Writing Narrative Nonfiction: The Protagonist, Part I: Child Narrator vs. Reminiscent Narrator

January 30, 2008
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Lisa Dale Norton
Lisa Dale Norton

Your Life As Story:  Writing Narrative Nonfiction

The Protagonist, Part I: Child Narrator vs. Reminiscent Narrator

by Lisa Dale Norton
February 2008

Lisa Dale Norton will be providing a one-hour interactive teleconference in the Authorlink Virtual Classroom March 26, 2008. Find details here.

"Writers of the personal narrative use different speaking voices. . ."
—Norton

This month we continue exploring how to use the art and craft of writing to create characters by looking at the protagonist, you, the narrator of your piece of Narrative Nonfiction.

Writers of the personal narrative use different speaking voices, for example the Child Narrator or the Reminiscent Narrator. We can think of this aspect of craft as Point-of-View. It governs the way the writing will sound to the reader, the kinds of insights that will be shared, the language used, and the entire style of composition.

"Writers who favor the approach of the novelist or short story writer are more comfortable using the Child Narrator . . ."
—Norton

Experience has taught me that writers who favor the approach of the novelist or short story writer are more comfortable using the Child Narrator, and writers whose natural voice cleaves more closely to that of the essayist are apt to lean toward the voice of the Reminiscent Narrator, but this is not always the case, and certainly any writer can learn to master either skill. It is, of course, simply an application of craft.

" The Child Narrator is you as a younger version of yourself . . ."
—Norton

Simply stated the Child Narrator is you as a younger version of yourself, say at 12 or 8 years of age. That person, the girl or boy you were, would be the person telling the story. All perceptions and insights would come through the intelligence of that character. The Child Narrator can bring a kind of innocence and freshness of perspective that a Reminiscent Narrator would sound goofy attempting to achieve.

"The Reminiscent Narrator is you today looking back . . ."
—Norton

The Reminiscent Narrator is you today looking back making sense of what you remember from the vantage point of your current age. The Reminiscent Narrator is able to put events into a perspective a Child Narrator could not. You get to be the Wise Woman or Wise Man of your own life. You get to make meaning.

Some writers are successful blending child interpretations and voice with adult interpretations and voice. It is a subtle weaving back and forth between viewpoints.

Any way you mix it up, you simply need to be aware of the possibilities and manage them with controlled choices. This is, of course, all about being aware of and utilizing craft. You get better at it as you practice.

". . . make an effort to get inside the head of the child you once were."
—Norton
As you play with the narrator, make an effort to get inside the head of the child you once were. Use the language (vocabulary) you would have used, the phrasing, the depth of understanding. As the Reminiscent Narrator you can be as deeply philosophical as you are able. You can highlight your intellect with insight, vocabulary and writing style, and we (the readers) will buy it because we hear an adult looking back and telling a story. We understand that the person talking to us is mature and has mature interpretations. If a Child Narrator attempted the same, we would be thrown out of the dream of the story; we would question the believability of the character.
". . . figure out which voice is your natural one."
—Norton
During the process of playing with these two forms of narration, figure out which voice is your natural one. If Child Narrator isn 't as easy for you as the Reminiscent Narrator (or vice versa), figure out why. Analyze it. Be able to state what your strengths are as a narrator and where you need to practice your craft. Doing this is joining in the process of being a writer.
About
Lisa Dale Norton
Lisa Dale Norton's new book about memoir, SHIMMERING IMAGES: A HANDY LITTLE GUIDE TO WRITING MEMOIR, will be released by St. Martin 's Press in Spring '08. She is the author of Hawk Flies Above: Journey to the Heart of the Sandhills (Picador USA/St. Martin 's Press), a work combining memoir and nature writing. Lisa teaches for the UCLA Writers' Extension Program and speaks nationally on the power of story and the process of writing your own. She lives in Santa Fe. www.lisadalenorton.com

 

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