Creating a narrative voice is one of the most challenging aspects of writing – in my own book, The Reiki Circle, the story is woven from three different points of view, with three distinct narrative styles! Rex Stout – one of my favourite crime writers! – developed the wise-cracking Archie Goodwin as narrator, a totally different voice from the writer himself.
In this guest post by Kenneth Weene, he outlines how he crafts a distinct narrative voice for story teller characters, so that they stand out on their own, rather than as the narrator of the larger story.
Many Fish Naming Story
One of my preoccupations as a writer is creating a believable narrative voice. This is especially crucial when a character is telling a story within the larger work, similar to the play within the play. There is a French term for this narrative device, mise en abyme. Of course nobody was better at this than Shakespeare. Three of his plays have plays within, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and of course Hamlet.
Currently, I am writing Red and White, a novel of Native American and White interaction at the end of the nineteenth century. One essential ingredient is a number of Native American stories, but they are stories that I am creating for my characters. My task is to capture a sense of the Indian voice while developing my plot.
Today, I thought I’d share one example of this set of mise en abyme tales. This story is told by the Medicine Man Tall Grass at the naming ceremony for the protagonist’s, Lonely Cricket’s, younger brother. In creating it I have followed a few important traditions of Native American stories:
- There is almost always a trickster who fools the humans. As a result something bad happens, but also something good;
- Few of the characters are given names so that the “hero” stands out;
- There is a repetitive sense to the story, both a repeating of certain important elements and a repetition of certain phrases;
- There is often a sense of naiveté, the humans tend to be all too willing to go along with the trickster;
- Certain positive characteristics such as patience or bravery are exemplified by the hero.
Now the story. I am curious to see how well you think I have met the standards I have set. Do you find the narrative voice believable for this Native American tale?
Creating a Narrative Voice for a Shaman
There were three boys who wanted to go fishing. They took their fishing spears, some pemmican in case they became hungry, and long thongs on which they would hang the many fish they were sure they would bring back for the village.
The boys were excited at the thought of an adventure. They were even more excited at the thought of the welcome they would receive when they returned with long lines of fish, enough for a great feast.
Young Wolf, who had suggested they go fishing, led the way. The other boys followed him across a field and into the woods. They followed the trail to the brook where their fathers had taught them how to fish, how to stand silent on the rocks carefully and to avoid casting a shadow which might alarm the trout or pickerel that gathered in the eddies to feed.
When they found a good place, they lay down their small bundles. Each boy took off his moccasins, his pants, and his shirt so his clothing would not get wet if he slipped on a wet rock. Then they took their positions and waited.
No fish came. One of the boys said, “I am tired of waiting. Why don’t we take a break and eat some of our pemmican?” The third boy agreed, but Young Wolf kept his vigil on the rocks.
While his friends were eating, Young Wolf saw a large trout making his way up the current towards his rock. He readied his spear and held very still. When the fish came into range, Young Wolf cast his spear; but the fish had disappeared. As the disappointed boy pulled the thong that connected the spear to his wrist, he lost his footing and slipped into the water.
“Ha, you got me, you trickster,” Young Wolf said. Suddenly, the trout jumped and then splashed back into the water. The boy laughed again.
When Young Wolf laughed, a stranger came out of the bushes. “You are all wet,” he said to the boy.
“Yes, the fish got the better of me today.”
“Would you like to catch many fish?” the stranger asked. “I know a place where there are so many that your arms will grow weary from spearing them.”
The boy was happy at the suggestion. His eyes filled with dreams of the many fish he and his friends would bring home to their village.
“Yes,” he said to the stranger, “my friends and I will go with you to this fishing place.”
“It will take time and there is danger,” the stranger said. “You will have to be patient and brave to go with me.”
Young Wolf went to his two friends and told them about the stranger and the wonderful fishing place he knew. The boy who had said, “I am tired of waiting,” did not want to go. “I know that I am not patient,” he said. “This is not a journey for me. I will go back to the village.”
As the boy left, Young Wolf said to him, “Leave your thongs with us so that we can use them to help bring back all the fish we are sure to spear.” So the boy gave Young Wolf the long thongs and then headed back to the village.
Then Young Wolf and the other boy followed the stranger along a path they had never before seen. They came to a steep place where they would have to climb. It was very dangerous and the other boy stopped. “I am not brave enough for this,” he said. “I will return to our village.”
As the boy left, Young Wolf said to him, “Leave your thongs with me so that I can use them to help bring back all the fish I am sure to spear.” So the boy gave Young Wolf the long thongs and then headed back to the village.
When the two boys returned to the village, the men asked where they had been. When they told their story, one of the medicine men said, “I think that Young Wolf has gone off with the Trickster; we must go after him.
A war party was mounted, and the two boys showed the way. When they came to the steep place, two of the bravest men climbed to the top. There they found a great stream in which there were many fish. Next to the stream they found Young Wolf’s moccasins and his clothing, but he was nowhere to be found.
Near the boy’s clothes were the long thongs of buckskin the boys had taken, the ones on which they had planned to string their fish. The thongs had been woven into a net, which was stretched across the stream. In the middle of the net there was a large trout ensnared, large enough to feed three men. That was the first time our people had learned of using nets to catch fish.
Young Wolf would never return, but he had indeed found a way to feed the people with many fish. And that, Many Fish, is the story I tell for your naming celebration.
Ken Weene has three novels published by All Things That Matter Press. They are available in print, Kindle and Nook editions; and one, Memoirs From the Asylum is also available in audio. Many of his short stories and poems have also been published.
How do you create a narrative voice? Do you base it on someone you know … or is it your own voice as a storyteller? Express your thoughts in the comments below.