Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Death to the omniscient narrator!

In my novel, here is how Al, one of the main characters and narrator, describes himself:
I’m the storyteller. I will tell you that I’m not some omnipresent narrator
pretending to know the nuances and motivations of every single character in
every single instance of this story. I try to read minds, I infer, I theorize
for the sake of the story, I story tell, but alas, I am only human. I think it
would be philosophically irresponsible in today’s world, in this story in
particular, if I didn’t bring that up at the get go.

I am reading another story right now with the standard third-person omniscient narrator. I understand the literary and functional reasons for using such a narrator. It is easier to read from this point of view, and I assume it is probably easier to write this way as well. It is difficult to detail people's thoughts and motivations from any other perspective, because when you try, another person is involved and it muddles up the whole process. But that is the point! That is life!

There is a certain vanity to writing. In the act of creation, you are in total control of the world you are making. It's your world. You give existence to characters, you control entire worlds and what happens there within is completely up to you. I had to ask myself: Do I have a god complex? Do I fight this fight to give myself meaning? To make me, the writer, matter? Maybe. It's my world, my characters, and they do take on a life all their own. Al certainly is alive to me, I speak with him all of the time, in my head. He is one of the perspectives I have of the world, and anytime I view things from his slant, I feel he is the one talking through me. (No, I am not schizophrenic. Figuratively, not literally.)

As the story unfolds in your head in fits and jumps, you must then extract it from there effectively to display it to the real world. Along that journey, it's difficult to relent control of your world. It will always be your world, but once it's out there for everyone else, it changes. Such is the nature of art; it is a deeply personal experience for the artist, but as well for the audience, and you the artist cannot control everything about their experience.

With an omnipresent narrator, you are attempting to control that experience as much as possible. By listing every emotion, every motivation, you attempt to take away any other possibilities in order to keep control of your world. You are not only controlling the world you created, but how that world is interpreted by the masses. I feel that is not only an impossible goal, but an irresponsible goal as well.

There is no situation in life that lends itself to an omniscient narrator. You never know what is going on inside the person next to you, no matter how well you know them, you still don't know. You have to guess, you have to use your mind and work towards the various possibilities. But everyone sees things from their perspective, you cannot control that no matter how hard you try. And that is okay. Sure it can be messy without the all knowing, all seeing narrator guiding you, just as life can be messy without the all knowing, all seeing god to guide you. But that is okay as well. One thing many have forgotten since childhood, messy is fun!

If someone takes my story the wrong way, so it goes as Vonnegut would say. There will be interpretations that are inconceivable to me, possibilities I cannot imagine. I'm excited by that. Such is life. This unknown is not something to fear, but to enjoy.

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