The more you know…The Author-Narrator-Character Merge

 

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I’m in my happy place when I’m with a good book on writerly devices, and I love to experiment with what I have learnt and attempt to incorporate that into whatever I’m working on, just for the fun of it, but there is a downside to this, I can’t unknow things that I have learnt. I can’t write and ignore great advice, can I?

I recently read The Author-Narrator-Character Merge: Why Many First-Time Novelists Wind Up With Flat, Uninteresting Protagonists, an essay by Frederick Reiken. I definitely don’t feel like I have an uninteresting protagonist in The Neighbour, after all, people either love him or hate him, no in between, but it’s an element of writing that I don’t think I have thought about.

Reiken states that a writer will often fail to distinguish between, and keep separate, the author, the narrator, and the protagonist.

Understanding this separation is easier with first person narrative, there is the author, there is the narrator who is a character separate from the author, and there are characters in the story. In regard to third person narratives it becomes more complex. Reiken refers to psychic distance between a narrator and character- an idea put forward first by John Gardener. The division between author, narrator, and character is much more complex and there you get more into an author’s own style and the varying degrees of psychic distance, the idea of which requires more space and thought than I can dedicate here, but I urge you to seek out this article and give it a close read. Perhaps I might tease it out in another post soon.

I’m pleased to say (if you’ve read The Neighbour you’ll understand why I’m pleased :)) that I went to great lengths, many many drafts, to create a character that had nothing of me, the author, in him and the style is more what is called Free Indirect Discourse. Free Indirect Discourse has the narrator reporting the thoughts and dialogue of the character. The narrator reports all that the character does, sees and feels almost as if the narrator is the character, except she is still that third person. I feel this style gives the reader more access to the thoughts and feelings of the character and is a more engaging read.

If you are a fan of writing this way you are in good company, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen were all fans of Free Indirect Discourse. But this idea of the Author-Narrator-Character Merge is an element of writing that will forever be on my mind when I’m writing, I can’t unknow it!

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22 thoughts on “The more you know…The Author-Narrator-Character Merge

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  1. Hi Julie! Great and interesting post. In my yet unpublished novel I did the opposite. I wrote in third person intimate and deliberately merged the narrator, protagonists and author (not me – a fictitious one) and included the author’s journal so that the reader could draw their own conclusions regarding the relationship between the three: narrator, protagonist and author. Like yourself, I love this stuff!

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  2. Thank you for this. As I read through your post, I began to think about my work in free indirect discourse, of which I am fond, and was delighted that you went on to mention your own use of this highly flexible and inventive approach to writing. It’s one that isn’t used much and sometimes is misunderstood, especially when we get hung up about the distinction between showing and telling. Your novel sounds interesting!

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    1. Hi Jack, thanks for your comment. I find incorporating these ideas can be so complex and detailed and take great concentration over long periods of time – years. I’d love to know if you make any steadfast rules when editing to incorporate these ideas and techniques in your own writing? The novel I am working on now takes a much more relaxed and subtle approach to these ideas and it’s turning out to be a less intense experience for both myself and my beta readers.

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      1. Hello Julie. I’m sorry for my late response. I don’t tend to make rules about these kinds of things, other than to have one firm general rule: make every sentence count, make it the best it can be (within my powers) and never consciously to settle for something that is merely adequate. In practice this means I do not follow the general recommendation to writers that they should just write anything for their first draft, as they can always edit it later. I find that I constantly look back at what I have done and am rewriting and editing right from the start. Without a good beginning – one that pleases me and gives me confidence – it is almost impossible to continue writing.
        Free indirect discourse, in my opinion, is all about getting the tone right and maintaining that tone from start to finish (or changing it as appropriate). Tone also implies rhythm, which I think is terribly important. When I reread, I read for sense, but I also try to hear the rhythm of the sentences as they flow through my mind.
        That’s about it, really. Perhaps I am too intuitive!
        What about you?

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  3. Thank you! This is what I am attempting. I had more success with my male main character than the female because first I may have a crush on him, and second, I started relating to the main female character. It is great to have the name of what I am attempting to do now and I will have to read this other article as I work through revising my story. Also thank you for checking out my blog!

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    1. Hi Erika, you have a crush on your character? I love that, that’s so funny 🙂 That’s interesting about what you say on relating to your female character, it’s possibly why my main characters are always male – so I can distance myself. Thanks for your comment. I’d love to know how you go working with this idea I find it so complicated at times 🙂

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      1. The main characters have a spirit bond. Basically they share emotions. Ari is supposed to be this cool emotionally distant shaman and Ta’gosh is supposed to be a hot headed warrior. Not so at all! But I found Ari was not developed at all because I was way more interested in her husband. On this revision I have had to go back in and explore her motivations and thoughts. I found out I am terrible at describing emotion. (I am a very emotionally reactive person.) At first I only wanted to explore Ari and Ta’gosh’s thoughts, but found the more characters I explored, the less flat Ari became. She was reading body language, Mostly looking calm but raging inside. It also helped when I took all the he sex out of the story. Lol. Cheers to you!

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  4. It worries me a little that I had no idea of what Free Indirect Discourse was referring to before reading your post, aware of it but not aware of it’s name. I would say my own work drifts between Free Indirect and Reported. I find that in a scene where a crew of five characters are debating something, a reported style works well, with a ‘she thought’ added in. But if a character is on their own, the focal point of a scene, or drifts off into their own little world for a while, then being free and indirect feels natural. I like, as you described, having the narrator almost being the character but not quite. It brings them far closer to surface. Being able to peek inside everyone’s head from time to time is a great thing and often underdone, understandably so as it can become quite confusing. Although it does make any twists far more satisfying, as you can tease a character’s thoughts without giving away why they’re thinking them.

    While I agree there is a certain degree of separation between an author and a narrator, and maintaining that distance haunts us all probably. If the author wants to play the narrator I can’t seem a crime in that. It depends on whether or not it’s a boring voice. The trap of falling into creating main characters that speak with the author’s voice is touted a lot with good cause. I cheated to get around it. Rather than fall into writing myself into the story, I wrote bits of myself into every character I write (from dress sense in one, to temperament in another), and I write each character as a character I would enjoy playing the role of. But to avoid everyone being the same, I do this on top of an existing character idea, and usually add numerous flaws, make them capable of things that I or most others would never be capable of (feats both physical and emotional). I also write characters that I aspire to be like, these people serve as driving forces for my protagonist, but never for motivation. This short checklist goes for male and female characters alike.

    I haven’t read The Neighbour, but I’ll have to take a look, even if it does sound a little dark for me. I love anything which involves someone losing a grip on reality. Excellent read, looking forward to your follow up post.

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    1. Hi Tyrone, thank you for your considered comment, very much appreciate you taking the time to write. I find that you put a little bit of yourself in your characters so interesting. I imagine it might be quite a project to add a little of yourself, but at the same time limit how much of yourself you put into the character. Yes, The Neighbour is quite dark and not for everyone, but that goes for all books doesn’t it. If you do get a chance to look at it I’d love to hear your comments. I’m always looking for honest and considered critique and the chance to open up discussion on writing. Thanks for stopping by.

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