Borrowing Fiction Techniques 3 - The Narrator

by Richard Goodman

It all begins with character. Character is at the heart of any story. We remember books by their characters. In very rare cases, as with Ivan Turgenev, we may remember the landscape as fixedly as the characters, but there are not many writers with the sensitivity and deep connection to nature—not to mention genius—as he. We remember Don Quixote, David Copperfield, Robinson Crusoe, Huck Finn, Jay Gatsby, Nathan Zuckerman and so on. The question, for the nonfiction writer, is how, and why.

Often the most important character of all in nonfiction is the narrator, especially in memoir. The narrator, of course, is you. But you as a character. Some writings recently have taken pains to demonstrate why and how you, as the writer, need to separate yourself from your basic everyday ego and to mould yourself into a character. Here is some advice on the matter from Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative:

It’s difficult having this ego tied to us, to borrow from Yeats, “as to a dog’s tail.” I think it’s a good idea to distance yourself from your ego—as a character, I mean—as much as possible. You need your ego, naturally, to write. The ego provides all that confidence you require to justify putting pen to paper. But when your self lacks perspective and humility, then you, the narrator, can become overwhelming, if not downright boorish at times. So, how do you keep yourself a respectable character who doesn’t chew the scenery or simply become too overbearing—a kind of tyrant in ink?

There’s no better example than The Great Gatsby. It’s written in the first person—but what a sweet, somewhat diffident, wonder-filled narrator Nick Carraway is. From the opening lines where Nick harkens back to some words of wisdom from his father, the tone is set:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

And shortly after, Nick says:

In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.

So, right away we know we’re dealing with a sympathetic nature. We’re dealing with someone whom people confide in. We all know these kinds of people. We feel safe with them. They aren’t going to judge us. That doesn’t make them any less intelligent or perceptive. It just means they have a generous heart. This is Nick Carraway, the man—the narrator—with whom we are going to pass several hundred pages. And we are most pleased to be in his company. Now, can we say Fitzgerald was Carraway? Not really. They may have things in common—an obsessive, worshipful curiosity about wealth, perhaps. But Nick Carraway must be separate from Fitzgerald; he will live forever, and he must perform his job each and every time a reader picks up The Great Gatsby.

Nick is an excellent role model, as far as narrators go. The traits of diffidence, courtesy, sympathy and a sense of wonder can go a long way toward creating a narrator that is likeable and effective. Your story may require a tougher narrator—the Dorothy Allison of Skin: Talking About Sex, Class and Literature, for example. But I think you will notice that her narrator is still extremely vulnerable. So you may be able to have both. The idea is to look at Gatsby, at its narrator, and see what you can use in developing your own narrator.

As a narrator, you certainly want to distance yourself from self-pity, that most lethal of emotions, especially if you are telling a pitiful story. You can look to The Catcher in the Rye for a good lesson on how to avoid that. This is a novel about that inherently dangerous field mined with self-pity—adolescence. How does the first person narrator, Holden Caulfield, save us from a roomful of hand-wringing angst?

With humor. With the sub-category of lacerating sarcasm, much of it directed at himself. We remember, for instance, Holden pledges that he won’t try to kiss or fondle any girl he doesn’t like:

I keep making up these sex rules for myself, and then I break them right away. Last year I made a rule that I was going to quit horsing around with girls that, deep down, gave me a pain in the ass. I broke it, though, the same week I made it—the same night as a matter of fact.

This kind of wry confession can go a long way toward endearing the reader to the writer, particularly in trying circumstances. Hardly anything is so serious as to preclude humor. If you don’t think so, then pick up a copy of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, that incredible graphic novel about the Holocaust. Full as it is of great pity, and compassion, it also has its share of humor, much of it at the narrator’s expense. It’s also a good book to examine to see how Spiegelman distanced himself from himself—in this case, with a mask of a mouse over his face. Though he is so wry as to make himself visible to us beneath the mask. It’s not a very good mask. So there is both tenderness at his obviousness and wryness, as well.

I think it might be a good exercise to think of yourself, to think of your narrator, with a large dollop of self-deprecation. Not to take yourself so seriously. Pick out a fault of yours, or a mistake. Make it obvious to the reader. Make yourself human. Omniscient, perhaps, but not omnipotent.

A third way a writer can make us feel sympathetic toward his or her narrator in nonfiction is with honesty, with truthfulness. This isn’t about facts. This is about nakedness. This is not about being selectively confessional—and aren’t all confessions selective? This is about standing nude before the reader. To see that, you need just to turn to the work of Jean Rhys. She is an amazing writer, she defies category, and I’m sure she must confound critics by being so uncontritely miserable. Many of her books are about self-degradation and humiliation, but God she can write. This is from Good Morning, Midnight:

On the contrary, it’s when I am quite sane like this, when I have a couple of extra drinks and am quite sane, that I realize how lucky I am. Saved, rescued, fished-up, half-drowned, out of the deep, dark river, dry clothes, hair shampooed and set. Nobody would know I had ever been in it. Except, of course, that there always remains something. Yes, there always remains something….Never mind, here I am, sane and dry, with my place to hide in. What more do I want?...I’m a bit of an automaton, but sane, surely—dry, cold and sane. Now I have forgotten about dark streets, dark rivers, the pain, the struggle and the drowning….Mind you, I’m not talking about the struggle when you are strong and a good swimmer and there are willing and eager friends on the bank waiting to pull you out at the first sign of distress. I mean the real thing. You jump in with no willing and eager friends around, and when you sink you sink to the accompaniment of loud laughter.

If that doesn’t put a shiver down your spine, I’m not sure what will. It also has another effect on the reader—one of deep sympathy for this writer’s bravery. I think the idea is to be less protective of yourself as narrator. Vivian Gornick does an admirable job of this in her memoir, Fierce Attachments. This is not a woman who is at peace with herself, and perhaps may not even like herself. You trust this narrator, because she doesn’t hide.


This article originally appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle.