What I learned from the Victorians

Part Four of Series

What is "character-first" writing? A mini-series

Part One: An Invisible Problem All Writers Face

Part Two: Why Structure Didn't Help

Part Three: The Power of the Two Plots

Part Four: The Power of a Victorian Narrator

This is part four of this series. So far, we've discussed a common problem writers face and why structure, alone, is not a solution to that problem. Then, in part three, I described a component of the solution: insights about plot from Peter Brooks and Great Expectations

To recap: the essential problem, which not enough craft guides talk about, is that it is often very easy to confuse a reader. Sadly, it's not automatic that your reader will understand, appreciate, and be affected by the scenes of the story. Yes, they can read the words on the page. But unless we can figure out how to communicate with them through our prose, they won't inhabit the story -- they will still be trying to piece together the meaning as they read.

Today, I want to share another component of the solution I created. This is derived from a different set of authors -- the British Victorian greats like George Eliot and Anthony Trollope -- and a fantastic study of narration, The Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne Booth.

All right. One thing that the Victorians are known for is "omniscient narration." That's what most of us understand as their signature style, the presence of an active storytelling voice explaining everything that is going on in the novel. This omniscient narrator is able to jump from character to character, presenting their perspectives one after another, but that is not the limit of the narrator's role. The full omniscient narrator also comments on the events of the story like a wise observer, offering moral reflections and general thoughts. 

Two authors who exemplify this style of writing are George Eliot and Anthony Trollope. In a novel like Middlemarch, we see Eliot's narrator guide us through her story, illuminating character experience and offering philosophical ruminations. The experience borders on the overwhelming in places: one feels in the presence of a seer, a visionary, a great moral teacher. Some of the most beautiful lines in Middlemarch appear when the narrator is trying her best to explain to us why a character just behaved a certain way. For instance, at one point in the story, when she comments on a moment of misery and loneliness, the narrator's tone rises into a prophetic register, declaring that human beings are simply not strong enough to face all the suffering in the world:

"If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity."

Woah. Trigger warning, maybe, George??

Middlemarch is such a work of genius that it's hard to use it as a teaching guide. This is perhaps why I feel like I learned more (on a craft level) from studying a more middling author, Anthony Trollope. 

Trollope, like Eliot, loved his omnscient narrator. But while Eliot uses omnsicient narration to expand the reader's consciousness, to present the blistering complexity of human existence, Trollope's goals are more functional. 

In a Trollope novel, his narrator simply tells you what to think about the events of each chapter. His narrator is a rather snobbish moralist (Trollope apparently uses the same narrator in all but one of his 47 novels) who openly instructs the reader how to think about the characters and their decisions.

Here's an example from The Eustace Diamonds:

Lord Fawn has a plan to marry Lady Eustace -- for her money. And in chapter nine, Fawn needs to explain his intentions to his mother. Despite what you may have heard about Victorian dialogue being ponderous and expository, Trollope's scenes are rapid and dramatic (you can read the chapter I'm referring to, chapter nine, over on Project Gutenberg). 

However, before he allows us to get to that dialogue, Trollope takes care to orient the reader so that the reader sees Lord Fawn the way Trollope wishes. He spends a good amount of time framing Fawn's character:

"Such a man almost naturally looks to marriage as an assistance in the dreary fight. It soon becomes clear to him that he cannot marry without money, and he learns to think that heiresses have been invented exactly to suit his case. He is conscious of having been subjected to hardship by Fortune, and regards female wealth as his legitimate mode of escape from it."

Then, after Lord Fawn talks to his mother, Trollope's narrator comes back in and tells us exactly what to think about this lacklustre fellow:

"He didn't see why this woman he was about to marry should not be a good wife to him! And yet he knew nothing about her, and had not taken the slightest trouble to make inquiry."

The whole novel is full of this kind of "steering." Trollope guides the reader through the tale in a completely frank way. He is not meant to be an unreliable narrator; there are no real shadows in a book like The Eustace Diamonds, no mysteries or impenetrable depths. Everything is visible and clear. It is just how the narrator says it is.

Partly as a result, Trollope's contemporaries felt conflicted about his work. Henry James called Trollope's novels "stupid" -- and yet he also complained about finding them oddly compulsive. 

To me, this reveals a powerful truth about fiction and storytelling. By pushing that element of the novel too far that he makes it unusually visible, Trollope shows us how readers actually read our novels: they expect us to guide them. 

And this insight reminded me of a masterpiece of literary criticism, The Rhetoric of Fiction, by Wayne Booth.

In that study of narration and narrative form, Booth shows over and over that a well-designed narrator makes for a pleasing, elegant storytelling experience. He takes aim at "show don't tell" and the restrained, artsy premises of the twentieth century "New Critics," pointing out how older stories with a distinct narrator can be just as rapid and vivid as modern stories that try to "let events speak for themselves." Booth also shows how twentieth century novels, having abandoned this truly omniscient narrator, were forced to deploy a variety of awkward coping mechanisms simply to deliver a working narrative.

Imagine you read a line in a modern novel like this:

"He smiled at her, but she responded with a cold stern frown, as if she didn't care for his impoverished appearance."

Booth points out that "as if" is a clumsy stand in for the old style narrator. This is the modern author pretending not to know what the side character is thinking. The reader is distanced from the moment for no real benefit, and it would be quicker and more natural to write:

"He smiled her at but she responded with a cold stern frown, disgusted by his impoverished appearance."

This second version of the story is told by an all-seeing narrator (which is supposed to be bad, we authors are told), and yet it is quicker and more straightforward than the first version.

Indeed, in Booth, there is a sense that Jane Austen's narrators offer the ideal way to tell a story -- her narrator is perfectly placed in the middle point, not as domineering as the Victorians but also not as opaque and open-ended as the twentieth century classics. 

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These insights were revelatory for me. Readers actually liked it when stories were made clear to them. Wow.

Of course, writing like Trollope is not really possible these days. But the principle was clear: guiding readers forward made for good fiction.

The question then becomes: how to do that? How could we guide a reader forward in a contemporary, twenty-first century fashion? How could we create a clear, sunlit path for our reader to wander down?

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I hope you're enjoying this series.

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