Saturday, February 13, 2010

Whose Head Am I In, Anyway?

Lately, I've been reading samples of writing from other peoples -- friends and acquaintances and that strange demographic of hopeful new writers who think I can offer helpful advice -- and I'm fascinated by how many people start off with an obscured narrator. The first character I'm introduced to is simply "He" or "She", or an undefined subject such as, "With the sun coming up, all that was left to do was hide the body." And this can stretch out for paragraphs, even pages, without giving me anything as solid as a name to latch on to.

Now, as a style choice, I won't say it doesn't work -- I picture it like a cinematic sequence, where the camera avoids the actor's face. I see his boots, the back of his head, the crowd moving around him, animals reacting to his presence, but I have no idea who he is yet. It puts me in mind of assassination plots and thrillers -- the longer I read without learning a character's name, the longer I assume there's a reason it's being concealed from me, that this is a ghost or a spy, and very likely the scene will end with a muted gunshot -- pvvvft.

What I will say, though, is that the technique doesn't work for me. I need to put a name to my characters, and I need to get it onto the page early on. I want to know in the first paragraph whose eyes I'm borrowing when I'm reading or writing about the scenery. If at all possible, I want to slip in a few physical details in the first page, especially if my focal character is an elf or a dwarf or a seven-eyed spider-rabbit -- it doesn't need to be a self-examination in a full-length mirror, but at least give me a hint (the best writing, in my opinion, includes these details so subtly that I'm not even aware of them until afterward, when I suddenly wonder why my mental image of the character is what it is).

I'll throw this out to everyone reading: Do you ever write with an intentionally obscured narrator? Does the technique work for you, as a writer or a reader? How long do you let the opening of your work go on before you introduce the character from whose point of view you'll be telling the rest of the story/chapter/scene?


  1. It's funny, I just put down a book because the narrator wasn't named or identified by the fifth page. It was more than that though--there was very little material to build a connection to whoever this was. He could've gone unnamed, and even unsituated in time or the story, but the distant perspective finally put me off for once and for all. It seems the opposite of getting right into the character's head and life. We are held so far apart that ultimately I wonder if I care enough to continue reading.

    Interesting topic. I don't know if I even would've said that this is what frustrated me about this particular book--but it was.

  2. That is a difficulty -- something I think of as camera distance. I don't mind opening up with a long, wide, establishing shot, but it had better zoom in fairly quickly on someone, or I'm going to start identifying more with the camera than the characters.

    I'm re-reading Italo Calvino's "If on a winter's night a traveler" right now, which is an amazing book to study for the role of the narrator in fiction. Not easy reading, but if you want to really look at how reader and character interact, I highly recommend it.

  3. For me if a character is going to be unnamed, it that tends to make itself clear right at the start. When I write, I always get the names of the characters last, and often have to go and plug them in after the fact. I can tell you what they look like, how old they are, what's going on in their life, but I can't always tell you their name.

    In the case of the chapter I'm pretty sure you're referring to, the character *is* purposely unnamed. Because She's a divinity, and I didn't want to put a name to Her as that would be solidifying the story into a specific space, and possibly would have tied me down into writing an entire religion. I suppose it's something similar to what you said about languages. I didn't want people to be distracted by trying to figure out the belief system. She's referred to throughout the story simply by a title, and that becomes very important later on, so it wasn't necessary to "name" her persay. The rest of the characters though have definite names, you just haven't met them all yet ;)