2.18.2016

Challenged from Without

The first-person observer voice seems like a wonderful choice for many writers first starting off. Writing in the I-voice allows instant access inside the narrator’s mind. The position of observer is a natural one for souls more given to reflection than argument. It seems like an ideal marriage of strengths.

Of the three main narrative voices (also first-person active and omniscient), this one is the most difficult to master. The implication is that the author need only find an interesting story, populated with colorful characters, to observe. The author adds in a heady brew of personal opinions, giving the narrative an individual flavor, and the stew is transformed into a distinctive goulash.

Along the way, though, the narrator’s comfort in his armchair may become readily apparent. The font of witty opinions, expressing such a pointed view of the world, may be reduced to repetition after a while. Worse, the constant barrage may start to resemble nattering about a world that has become depressingly familiar. The parade of events and characters continues to be entertaining, so why do I feel the onset of ennui?

An impeccable novel, The Door by Hungarian writer Magda Szab√≥, provides an illuminating answer. Briefly, the story features Emerence, a cantankerous old maid, hired by a younger woman writer. The maid rips into the writer’s comfortable bourgeois lifestyle, continually levying pronouncements on what is just. You would think that the relationship of a woman and her maid is not exactly riveting material, but in fact it is the very relationship that makes all the difference.

That’s because the world being observed is relentlessly impinging on the comfort of the observer. The positions of mistress and maid are turned upside down. The observer is outraged, humiliated, baffled by turns. That armchair? The dog has already gnawed off one of its lion feet, and the seat is leaning precariously. There is no question who is driving the tension of the novel: it’s Emerence. Yet the observer remains interesting to the reader because her opinions have become deeply colored by the action.

Even better, the observer continues to not only probe the secrets of Emerence, but to evolve herself. This master-servant clash pits two people, with their panoply of emotions, on a collision course. Of course I want to keep reading. I want to stay inside the lives of these two women as they become inextricably bound.

Exercise: When you are selecting the characters who will be observed, see if at least one of them can develop an intimate hold over the narrator. The more that character challenges the narrator, the more likely that the witty opinions will achieve a satisfying depth over the course of the book. As in any character arc, familiarity can breed knowledge of the human condition.

“If I am at a party, I want to be at the party. Too many photographers use the camera to avoid participating in things. They become professional observers.”
—Robert Mapplethorpe

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine



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