Like any craft, writing possesses many tools and tropes. Imagination is undoubtedly the most exciting and perhaps, the most important, of these. However, we wouldn’t find a painter unaware of shading, nor a photographer, unaware of aperture. So, why should we as writers be unaware of the intricacies of our craft, of the tools which will ease the labour of creativity on the days when inspiration takes unannounced leave?
Narrative voice and perspective stand as the two elements of narration which the queer writer is uniquely adept to cultivate. Queer people, in their experiences of coming out or simply realising they were a member of the LGBTQ+ community, have honed a knowledge and appreciation of the complexity of identity, of its centrality and vitality to a fulfilled life. The challenge for the queer writer then, lies in translating these powerful life experiences into equally potent prose. In this article, I hope to break down the basics of these narrative devices, in the hope that, with the mechanics of writing attended to, we can craft with conviction and ease.
André Aciman’s novel Call Me By Your Name is an accessible example of an intimate first person narrative,
‘I didn’t understand why he had brought his foot on mine. Was it a pass, or a well-meaning gesture of solidarity and comradeship, like his chummy hug massage, a lighthearted nudge between lovers who are no longer sleeping together but have decided to remain friends and occasionally go to the movies?’
First person narrative voice is easily identified by the presence of ‘I’ pronouns. Narrative perspective can sometimes be more difficult to identify and may flux throughout a text. In this extract, however, it is clear the narrative perspective is that of Elio, the narrator. In this passage, the reader is subject to Elio’s point of view and mood. We see the world of Call Me By Your Name through Elio’s eyes.
James Baldwin’s short story ‘Sonny’s Blues’ is an example of a first person narrative voice with multiple narrative perspectives,
… I wanted to write you many a time but I dug how much I must have hurt you and so I didn’t write. But now I feel like a man who’s been trying to climb up out of some real deep and funky hole and just saw the sun up there, outside. I got to get outside.’
Through intertwining the trope of the letter and the confession, Baldwin allows his reader’s to become privy to the perspectives of both the unnamed narrator and his brother, Sonny. Increasing the focal lenses or perspectives, even in minute amounts, can be a great way to achieve a more complex, engaging narrative style.
A third person narrative voice can be identified through the use of ‘she,’ ‘he,’ or ‘they’ pronouns. If the narrator is privy to primarily the protagonist’s inner and outer life, this is referred to as a third person limited narration. However, if the narrative voice is all knowing, it is an omniscient narrator. Take this extract from Nella Larsen’s Passing,
‘Irene hung up the receiver … Her thoughts immediately filled with self reproach. She’d done it again …What was it about Clare’s voice that was so appealing, so very seductive?’
This extract from Passing is an example of a third person limited or close narration. This is demonstrated by the narrator’s lack of insight into Irene’s attraction to Clare. If the narrator were privy to Irene’s every reasoning and idiosyncrasy, it would be an omniscient narrator. Similarly, the narrative perspective is primarily that of Irene. The narrator tracks the world as Irene, the protagonist, encounters it.
Generally, writers will have a favourite narrative style that they tend to abide by. However, it can be useful to experiment. If you’re ever experiencing writer’s block, try changing the perspective. Move from third person into first person and spend some time cultivating the psychology of your character before translating them into action and dialogue.
If you find that the complexities of narration are something you’d like to learn more about, the works of narrative theorist Gérard Genette, are a challenging but illuminating read. Similarly, there are a multiplicity of queer writers such as Anne Marie Schwarzenbach, Jacob Tobia or Judith Butler with distinctive narrative styles to enjoy and learn from.
After all, remaining curious, is what keeps us cultivating the unique lens of the queerer eye.