Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Point of View--Ironic Tone in Third Person



I wanted to talk this morning about point of view, and specifically about writing in an ironic or satiric tone of voice in the third person. This is an issue that has plagued some of the strongest writers in my workshops, and often surfaces during our point of view exercise, where I ask everyone to switch between writing in first person and writing in third person. If you usually write in first person, you are to rewrite a few paragraphs of your work in the third person. If you usually write in third person, you are to rewrite a few paragraphs in the first person. 


I often assign this exercise because the writers in my workshops are frequently writing rather autobiographical fiction, and I find that making them switch viewpoints can help establish a wider stance and "sense of perspective" upon the world they are creating. However, the more ironic, first person writers always have trouble with this exercise, and I thought it would be helpful to discuss why that is, and to get out a few examples of writers who have successfully used an ironic or "snarky" tone of voice. 


We are all used to the ironic or self-deprecating first person voice. To take a famous example, here's a snippet from the opening of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. 
Now we should be able to perform our "exercise" on this passage, right? Just convert from first person to third person. But watch what happens when we do: 
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where he was born, and what his lousy childhood was like, and how his parents were occupied and all before they had him, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but [I don't feel like going into it][or][he wouldn't want us going into it] if you want to know the truth. 
The trouble with this paragraph is that when you move from first to third person, you move from a narrator who is the same as the character, to a third person off-screen narrator who is not the same person as the character, and who now in fact sounds like he's "making fun" of the character.  

This can actually be a problem any time you write a bit ironically in the third person. The reader may begin to feel as if the narrator is beating up unfairly on the characters. The reader may also begin to question, who is this off-screen persona/voice who has all of these strong opinions? 


With a light touch, this sense of an opinionated off-stage voice may be quite pleasurable. However, handled badly (as in my example above), such a voice can leave the reader perplexed and struggling. 

Let's look at a couple of examples where writers have successfully used an ironic or snarky tone of voice in the third person:


Our first example is from the opening of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters. "My dear Mr. Bennet," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?"
And so we go on to follow this mannered courtship drama. There are a couple of things to note here. First of all, a witty, ironic tone is fully in evidence--so it can be done in the third person. Next, while Mrs. Bennet's character will certainly come in for some rather unkind examination during the course of the novel, she is largely allowed enough rope to hang herself, and Austen generally takes a light and sympathetic tone with Mrs. B, and with all of her characters, and you never feel as if she's flogging anyone as in my example above. 

I think this point of sympathy is an important one. Narrators need generally to be sympathetic with their characters, though not in the sense of believing everything they say, but rather in the sense of being searching and curious about their situation. The narrator needs to find the difficulties of the characters worthy of serious, if playful, examination.

Here's another example, from an author who plays it closer to the line--This is a snippet from the opening of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, which becomes a full-on social satire, and probably goes to the limit of how much fun you can make of characters without losing interest in them:
Three in the afternoon was a time of danger in these gerontocratic suburbs of St. Jude. Alfred had awakened in the great blue chair in which he'd been sleeping since lunch. He'd had his nap and there would be no local news until five o'clock. Two empty hours were a sinus in which infections bred. He struggled to his feet and stood by the Ping-Pong table, listening in vain for Enid. Ringing throughout the house was an alarm bell that no one but Alfred and Enid could hear directly. It was the alarm bell of anxiety.
Clearly there is a risk here of losing the reader--If Franzen does not step in and humanize these characters quickly (which, in fact, he does), we readers might start to say to ourselves, look, these characters are so pathetic, why should I care about them? So there is a delicate line we are treading here as writers. How much irony you think you can get away with must, in the end, be an intuitive decision as you write. And some of it is clearly a matter of taste. I personally love Franzen's writing, but I sometimes hear others complaining that his tone is "too much" for them. 


A couple more quick examples before I quit. Writers sometimes resort to the second person for an ironic or satiric tone of voice, and here's an example--A passage from the opening of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not.
The point about using second person is that it really writes like a subset of first person. You don't feel the presence of an ironic offscreen narrator as you do in third. Rather, for the reader, it is more like being asked to step into the shoes of the first person narrator. And the oddness of being in second person emphasizes the ironic tone and the strangeness of the situation. So second person can work well in this way. 


A final example, to show that in the third person it is important to distinguish between the narrator's ironic tone and character inflection, which is a very different thing. Sometimes the narrator can have a fairly neutral tone, but the character herself is being ironic. This is essentially a matter of distance: Are we up close with the character? Or farther out with the narrator and watching the character? You need to be clear about what distance you are working at in the third person. To illustrate, here's an example from the opening of Alice Munro's short story, "Royal Beatings" from her collection, The Beggar Maid, where Munro negotiates this relationship between narrator description and character attitude.
Royal Beating. That was Flo's promise. You are going to get one Royal Beating. The word Royal lolled on Flo's tongue, took on trappings. Rose had a need to picture things, to pursue absurdities, that was stronger than her need to stay out of trouble, and instead of taking this threat to heart she pondered: how is a beating royal?
Munro's narrator is reporting fairly neutrally, but the report is inflected with wonderful character attitude. 


I hope these examples help clarify this difficult issue. Happy writing everyone!

2 comments:

levimontgomery said...

I'm actually not sure if it's going to let me post a comment to such an old post, but here goes...

When you began talking about writing in an ironic or satirical voice, I didn't think you were talking about me, but when I got to the point about readers thinking you're making fun of your characters, it finally reached home. I have been accused of making fun of one of my favorite characters. There was only the one person who ever said it, and he had a lot of pointless remarks to make about a lot of other things, so I didn't pay a lot of attention, but the most striking thing about the whole exchange is that the novella in question (which can be read online at http://www.webook.com/project/The-Dinosaur-and-the-Dragon-Lady) is written in a third-person viewpoint so close it is almost first person. It is quite clear that the thoughts being presented are those of Morry, the viewpoint character, and I read it over two or three times, trying to see how he was being too hard on himself. In the end, I decided this was simply in line with the commenter's adamant insistence that I replace "caftan" with "tunic" (as though the two are anything alike), and went on with my life, but unfortunately, you can't learn much from doing that.

Levi Montgomery

A Wonkey Donkey said...

Thank you again, I feel like I learn something every time I read on your blog. I read a lesson from you and then practice this during the week so hopefully I can read all you have in the next year or so.

I am hoping this will help my readers enjoy my short stories more.

Thank You