Choosing a PN

diving-boardI’m looking down into the water, seeing my own hesitant reflection, trying to convince myself that I’m ready to dive. I know I’m not going to turn around and climb down off the board. I’m going to soar, gracefully, smoothly, slicing the water without a splash.

It’s always hard to jump into a new project, especially when previous ones are still being flogged. Being Ruby is “in the can,” as they say. It’s waiting to be shipped off to a summer workshop. It will remain inert until July.

Desert Dream is being serialized online and gathering critiques. It needs a major structural reorganization and more editing, but I don’t want to undertake that until I’ve collected all the feedback I can. So it’s time to start for real, the new project, tentatively titled Chocotle.

I’ve got an outline of the story, and a list of main characters, with biographies and psychological profiles. I’m a little hazy on the settings, but have some ideas. The last big planning task is to hire a narrator (PN, for “Persona Narrator”), to tell the story.

I knew I wanted a third-person PN this time. I am sick of first-person after the last two projects. I need a change. And it will implicitly be a male PN, closer to my own voice. Writing a female narrator in Being Ruby was extremely difficult, though an instructive exercise. The question is, how should my new PN tell the story?

The Retrospective Frame

At first I thought he would tell it retrospectively, from a future world, after all the events of the story were over. He would be a “survivor” of those past events, explaining to the reader how it was. He would be reminiscent, maybe a bit nostalgic, maybe a little despairing at how it all turned out so badly, but with an underlying hope of redemption.

He would be a frame for the story, coming to the fore periodically, once or twice per chapter, to set context. Between those goalposts, the story would play out and become third-person close and real-time, with PN retreating to the sidelines. There would be an ongoing irony between the youth and vigor of the story characters, and the nostalgic timelessness of the old narrator.

The trouble was, I would have to create that future world for the PN before I could even start the main story, so he could say things like, “You can hardly imagine how we felt back then. XYZ was the case, not like today.”  That seemed like a lot of work, to write the ending first, and in a sense it would undercut the main storyline.

I like framed stories, but they do put distance between the reader and the main characters, which is the price you pay for being able to have the PN face forward. I don’t think I’m a strong enough writer to create a PN good enough to hold the reader for a whole novel like that. So ixnay on the ame-fray.

The Absent PN

The alternative would be a PN who just tells the story in the traditional way, in real-time, not as a strong character, more like an anonymous storyteller. That would certainly be easier to write. Let the characters carry the load and keep the PN in the background, only showing himself through vocabulary, sentence structure, and tone. That would be the safe choice, and something I could definitely do. The trouble is, that kind of “absent” PN is no fun. I like a PN with a voice, a personality. That’s the good part about first-person writing. Some people are really good storytellers and some are not. Both kinds can convey the basic facts of the story: what happened, who was there, how it turned out. But you’d rather hear the tale from a strong storyteller who adds color and point of view. It’s just more interesting that way. So the invisible, absent PN could be my default, but I thought I should be able to do better.

The Blogger

I considered a diarist as my PN. He would be reporting the events of the story into his diary, not directly to “you,” the reader. This would allow him to be self-expressive, more opinionated, more apparent to the reader, and more interesting as a storyteller. Writing directly to the reader, in third-person, forces the PN to become ghostlike. He’s telling you this story, in an interesting way, but who is he? Where does he come from? What’s his angle? None of that is revealed in a traditional PN. He’s just a godlike voice from nowhere.

A diary, on the other hand, puts him in a context, more like a person. There can be asides about having to feed the cat, and so on. But then I thought, who writes a diary anymore? It’s anachronistic. So why not have the PN be a blogger? (That’s is rapidly becoming anachronistic also, but we’re not there yet.) The blog device makes him an almost real-time narrator, reporting no more than a week after the events of the story. It’s a sort of limited past-tense. He reports what happened in the past week and reflects and opinionates. I can give him an explicit diction and tone. That felt attractive.

The Pirandellic PN

If I’m going to have a visible PN who is a blogger, what do I do about readers who leave comments for him?  What would those say? What would that contribute? Then it occurred to me that perhaps those comments were coming from the characters in the story. Maybe one of them isn’t pleased with how the story is being told, for example, and would like to make certain “facts” known about certain other characters, who he feels are not being completely honest in the story. This could be a whole lot of fun. It would be vaguely like Pirandello’s famous play, Six Characters in Search of an Author.

I still might consider going off the deep end like that, but right now I think it would be too much for me. It would turn the project into a work of meta-fiction, and would render the underlying story incidental and make its characters into puppets. I don’t think I want that. I want to tell a serious story with believable characters.

And the Winner Is…

Finally (I think – nothing is ever final in this racket), I decided on Bachelor Number Three: The Blogger. That choice gives me the opportunity to flex my PN without flipping over into meta-fiction. It might be a struggle to find the balance. I want my PN to add to the story, not detract from it. A too-strong PN will remind the reader that it’s all “just a story,” and pop the illusion that comes from willful suspension of disbelief. That would wreck the underlying story. My feeling is that many of today’s readers, at least those who venture beyond genre, are already aware of mediation by the storyteller, and are not disturbed by it, so will be able to handle a strong, but not too-strong PN without difficulty. The question is, can I execute that?


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