The Question of Narrative Voice

Robot narrationThe Question of Narrative Voice

This is the latest in my series of process notes – thoughts about my own writing process. Why I think these would be of interest to anyone… well let’s just say these are, in fact, my notes on process.

My latest NBT (Next Big Thing) is in the early planning stages. It’s fiction; it hopes to be a novel. This time out I would like to present in fiction some of my hard-won insights about human consciousness, and the challenge is to do that without seeming didactic about it.

I sketched an outline, with characters noted as MC, for Main character, Ant, for Antagonist, RI for Romantic Interest, and so on – designating key roles I’d need without filling in the characters. I like to have a high-level map of the terrain before I embark. The final novel might end up being very different. Then I roughed-in some character sketches for MC and Ant, just to capture the images in my head.

The story revolves around the MC, of course, who is actually synthetic, a bio-robotic humanoid, but he doesn’t know that. He thinks he is fully human like everybody else, though perhaps unique in several traits, but unique is good, he believes. In the course of the novel, he discovers that he is synthetic and then he has to come to terms with that.  That scheme lets me examine what makes up human consciousness, and, in my humble opinion, why it’s not capable of synthesis, outside of fiction. The Ant catches on to MC’s secret and wants to capture him and reverse engineer MC to see how he’s made, then become famous by having the secret himself. So it’s also a chase story, perhaps similar to The Fugitive. Maybe I should throw in a one-armed man.

But then, at the bottom of my 10-page sketch, I wrote a heading that said: Narrative Voice. And I was stumped.  What would it be? I considered several alternatives – and it took me several days to think it through, if I have indeed thought it through; such things are always a work in progress. But here’s how it went:

First-Person Narration (1PN) – from MC’s point of view (POV), past tense. This seemed the most obvious and natural approach. MC just tells his story as he experiences it. This happened, then that happened then I discovered, OMG! I am a robot! And on and on.

The problem is that from MC’s POV there is no POV. He actually is little more than a huge database with an extremely convincing social interface. There’s literally nobody home inside. He has no point of view, by definition. He just calculates probabilities and patterns. He observes people and always says the right thing, but he understands nothing. Kind of like Siri on your iPhone.

It’s MC’s story of self-discovery, so 1PN seems completely appropriate. However, since MC has virtually no interiority, the whole thing would end up being flat. There would be nothing for him to narrate beyond external details. It might be interesting to let the reader discover that MC is an unreliable narrator. He thinks he’s a regular guy, but the reader would see, from the mistakes he makes, that he was anything but that. Humbert Humbert was like that. Maybe it would be like watching Rabbit Angstrom. But in this case, the contrast would be so stark, I’d be dealing with a one-trick pony. It wouldn’t be sustainable. On a 5-point scale, this choice, while it feels natural, looks like it could be a potential disaster. I give it only a 1.

A third-person (3P)-limited narrator from MC’s POV. A 3PN can create separation from MC’s POV. That lets MC evolve thinking he’s human, while 3PN suggests otherwise. 3PN can say, “He searched his database for a plausible answer.” The narrator comments on the discrepancy between human and non-human and the juice is in the narrator’s observations, not in MC’s simulated experience.

That’s how they did the Terminator, revealing the robot immediately – there’s no mystery about it. Also how they did it in I, Robot and AI. You give away the robot in the beginning and play out the consequences from there. It’s a robot story. But that’s not what I want. I want to explore the ambiguous question about what’s human and non-human. I don’t want to start out biased by a robot, so this strategy wouldn’t work well, if the narrator is honest – which a 3PN should be, in my opinion.

Also, since MC has only simulated feelings and intuition, the 3PN doesn’t really have much to work with – the strategy is hardly better than 1PN. On the plus side, it’s easier to elaborate situations and characters with more detail and context, and I have the possibility of head-hopping to other characters. That would be complex to do well. On a scale, this choice is do-able but feels clunky. It gets a 3.

What about multiple 1PNs?  MC’s family, friends and colleagues all get a chance in the spotlight to say what they think. The reader learns that MC is universally acknowledged as an oddball, though generally liked. Different characters talk about him,  including girlfriends, wife, doctor, colleagues, bartender, Ant, philosophers, etc. They each get their own POV as they relate anecdotes. MC also reacts. He defends his (non) POV to the reader.  It’s kind of Roshomon-like.

This strategy would be hard to write. I’d have to create a dozen unique voices and tie them together. I’d probably end up with stereotypes. They could talk to and about each other directly or implicitly, which would be fun. It would not be impossible, especially if the situation was right, some kind of a team or family gathering or group therapy with implicit off-screen connections among the characters. Would this be too cute, and too difficult for my skills? On a scale, my gut says it’s gimmicky, and only a 2.

What about a 1P  interviewer, not MC, but somebody else, like a documentarian or investigator? Like Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. That constitutes a framing device – a story within a story. On the plus side, I have a consistent 1P narrator handing off to multiple POVs during interviews. That adds a new dimension and an anchor. And it could hint at the reality of the extrahuman “deity” that MC decides on, especially if the interviewer was a mysterious investigator.

This would be easier to write than multiple 1PNs and it has a nice confessional feel, kind of a Frankensteinian or Draculean, 19th century tone. It seems less contrived than 1P-multiple, though I would have to invent a story arc for the interviewer and a plot for his project, and he/she would have limited access to others – only what comes out in the interviews.

The problem is, having the investigative frame shifts the focus of the story to the interviews. We want to know who the interviewer is and why (s)he is doing it. That creates a good deal of narrative distance between the reader and MC, which doesn’t seem right for a study of consciousness. Consciousness is about as intimate as you can get. On a scale: this one is intellectually attractive, but I’m wary of the frame. Give it a 3.5.

1PN-Ant – This one suddenly came to me as I was sketching out the story line for Ant. The antagonist has a compelling character arc, a crisis of conscience and a reversal. He’s almost the MC — he is human at least.  At first, Ant wants to control MC, but then, despite knowing the secret, makes an ethical decision to let him be. His reversal has consequences, as Ant virtually morphs into a second MC. That’s unusual, yet satisfyingly Aristotelian.

Ant decides MC is sentient, but by that time, the reader knows he is wrong, yet the events of the novel overall ultimately suggest that he was right, or at least it’s ambiguous. Featuring Ant as the 1PN is less heavy-handed than a deistic interviewer anyway. It’s Carroway-esque.

One problem is that Ant doesn’t necessarily have access to other people’s experiences, like MC’s home life, so he’s not well-positioned to narrate until after the crisis. That could be managed with conversations, backstory, documents. Another negative is that this strategy shifts the focus slightly away from MC and onto Ant. Maybe that’s not so bad — it highlights the contrast I want to make. Since MC has no genuine experience, he is best revealed from the outside anyway. I would have to build a whole narrative arc around Ant.   On a scale: this one is attractive. Give it a 4.

A 3PN- Limited-Ant. If I used Ant as the main, but not the only POV, and made the narrative voice third instead of first, then I could manage multiple POVs. The narrator can go in close on Ant, virtually as close as any 1PN, but as a 3PN, other characters can be placed in contexts. This narrator could do everything 1P-Ant does, but without the limited perspective and its claustrophobia. There’s no obvious downside, except some loss in the intimacy of Ant’s confession, but for a pseudo-genre piece about a robot, how intimate do I want to get?  On a scale: this one seems the best. I give it a  4+.

At this point I felt I had talked myself into a tentative answer. Onward, then.

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