Remote and Untouched

What is a first-person peripheral narrator, and what are the drawbacks of that approach? This type of narrator tells the story in the I-voice, but as a witness of the main character’s story. The first-person voice is just as intimate as when the narrator is telling his own story. Up-close observations fly off the keyboard. Jokes, ironic remarks, and thoughts come more easily when the author writes directly to the reader.  

Yet an immediate narrative voice does not guarantee penetration into the characters. Quite the contrary can be true with an observer. The ease of writing in this voice can delude an author into believing that she is creating depth when she is only adding lacquer to the veneer. That’s because an observer can all too easily be passive. The narrative approach can become a shield behind which the author hides while she remains at arm’s length from the catharsis being experienced by others.

I see this problem mainly with inexperienced authors who write historical fiction. Because the author may feel more comfortable doing research, he remains at a safe distance as he is reanimating history. It’s the same distance between the modern researcher and the long-ago events he is studying. Because he is merely an observer, he remains behind his “camera” as he tells stories about the people he’s read about.

Here is a useful corrective. Skillful writers use this voice to create what is known as the “unreliable narrator.” The character relating the events injects her prejudices against others, such as jealousy, as part of the storytelling. Yet stop right there and think about what is required to be unreliable. The author must get inside the observer’s head in order to create that distorted prism. The very uncertainty the reader feels about the narrator stems from the depth of penetration.

You could go further than that. Like any other major character, the observer can be changed by the novel’s events. Rather than being a passive observer, the peripheral narrator in this scenario cannot escape the swirling vortex of the story she’s telling. Now the first-person narrative really is immediate—because you’re inside the story.

Exercise: If you are writing a historical novel, don’t settle for tired facsimiles as your characters. If you want to re-imagine history, start with the notion that your observer must be outrageous. After all, to tell the story in the first place, he has to accompany the protagonist on his journey of extremes. Once you have decided on the qualities of the lead character, pick out equally distinctive qualities for the observer—and bake them into the telling.

“Without heroes we're all plain people and don't know how far we can go.”
― Bernard Malamud

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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