from Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction by Emma Darwin
The basic choice you have to make, right at the beginning of your story, is whether it is being told by someone who takes part in at least some of the events of the story, or by some kind of entity outside those events. Often these are talked of as ‘first person’ versus ‘third person’ narratives, but what’s at issue isn’t pronouns, but where the narrator stands in relation to the events of the narrative. So thinking of your narrator as external or internal is much more accurate and useful.
An external narrator is outside the events of the story. All the actors in the story are referred to as he and she, so these narrators are sometimes called ‘third person’ narrators, because there is no I present in the action of any scene. They may be a fairly neutral voice transmitting the story entirely through the thoughts and perceptions of the characters (Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel), or they may comment directly on things, or transmit information that no character inside the story can know (The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald).
Here are some openings:
Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned towards the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. (Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall)
Notice how each has a very different tone, language and historical feel. Some are ‘wide-angle’ and full of context; others are close in to the immediate moment and perceptions of the character. The order I’ve put them in is not accidental, but connects to this the idea, which writers call psychic distance.
In fact, the narrator of Jonathan Strange does say I, occasionally, but as a narrator, not as a character: I doubt if it will surprize anyone to know that, of the two, London preferred Mr Strange. Literary criticism sometimes talks of this kind of narrator as ‘the author’, but it isn’t really: this is not Susannah Clarke speaking, but a storyteller-narrator.
An internal narrator participates in the events of the story. Maybe it was years ago; maybe it’s happening now, but they refer to themselves as I, with the other characters referred to as he and she.
Here are some openings:
A: Because it is two cities divided by a river.
Good morning! Let me introduce myself. My name is Dora Chance. Welcome to the wrong side of the tracks. (Angela Carter, Wise Children)
Again, notice how different the feel is, even though they all start with I, me, my, or myself. These are all characters who are in some way part of the story, but while some address the reader/listener directly, others don’t. What they narrate may be their story (Wise Children) or it may be someone else’s story (Dead Man in Deptford is about Christopher Marlowe). And it’s worth remembering that a character-narrator is still a narrator: this is the story they choose to tell, and if they want to evoke events at which they were not present at then there’s no reason they shouldn’t. However, since the narrowly conventional modern approach to point of view dictates that a character-narrator can’t write events at which they were not present, if you want your narrator to do that, you may decide that you need to ‘educate’ the reader early on about how this narrative works, as Burgess does here with such panache.
Emma Darwin is the author of the historical novels The Mathematics of Love and A Secret Alchemy, and her short fiction has been published and broadcast. She has appeared at …Read More