Harry Connolly: A Narrator In Every Port

Not too long ago I realized writing advice has to seek out the writers who need it. Any one piece of advice is useless for most people, but when the right tool, tip, or insight connects with the right person, it feels like a curtain being pulled back.

One such piece of advice[1] crossed my path a few years before I published my first book, Child of Fire, with Del Rey. It was simple:

1. Find five or six books that

2. are debut novels, and

3. are in the same genre as your WIP, and

4. were published in the last five years. Then

5. study them to figure out what they have in common, because

6. that’s what publishers want from debut novels.

A glance at the subject header above will tell you the lesson I learned (the one I needed to learn?), but someone else might learn a different lesson. As an exercise, it’s worth trying, is all I’m saying.

Now, if you put “Voice” into the search field in the sidebar of this blog, you’ll find several posts from Chuck and his guest bloggers about developing an authorial voice. That’s the voice that is unique to each author based on their interests and experiences, what’s often called “the thing a writer can’t help doing.” And that’s important.

But what I want to talk about here is narrator voice, the way that the experiences and worldview of the point of view character is reflected in the text.

The most obvious place to start the discussion is with first person POV, where the narrator is diegetic and the reader expects the text to be colored by the narrator’s idiosyncrasies. An author wouldn’t be doing their job if they weren’t. The point of view character might be honest with the reader or they might not, but it’s clear the story is being filtered through them. They’re the narrator voice.

But what about third person limited? Or third person cinematographer?[2] Or the so-called “invisible style,” omniscient, or any other POV you want to mention? Well, what I’m about to say seems to be controversial to some people, but it’s true: Every prose story has a narrator.

A narrator doesn’t have to be diegetic, but they can be. A close third person limited story will make the narrative—while still using he/she/they pronouns—closely reflect the POV character. For example, a refugee from a war-torn country might walk into a posh hotel lobby and experience it as a glimpse of heaven, while a rich jaded socialite might describe it as the usual marble, chrome, and clouded glass. In either case, the POV character’s external world is filtered through their world view and presented to the reader the way they would describe it.

Non-diegetic narrators might be in the second person[3], or they might be omniscient[4], or they might be the author themself.

Lots of popular and beloved novelists never seem to give a thought to narrator POV. They happily write all their books in the same voice, and if that voice is appealing enough, they can find tremendous success.

Still, narrator voice is a tool, and a powerful one. When it reflects the narrator’s inner self, it can bring the reader into the character’s head. It can be used for contrast. A satire might have a narrative voice that’s very different from the POV character being satirized. Additionally, an author trying to create dread in a scene with a character who doesn’t know they’re in danger might contrast the narrator voice with the POV character’s.

It’s a tool with a lot of uses, and I’m still learning how it all works[5], but it’s a tool that I’d like to see used more often.

[1] Courtesy of the pseudonymous blogger Miss Snark. There’s still a wealth of useful information on her archived blog.

[2] There are two POV choices that could credibly carry this name. The first is one where the text never tells us the interior thoughts of the characters. What they’re thinking and feeling has to be revealed by what they say or do, or how they appear. See Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon for the most famous example of this style.

The other is a sort of prose movie/tv show, where the POV will be, say, third person limited for most of the story, but with a quick pivot into omniscient whenever the author wants to recreate a story beat from a movie. The general consensus is that this is a somewhat trashy style to use, but I figure every tool has a place where it can be useful.

[3] I usually experience stories written in the second person as the narrator addressing themself, so your mileage my vary.

[4] Although off the top of my head, I can name two novels with omniscient narrators who are also characters in the story, one of them written by me.

[5] My new novel, One Man (you knew this was coming) is a fantasy with fourteen different POV characters. I’ve never written more than two before, and I spent a lot of time thinking about how a third limited POV for each character would affect the voice. Not in a big, flashy Sound and the Fury sort of way, which wouldn’t suit the fantasy thriller genre, but with enough subtlety that each section would feel different. Did I succeed? God, I hope so.

One Man

One Cursed City. Two Dead Gods. Ten Thousand Murderers and Thieves. One Orphaned Girl.

As a child, Kyrioc was groomed to be the head of one of the most powerful noble families in Koh-Salash, a city built inside the skeletons of two murdered gods. Kyrioc himself dreamed of becoming head of the High Watch, the highest political position in the land.

Those dreams have turned to dust.

Presumed dead after a disastrous overseas quest, Kyrioc now lives in a downcity slum under a false name, hiding behind the bars of a pawnshop window. Riliska, a nine-year-old pickpocket who sells stolen trinkets to his shop, is the closest thing he has to a friend.

When a criminal gang kills Riliska’s mother and kidnaps the little girl, Kyrioc goes hunting for her.

He doesn’t care about the forbidden magic the gangs are fighting over—the severed ear of a glitterkind, a creature whose flesh contains astonishing healing powers. He doesn’t care about the bloody, escalating gang violence. He doesn’t care about the schemes of power-hungry nobles.

In a raging city on the verge of civil war, Kyrioc only wants to save his friend. He will risk anything for her, even awakening the powers that murdered the gods so long ago.

”One Man is a superbly realised story set in a rich and fascinating world. The horror grips, the fantasy delights and the characters remain vivid and real to the end.” — Justina Robson

You can read sample chapters from the usual ebook vendors or on my website.

I hope you like the book, and if you do, I hope you tell your friends. Thanks for reading.