real person. The narrator's persona is full of ebullient optimism. The real James N. Frey has days when he's down. Days when he doesn't listen to his own best advice. Days when he feels like throwing up all over his keyboard because the words just won't flow. But the narrator of this book never has moods like that. The narrator of this book is irrepressibly optimistic, upbeat, cheerful, and sure of himself to the point of cockiness.

This does not mean that the real James N. Frey doesn't believe everything in this book. He believes every single word. But just like everyone else, James N. Frey has better days and worse days: He's sometimes cranky, sometimes worried about the national debt, sometimes just can't get his fingers to dance across the keyboard.

The narrator just sails along, always higher than a kite caught in the jet stream.

So even when I, the real James N. Frey, am depressed because my goldfish croaked, I don't let my depression show through the voice of the narrator. I put on my persona and whack away at the keys, a smile on my lips, a twinkle in my eye.

There are other narrative voices in my repertoire of voices I could use.

As an example, when I was a graduate student in English literature I wrote nonfiction with another voice, a scholarly voice. What follows is from a paper I wrote entitled (groan) "Hermeneu-tics and the Classical Tradition":

It is the purpose of this paper to compare the approaches to criticism of Alexander Pope and E. D. Hirsch, Jr. Pope, the Augustan, is perhaps the ultimate neoclassical theoretician and practitioner; Hirsch is an American professor of hermeneutics, schooled by and immersed in that twentieth-century German philosophy known as phenomenology. The dichotomies, parallels and points of departure noted below are only suggestive and are not exhaustive. Hopefully, the picture that emerges will support the thesis that the core of Pope's neoclassical theory of criticism survives in Hirsch's her-meneutics: specifically, the concepts of authorial intent, poetry as an act of consciousness, and genre as central to the poet's art. The focus of this discussion will be within the framework of the "poetry as imitation:" versus the "poetry as romantic expression" controversy which has been with us since the dawn of literary criticism, and will no doubt be there at its dusk ...

Note how pompous the narrator sounds. Words like dichotomies and romantic expression give the paper a scholarly tone. The selectivity of the words and phrases creates the narrative voice. A scholar would never use damn good, as an example, just as the breezy, friendly voice of this book would never use a mouthful like her-meneutics.


A strong narrative voice creates a feeling in the reader that the writer knows what he or she is talking about. It creates trust. It lets the reader relax the critical faculty and go with the flow of the words. In nonfiction, a strong narrative voice is created by tone and a command of facts. In fiction, a strong narrative voice is created by tone and a command of detail.

Here's an example of a weak narrative voice in nonfiction:

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area is very pleasant. The weather is good and the air is clean. You can go sailing on the bay year round. There are many fine restaurants and interesting places to go, both for the tourists and the residents.

Because the selected words are generalized, gaseous, and bland, the reader senses that the narrator either doesn't really know his subject or he's mentally incompetent or both. Let's try it with a stronger voice:

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area is a hoot. You can watch the tourists burn money at Fisherman's Wharf, Pier 39, and boutiques downtown where a ten-dollar hat sells for $99.95. You can watch them pay five bucks for a ten-cent trinket in Chinatown that was probably made in Mexico. The people who live here never go to such places, not when there's a beautiful emerald green bay foaming with whitecaps waiting to be sailed, and all those shadowed hiking trails among the ageless, regal, silent sequoias less than twenty miles north.

This has a lot more life in it—more personality. A phrase like "is a hoot" gives the piece a bit of spice. Specific details of the "emerald green bay foaming with whitecaps" is a concrete image that creates a sense of place. We can see the bay and the boats, feel the regalness of the "silent" sequoias.

Harold was a good worker and a good husband. He dressed well and loved to go hiking on the weekends. His wife liked to go with him, but they usually left the children at home. When they hiked together they loved to talk about the future.

The voice is bland and the details are all gaseous generalities like "good worker," "good husband," and "liked to go hiking." The reader gets the feeling that the person writing this does not have much to say. Here's how it might be strengthened by making the details more concrete and specific:

Harold busted his hump six days a week at Kensington Machine Shop drilling holes in custom-made bathroom fixtures. When not on the job, he dressed as nattily as he could: sharkskin suits, alligator shoes, silk shirts. Sundays, he'd go hiking with his wife, Jewel, and they'd talk about how he was going to bust out one of these days, say adios to the machinist trade and go to Hollywood and become a special-effects man, like his idol William B. Gates III.

Here the narrative voice has personality to it. Expressions like "busted his hump" give some color to the narrative. So does "nattily," which is not only descriptive of the character, but creates the impression that the narrator has a personality.

Here is perhaps a better example of a strong narrative voice in fiction:

Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin—that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils, and mittens against hot Georgia suns.

Notice how concrete and specific the details are; this creates the feeling that the voice is sure-footed. The narrator is showing not only what Scarlett looks like, but is also revealing her genetic makeup and the attitudes of Southerners. The voice is impersonal, a reporter's voice, giving no judgments or opinions, but rather stating the facts. But its tone is slightly melodramatic, almost heroic: an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw, which is appropriate for the melodramatic story. This is a narrator clearly in control of her material with a lot to say.

Stephen King uses just such a narrator in portions of Carrie:

Momma was a very big woman, and she always wore a hat. Lately her legs had begun to swell, and her feet always seemed on the point of overflowing her shoes. She wore a black cloth coat with a black fur collar. Her eyes were blue and magnified behind rimless bifocals. She always carried a large black satchel purse and in it was her change purse, her billfold (both black), a large King James Bible (also black) with her name stamped on the front in gold, and a stack of tracts secured with a rubber band. The tracts were usually orange, and smearily printed.

The writing here has wonderful details: her feet always seemed on the point of overflowing her shoes ... her name stamped on the front with gold.

You may have heard that good fiction is written with the "author invisible," which means that the narrator can be Godlike, but should not come through, that the voice should be neutral. This is not only a pseudo-rule, it is bad advice, which is very often given to beginning writers. In fact, I gave it myself in How to Write a Damn Good Novel. The author (narrator) should not be invisible. Anything but. Macauley and Lanning in Technique in Fiction (1987) put it this way: "The narrator as agent has a habit of defying the author's plans and taking on a definite personality of his own. And in the best fiction, so he should." Yes, so he should.

Dostoevsky's narrative voice in Crime and Punishment lets the personality of the narrator burst through. Here's how he describes his protagonist, Raskolnikov:

His clothes were so miserable that anyone else might have scrupled to go out in such rags during the day time. This quarter of the city, indeed, was not particular as to dress. In the neighborhood of the Sennaya or Hay-market, in those streets in the heart of St. Petersburg, occupied by the artisan classes, no vagaries in costume call forth the least surprise. Besides the young man's fierce disdain had reached such a pitch, that, notwithstanding his extreme sensitiveness he felt no shame at exhibiting his tattered garments in the street. He would have felt differently had he come across anyone he knew, any of the old friends whom he usually avoided. Yet he stopped short on hearing the attention of a passer-by directed to him by the thick voice of a tipsy man shouting: "Eh, look at the 'German hatter!' " The young man snatched off his hat and began to examine it. It was a high-crowned hat that had originally been bought at Zimmermann's, but had become worn and rusty, was covered with dents and stains, slit and short of a brim, a frightful object in short. Yet its owner, far from feeling his vanity wounded, was suffering rather from anxiety than humiliation.

Although the narrator certainly has Godlike omniscience in that he knows everything about the character and the city, the narrator's personality is shining through in his sympathetic portrayal of his protagonist's feelings: He felt no shame ... He would have felt differently had he come across anyone he knew ... far from feeling his vanity wounded ... This novel is being written as if the author knew the man personally and cared deeply for him.

A little later, after the protagonist's first encounter with the woman pawnbroker, Raskolnikov is shocked by his murderous thoughts. He finds them loathsome and disgusting and goes into a filthy bar and has a drink:

He felt instantly relieved and his brain began to clear. "How absurd I have been!" said he to himself,

"there was really nothing to make me uneasy! It was simply physical!" Yet in spite of this disdainful conclusion, his face brightened as if he had been suddenly relieved from a terrible weight, and he cast a sociable glance around the room ...

It is the narrator who sees the conclusion he comes to as "disdainful." The narrator, in other words, is given to making judgments on the character, and is hardly "invisible."

Neither is the narrator of Pride and Prejudice:

Mr. Bingley had soon made himself acquainted with all the principal people in the room; he was lively and unreserved, danced every dance, was angry that the ball closed so early, and talked of giving himself one at Neth-erfield. Such amiable qualities must speak for themselves. What a contrast between him and his friend! Mr. Darcy danced only once with Mrs. Hurst and once with Miss Bingley, declined being introduced to any other lady, and spent the rest of the evening in walking about the room ...

That What a contrast between him and his friend! is the narrator's interpretation of things, giving judgments, editorializing. Invisible? Hardly.

Tom Wolfe's narrator in The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) isn't invisible either:

... Sherman McCoy was kneeling in his front hall trying to put a leash on a dachshund. The floor was a deep green marble, and it went on and on. It led to a five-foot-wide walnut staircase that swept up in a sumptuous curve to the floor above. It was the sort of apartment the mere thought of which ignites flames of greed and cov-etousness under people all over New York and, for that matter, all over the world. But Sherman burned only with the urge to get out of this fabulous spread of his for thirty minutes.

The tone of course is satiric, but clearly the narrator's personality is shining through, giving you his slant on things: ignites flames of greed and covetousness.

Kurt Vonnegut's narrator in Breakfast of Champions is not only not invisible—he's downright opinionated:

This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.

One of them was a science-fiction writer named Kilgore Trout. He was a nobody at the time, and he supposed his life was over. He was mistaken. As a consequence of the meeting, he became one of the most beloved and respected human beings in history.

The man he met was an automobile dealer, a Pontiac dealer named Dwayne Hoover. Dwayne Hoover was on the brink of going insane.

The narrator who is not invisible can evoke a certain mood of gravity by the use of voice alone. Take Clive Barker's narrator in Weave-world:

Nothing ever begins.

There is no first moment; no single word or place from which this or any other story springs.

The threads can always be traced back to some earlier tale, and to the tales that preceded that; though as the narrator's voice recedes the connections will seem to grow more tenuous, for each age will want the tale told as if it were of its own making.

Thus the pagan will be sanctified, the tragic become laughable; great lovers will stoop to sentiment, and demons dwindle to clockwork toys ...

Notice how the narrative voice has created a sense that the story that is about to be told is an ageless one, momentous, mythic.

However, the author as commentator of his own work can go too far. As Macauley and Lanning say in Technique in Fiction, "The modern employment of ... (the author invisible narrator) came from a revulsion against the habit eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers had of interrupting. It is called an 'authorial intru sion' and it comes when the author in his own person drops in for a chat with the reader."

John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, his deliberate twentieth-century version of a nineteenth-century novel, is illustrative:

... Sam, at that moment, was thinking the very opposite; how many things his de facto Eve did understand. It is difficult to imagine today the enormous difference then separating a lad born in the Seven Dials and a carter's daughter from a remote East Devon village. Their coming together was fraught with almost as many obstacles as if he had been an Eskimo and she, a Zulu. They had barely a common language, so often did they not understand what the other had just said.

It does sound as if the author had stopped by for a chat, doesn't it?

Authorial intrusion can get out of hand. One way is what William C. Knott in The Craft of Fiction calls "Author's Big Mouth." Authorial intrusion is overdone when it becomes a commentary on the events or is used as blatant foreshadowing, such as the author giving away what's ahead, like:

Freddy left, slamming the door behind him, got into his car, and drove off down the road toward what would prove to be the biggest mistake of his life.

This would be a case of the author "shattering the illusion of reality," Knott would say, reminding readers that they're reading "a fabricated product."

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