Sep 23, 2010

Context: A Guest Post by Memory

Today’s guest post is by my favourite speculative fiction blogger, Memory from Stella Matutina. I once said that if Memory switched to blogging about deep sea fishing I’d still happily read everything she posted, and I completely stand by those words. Memory’s guest post is about narrative context – how a story is framed or justifies its own existence – and it’s both wonderfully written and full of questions about storytelling that I also find fascinating. I hope you’ll enjoy it every bit as much as I did.

Context: A Guest Post by Memory

First person narratives always get me thinking about context.

(A brief explanatory aside, now: when I say “context,” I’m referring to the story’s existence within the book’s own world; the context within which the narrator tells the tale. Is it written down? Is it an oral account? Are we right there with them, viewing events through their eyes? Does the story exist in physical form, within the book itself?)

If we read something in the third person, we can assume that we’re dealing with an omniscient narrator who’s relaying the story from a distance. Easy stuff. When we shift to the first person, though, the whole idea of context becomes just a touch less clear.

In most cases, context is implied, not directly stated. If the narrator sometimes addresses the reader directly, as Jacqueline Carey’s narrators do in her KUSHIEL’S LEGACY series, we can assume she’s writing these events out after the fact. Moirin, the most recent trilogy’s narrator, even references the second story arc in such a way that it’s clear she’s read it. The books exist in her world, in physical form.

If the narrator speaks entirely in the present tense, like Todd in Patrick Ness’s THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO, we can assume we’re riding around inside his head, watching events as they unfold. Todd isn’t necessarily creating a record for future generations, though his physiology ensures that those around him will still hear his story, since men in his world cannot help but project their thoughts.

Occasionally, the narrator does provide us with a concrete context. Fitz, who narrates Robin Hobb’s FARSEER and TAWNY MAN trilogies, tells us right up front that he’s trying to write the history of his country… but he keeps getting distracted by his own life story. He’s got stacks of paper sitting all over his house, and this physical record causes him a few problems in later books. The title character of Francesca Lia Block and Carmen Staton’s RUBY wants to give her lover an account of how they came together. She address him as “you” throughout the text, mingling the first person with the second. Holden Caulfield of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE has been asked to detail the events that led him to come west. We never learn whether he’s telling his story aloud, presumably to someone with a tape recorder, or writing it down; either way, he’s created a physical record that any of the story’s characters could pick up and read.

Then we have Anne Rice, who is the queen of context. She gives us a concrete context for every one of her first person gothic novels. (Her religious novels and her erotica are a little less defined). Louis, Armand, Quinn, Azriel, Marius and (in one instance) Lestat tell their stories aloud. They make a record of events for one particular person, with the understanding that this person will transcribe the account and share it with others. Lestat, Pandora, David and Triana write their stories themselves. They intend to “make a book” out of it, as David says, and they sometimes address the reader directly.

But it’s THE QUEEN OF THE DAMNED that interests me the most, so far as context goes. In this book, Lestat’s first person POV alternates with a number of third person POVs—and Lestat tells us, right up front, that he gleaned the third person bits from peoples’ minds as they told him about their experiences. There’s still context.

Why the italics? Well, this is the only first/third combo narrative I’ve ever encountered where such is the case. These sorts of narratives don’t really lend themselves to context. We can assume that the first person narrator is either telling us the story or writing it out at a later date, as we established above, but how does the third person enter the picture? How does Katherine’s perspective join with the third person bits in Ellen Kushner’s THE PRIVILEGE OF THE SWORD? Where does Bartimaeus’s first person fit in with Nathanial and Kitty’s third in Jonathan Stroud’s BARTIMAEUS TRILOGY? There’s no context.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I do think it’s an interesting problem to mull over. And it becomes even more interesting when you consider how the first and third persons combine over larger series. How do we reconcile the vampiric first person with the third person perspective prevalent throughout Anne Rice’s Mayfair books, which are set in the same world and fit into the same overall series? How does Fitz’s context-heavy first person fit in with the omniscient third person in the LIVESHIP TRADERS series? What about Diana Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER books, which began in the first person from Claire’s perspective but later became a mix of first person and third? Hmm.

Then we have the multi-first person narratives, where context flies even further out the window.

How do these narratives come together? Are the narrators consciously sharing the storytelling; are they aware of the other person’s narrative? In most cases, it seems a bit of a stretch to believe so. If we look at a book like THE TIME TRAVELLER’S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger, written in the present tense, we can assume we’re living it alongside the characters, but what about something like Anne Rice’s EXIT TO EDEN, or Sarah Monette’s DOCTRINE OF LABYRINTHS series, or Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett’s HAVEMERCY? We’ve basically gotta throw the whole idea of context out the window and just roll with it. Suspend our disbelief and accept that these stories have come together somehow. Never mind the specifics.

I didn’t mean to ramble on for nearly this long, but context really does fascinate me. How about you? Can you think of any other combined first/third person novels with a concrete context? What about multi-first person works? I know my examples are fantasy-heavy; can you recommend any relevant mainstream titles, or books in other genres?


  1. "Is it written down? Is it an oral account? Are we right there with them, viewing events through their eyes? Does the story exist in physical form, within the book itself?"

    I feel very unintelligent, but I had never thought about those questions!

    Very intelligent post, I'm still mulling over everything you said since it is all so new to me..

  2. I've seen a few of your posts on this topic before and it's really opened my eyes; I never wondered about why books were written certain ways before but I find myself appreciating when authors build it into the story. Unfortunately I can't think of any concrete examples at the moment but I will try and come back!

  3. Brilliant post. Like Iris, I never give much thought to how the story is told... I just know that sometimes it doesn't work right or feel right. When it switches between first and third with no context it always, in my mind, makes it a bit unbelievable and harder to fit together. When it is a group of first person narratives I think I sometimes imagine the context as some mind reader collecting the stories ;)

  4. Great post. Like Irisonbooks, I have not given this much thought in terms of how you described. I never stopped to consider if it is the context that makes the story work or not work for me. Just get a feeling.
    Although, I do know that I tend to like first person narrative the best. It seems to me, that third person must be written well for it to work, for me anyway.
    I am going to keep my eye open now to see if I can place context in the stories that I am liking, and vice versa. Very informative post, thanks.

  5. I like thinking about this kind of context too! I like it when the author's able to do meta-textual stuff with the first-person narration, but so frequently the author tries to do it and then it comes out super awkward and lame. Which I guess means I like it in theory better than in practice. But, like, Wilkie Collins? The Moonstone? I LOVE IT. Multiple points of view make me happy.

  6. You've given me loads to think about. I've been a lazy reader and have missed so many things of late. I'm going to start reading more deliberately and notice all of these things.

  7. Barbara Kingsolver does multi-first person narrative in The Poisonwood Bible--it's different members of the same family, so the context is that you've seen the same kind of thing from different perspectives. She experimented with that in The Bean Trees, although not as successfully.

    Anne Tyler does it too, best in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, again with members of a family.

  8. I think that the main reason why I tend to stay away from writing in 1st person POV and reading books in 1st person POV is that there's "something" wrong with the context. I've never really been able to place that "something," but this post has given me a few more things to think on. Thanks!

  9. I think a lot of authors mess up a bit on POV and get it all jumbled up. At least with first person POV, it's a little easier to keep it straight. They just (then) have to worry about past/present tenses!

  10. I don't mind multiple first person narratives, or even occasionally, 1st/3rd. What I mind more, oddly, is the omniscient narrator who jumps from telling me one person's POV to another - especially if it happens within the same paragraph (then I just get really ratty). I think this is just a me-thing, because I've accepted the omniscient narrator, but them I'm imposing rules on them, but I prefer chapters or sections to stick to one POV only. But there are good authors out there who mis the POVs up, so it doesn't often make me give up on a book.

    I've just finished a 3rd person present tense novel, and I really don't understand why anyone would choose to write that way, but I really enjoyed the book. Reading is such a suspension of disbelief exercise anyway, that if someone is writing well I'll forgive them most sins.


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