Where should the author place themselves in the text, part 2.

In the first part of this blog I talked about how the first-person narrative can be a good way for the author to connect directly to the reader. It creates a sense of intimacy between the reader and the writer, who invites them into their inner world and puts no barriers up for them. But in some novels the little known second-person narration can be even more of a way to connect – albeit in a confrontational way. It is rarely used, I should add! Second person narration is when the prose is directed towards someone referred to as ‘you.’ It is rare perhaps because it is hard for the author to credibly sustain why someone would address someone as ‘you’ for a whole novel, and perhaps for that reason the only two books I have come across (Albert Camus’ The Fall and The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid) are quite short novels!

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In The Fall this set-up is useful because it allows a man (a protagonist who seems to share the vice of womanising and boozing that Camus indulged in, funnily enough) to confess his sins, failure, cowardice and regrets to another man as they share drinks. Borrowing from The Fall, in The Reluctant Fundamentalist a Pakistani man addresses an American he is sitting with in a café. He speaks to him and unravels his life story. The cardinal trait of his life story is that it details how he was drawn into Western culture before finding it increasingly distasteful and turning away from it. Here, the confessional tone allows the author to have a confrontational and yet intimate relationship with the reader (who is standing in place of the second character, in effect). The second person is probably rarely used as confrontation and intimacy are rarely two prerequisites for a novel!

I also mentioned in the first part of the blog the use of the third person and how I’ve found it useful as a writer. But there are more nuanced forms of the third-person that can also be of benefit to the author, such as the free-indirect form. This is a form that renders thought as reported speech in the third person. But, crucially, it keeps to the kind of vocabulary that is appropriate to the character. It deletes the usual tags such as ‘she thought’ to give the illusion of intimate access to the character’s mind.

I think the most famous exponent (even, in some people’s eyes inventor) of this method was Jane Austen. Here’s an example from the book-

“She knew herself to be of the first utility the child; and what was it to her, if Frederick Wentworth were only half a mile distant, making himself agreeable to others!”

The fact that Austen drew on this fairly new form at the time implies it was to her benefit to do so. In Persuasion the free indirect form allows her to convey a sense of the era that the book is set in to the reader whilst making them feel emotionally involved with the characters and how they feel. The first reason might explain why the novel is still so popular today, as its form gives it an immersive feel!

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Milan Kundera is a Czech writer who is perhaps most famous for his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and he is a useful example of how authors can position himself in the text in an unusual way to benefit the text. His novels are a unique blend of themselves – part fiction, part philosophy, part erotica even. With often distinct stories in a volume interlinking both characters and the themes. What makes Kundera unusual as a writer is that he is explicit about his role as an artist as he writes. In The Unbearable Lightness Of Being he breaks from describing a story in the third person to tell us of when he first imagined his character, Tereze, standing at a window. In other works of his, such as the bizarre short story collection The Book Of Laughter and Forgetting, he goes from a third person text to the second person to briefly depart from the story and ask the reader why he has felt a need to construct this character. The book at this point almost becomes like psycho-analysis! This second person voice, and this positioning in the text allows Kundera to insert ‘objective’ material – tidbits of philosophy mainly – into the next. These slices of philosophy blend with the story he is telling to make an account that is creative and yet educational at the same time.

So, with these blog pieces I hope I have offered some clues as to how the writer can benefit from the choice of person and the position they take in the text. Although ultimately, of course, it is the reader that we hope will benefit…

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2 comments for “Where should the author place themselves in the text, part 2.

  1. 3 February 2017 at 9:31 am

    Thanks for this, because it is a complex subject which early writers either ignore (rightly at first, perhaps) or just get totally bogged down with. I shall be directing my students to read both parts when I think they need to.

  2. 4 February 2017 at 6:19 pm

    Interesting analysis. Students always think that the first person gets them as writers and their readers closer in to the character, but in the end, I always think third person free indirect discourse actually allows both writer and reader to get more deeply into the character, unless of course the third person narrator is unreliable or interferes in the text, as your point out.

    Two useful texts: one an explanatory one by David Lodge, Consciousness and the Novel (Penguin 2004). And the other a novel by John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (chapter 13: 1967) where Fowles interrupts the narrative by comments from himself as writer, saying he can’t actually control his characters!

    I think it’s just great that as writers we have so many ways of writing and influencing our readers.

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