Says Who?

Her name was Clare. She came on a dark day when my body was still sore from its latest beating two nights ago. They brought her into camp with her sister, both of them quiet and skittish.

When I first saw her I could tell by her countenance that she was different. She carried herself in a dignified fashion, holding herself upright, but not so tall as to flaunt—not like the women of my clan. But I wasn’t with my clan when she came to me. I was with the Falkers.

As for me, I never bothered with posture or honor. I knew I wasn’t important, so I didn’t try to be.

Oh, I was dirty and base and soiled, but she tried to change me. I suppose I did change a little, if only so she wouldn’t pity me, but not as much as she would have liked. Besides, this was before all that began.

The Exile, p. 1.

I would introduce Delta, but she seems to have done that already.

The truth is, when I first sat down to write The Exile, there was no question as to whose voice would narrate the novel. Even though the majority of the plot arises from Clare’s quest, the story would invariably lose some of its meaning if it were told from her perspective—or rather, the layers of meaning would change.

It’s easy to take a narrative voice for granted in reading someone else’s work.

I think this is something that writers themselves are more likely to appreciate, as the beginning of each new story requires us to make a conscious choice: “Who is going to tell this thing?” It could be one character or several. Or it could be a voice removed from the story itself.

While there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer, we can’t deny that the choice of narrator inherently affects the tenor, themes, and even content of the novel. Imagine if a classic like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were told by Jim! We would gain all of the perspective of a mature, African American man forced to suppress his own intelligence, but we would lose the naiveté of an otherwise savvy boy coming to see the world for what it is.

What if Fitzgerald chose Daisy, rather than Nick, to narrate The Great Gatsby?

Or what if both Twain and Fitzgerald used an omniscient third-person narrator, giving us unilateral knowledge of each character’s inner thoughts?

The question of narrative perspective isn’t particular to historical fiction, but it does connect to another topic I’ll address next week that every his-fic author has to wrangle. But no matter what genre we read or write, I think exploring the different possible narrative perspectives in a novel can give us insight into why the author chose the one he/she did—which in turn can help us better understand the meaning he/she wanted to communicate.

So I ask you:

What stories can you think of whose substance would change radically if told from another perspective?

If you are a writer, do you find yourself writing more often in the first-person or third-person? How do you decide?

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