When writing stories, an author has a lot of choices to make before he ever sets pen to paper (or fingertips to keys, in this instance). Even after deciding the story he wants to tell, he has to decide how to tell it. This very important step is one that is often overlooked. It’s just not something you usually think about when reading; what if the story had been told differently? To use a phrase I generally can’t stand, it is what it is. We don’t tend to think about the different possible ways a story could have been written because, well, it was written the way we’re reading it.
But I guarantee the writer thought about it.
He wanted to start a new story. After he finally formed the basis of the plot and peppered it with a few memorable characters, he was still not ready to start writing. He had to answer a few questions first. Should the story be told in past tense or present tense? Should it be in the form of a character’s journal, letters written by a character to someone else, some kind of inner monologue, or maybe just a straight dictation of events? If it is a novel, what kind of novel should it be? Should it be a straightforward narrative, or a group of interconnected short stories, or even a mixed media-type of project with false news articles, interviews and the like? (And please don’t think I am being sexist. I am very aware of the fact that writers are often female; I just hate writing the phrase “he or she” over and over again. It gets annoying.)
So many choices. For me, however, the most important decision is choosing the voice of the story.
Think of your favorite novel. Now think of all the different ways it could have been told. Would it still be the same? Would The Catcher In The Rye be the same iconic work of fiction it is today if it hadn’t featured the commentary of Holden Caulfield? Would The Great Gatsby have the same impact if it was told by Gatsby himself instead of the much more relatable Nick Carroway?
From the very beginning, I knew the story would have a narrator. That fact was never up for debate. It wouldn’t be a story that simply unfolded before the reader’s eyes; it would be a story told to the reader by someone who had opinions of their own. But I had to make it different.
A long time ago, I created a character for a short story that dealt with a chess game between two friends. (It was more exciting than it sounds.) The story itself was never finished; instead, it was worked into another idea that took shape from another idea . . . you see where this is going. Because of that, this particular character has gone through innumerable changes, and now, after years of molding and shaping, he stands as my most prized literary creation. Into him I have poured both the best and worst aspects of humanity; he is a manipulator that doesn’t mind showing you the puppet strings he holds, yet he is so charming and charismatic that you don’t mind the power he has over you.
So, naturally, he had to be my narrator.
He wasn’t always a part of this story. Once I mixed him in, however, it truly came to life. The best part of it all is that, on the surface, it seems like he has absolutely nothing to do with the story other than the fact that he is the one telling it. But things are never what they seem in the world I’m creating.
The story I am writing is one rooted in reality. However, using this narrator adds a touch of fantasy to the mix. I love blending the two. Perhaps that is why I have such a love for all things Neil Gaiman . . . but that’s a story for another entry.
In an “Author’s Note” in my manuscript, I introduce the reader to my beloved narrator with these words:
I would like to introduce you to someone. I will refrain from describing him, since he would more than likely appear different to you than he does to me. Of his appearance, I will say only this: you will lose every part of yourself if you look into his eyes, and the entire world would crumble in the wake of his smile.
Furthermore, he is an extremely unreliable narrator, making the story even more fun for me to write. He leaves things out on purpose, most often because they are parts of the story that simply bore him. Sure, it means that readers will have a few more things to put together than normal . . . but that is part of the fun. I didn’t set out to write an easy book; I set out to write a good one.
And, as I’m finding out more and more by the day, nothing good ever comes easy.