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WHO KILLED THE UNIVERSAL NARRATOR?
 


 

I just finished writing a young-adult fantasy. My writers' group, a cadre of seasoned experts, advises me to expunge my Universal Narrator, that voice in the manuscript that makes remarks outside the scope of the characters in the scene. They say, quite rightly, that a Narrator's intrusions take them out of the action.

So far, I'm leaving him in. Partly because this story isn't about action, but about the odd mechanics of a different sort of world. I'm leaving him in because I'm convinced the story needs him. In a world where the cats glitter and the mailman has wings and characters wear their words, I'm persuaded the reader needs a guide, and will be well-served not to have to enter this world alone.

But the Universal Narrator seems to have gone out of style. Time was, you picked up a book and the Narrator ushered you into a world, and characters, with a gracious description that enabled you to visualize where you were and with whom you were there. After a decent interval, something happened and you were off on that lovely ride a good book takes you on.

Literary style these days seems to demand that I be thrown into the action in the first paragraph, and that I live inside the head of one character or another, never to depart while the book goes on. I may get to live inside another character later, or I may be stuck with just one. Every scene I see, I see from someone's point of view. I just learned the term for that: they're the "viewpoint character." Every chapter, every scene, has gotta oughtta have one.

I'm an old-school reader, and I miss the Universal Narrator--the voice that saw all, knew all, and told you, the reader, all about it. I liked the comfortable feeling of Someone being in charge. Maybe the main character doesn't know what's around the next bend, but the narrator does, and will give me a timely hint that lets me know when to start worrying, or will reassure me that there's nothing to worry about. But someone is definitely in charge, and I'm not stuck inside the mind of that scapegrace rogue or flibbertigibbet girl on the page.

Reading much modern writing feels to me like reading inside a refrigerator. I'm cold, and everything is a bluish white color until I'm told otherwise. I may be in the third chapter before I know the hero's hair color, and until then I read without a mental picture. The information has to be inserted slyly through the character's glance in a mirror or some other device, because heaven forfend the author would just come out and tell me what their protagonist looks like.

I'm not a weak reader or an impaired reader. I get that jumping willy-nilly from the head of one character to another will give the reader whiplash. It's disconcerting, and it's lazy on the part of the author. I recognize the excellence of sticking to one point of view, especially with mysteries and adventures--staying inside the head of the detective is the perfect way to avoid spoilers. And staying inside the head of the person being chased is a great way to make the chase feel like a roller coaster ride.

But I miss that Narrator, all-knowing and all-seeing, who made observations apart from what their character was able to think. Dickens, musing on the deadness of a doornail, at the outset of A Christmas Carol, Lewis Carroll jumping out of Alice's thoughts as she falls down the rabbit hole to discuss the extent of her book-learning, C.S.Lewis interpolating authorial comments all through the Narnia chronicles. These asides and extra insights feel to me like I'm getting an extra character for free.

I'm just now reading Felix J. Palma's The Map of Time, and am heartened to see that his Universal Narrator not only directs my attention, but then turns around and calls that attention to himself, and struts a bit. The novel is built around time travel, a concept as fantastical as the concept for my own manuscript, so I see that another author is pulling the Universal Narrator out of mothballs for much the same reason I am: outrageous events and absurdities are mediated by Someone in Charge, a voice that keeps chaos at bay and brings order to absurdity, perhaps supplying a reason, within the logic of the world the author has set up, for the wack-a-doodle circumstances the reader is encountering.

One of the main reasons for reading, to me, is to build order in my mental world. I like a wild ride, I like escape...but when it's over, I want a new thought, a new idea, to add on to my worldview like a Lego piece, or to disrupt it like an earthquake. Whether Lego or earthquake, I'm always looking for the gems on the page. I hold to the opinion that I'm not offended when a Universal Narrator is there to point them out.

 

 

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