‘Its own language of key, scale and colour’. The Challenges of Distinctive Characterisation and World Building in First-Person Narratives

Essay, 2014

10 Pages, Grade: 1.1


‘Its own language of key, scale and colour’

The Challenges of Distinctive Characterisation and World Building in First-Person Narratives

‘Each in its own language of key, scale and colour,’ says David Mitchell’s composer, Robert Frobisher, describing his magnum opus, The Cloud Atlas Sextet. ‘Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished’ (2004, p.463). Here David Mitchell captures the artistic process he knows well; Frobisher’s medium is the music of ‘cello, flute, oboe and violin’, but if Frobisher was a writer, he could easily be talking about character voices. Indeed, the sextet is a microcosm of Cloud Atlas (2004) itself, sharing a name and concept with the Russian doll of nested narratives, each narrator vivid and distinguishable from the last. The first-person narrative mode offers a range of possibilities for a novelist. Mitchell calls it ‘the most intimate voice’ (Pauli, 2004), and Cloud Atlas showcases the flexibility of the mode across a range of settings, genres and time periods. Other novelists, such as Barbara Kingsolver, see the subjectivity of the first-person as an opportunity to explore different perspectives of events. The Poisonwood Bible (2008) follows a rotational narrative of contrapuntal chapters, from the point-of-view of each of the women in the Price family, to ‘create a moral conversation’ (Kingsolver, 2012). My own novel, Fairweather (2014), a historical detective novel set in Victorian London, told in part from the perspective of a serial conman and opportunist, experiments with the flexibility of a single voice. Though very different, both in genre and structural approach, each of these novels uses the ‘key, scale and colour’ of language to bring life to their narrators and the stories they tell.

Key is a pan-artistic musical term defined as a note or system of notes which produce ‘the tone or tenor of a piece of writing’, specifically ‘the intensity or force of a feeling or action’. A further definition of use to us is ‘the pitch or tone of a person’s voice’ (OED, 2014). The character of the narrator is the filter through which the story is told, and as such is one of the most important choices for a writer to make. In his book, Consciousness and the Novel (2003), David Lodge states that ‘the first person narrative is vividly expressive of personality’ (p.56). Unlike most third-person narratives, the first-person narrator is a character in his own right, defined by his or her own vocabulary and means of expression. Every impression the writer gives us is filtered through the narrator’s perception before it reaches the page. Kingsolver illustrates this subjectivity at key points in her novel, such as the plague of ants and Ruth May’s death, by presenting short, intercut chapters from the perspectives of each of the girls describing the same event.

As John Gardner (1991) points out, ‘the choice of point of view will largely determine all other choices with regard to style’ (p.76). David Mitchell asks ‘what is the best voice to express [the story] through?’ and I agree that voice is about ‘responding to the demands a story makes’ (Denes, 2004) of you as a writer. If I had chosen to write Fairweather from another perspective, — that of a detective, or the victim, Morley, for example — the key of the story would be very different. Choosing a ‘wastrel’ (Eames, 2014, p.2) criminal, intimately bound up with the missing person, opened up new and more interesting ways of framing the mystery. Likewise, Kingsolver’s (2003) decision to create ‘a character who would personify each point of view’ about her subject allows for a remarkable range of different voices. Leah, whom her hemiplegic twin sister, Adah, calls ‘our Father’s star pupil in matters Biblical’ (2008, loc.767) relates events with earnest interest and perception, quite different from Adah’s wordplay and ironic cynicism.

Mitchell’s approach to characterisation is a combination of research, models and lexical acquisition. Just as Kingsolver notes the challenge of reproducing ‘the teenage culture and language of the late 1950s’ (2013), Mitchell sees ‘the key to realising characters is to collect vocabulary and style, words, expressions and phrases outside his normal bounds’ (Pauli, 2004). The narrator’s language, his mode of speech and idiom, are the way that a writer can convey his character, while seeming to describe other characters and events. Any character might say ‘she was a plump, but attractive brunette’, but only Aldous Fairweather would look at her, decide he dislikes her because her weight has lost him a bet, and describe her as ‘porky’, with ‘creosote brown’ hair (Eames, 2014, p.10). Character voice is a combination of register, idiom, lexical field, perception and focus, all of which tell the reader as much about the narrator as the action he is describing. Take, for example, a passage from the first section of Frobisher’s epistolary narrative in Cloud Atlas:

Labouring types surrounded me with bad teeth, parrot voices and unfounded optimism. Sobering to think how one accursed night of baccarat can alter a man’s social standing so irreversibly. Those shopworkers, cabbies and tradesmen had more 1/2 crowns and threepenny bits squirrelled away in their sour Stepney mattresses than I, Son of an Ecclesiastical Somebody, can claim. (2004, p.43)

The key Mitchell creates here conveys with great economy not only the sorry state in which the newly-destitute Frobisher finds himself, but his bitterness, class consciousness, disdain for physical labour, ecclesiastical background and propensity for gambling. The level of detail gives a vivid picture of the ‘sooty nook of Victoria Station’ (p.43), but the tone of the details — disparaging, disgusted — show us precisely why he wishes to escape. Kingsolver’s use of idiomatic language shapes the key of each of her narrator characters. Rachel, the blithe, malapropism-spouting eldest daughter’s chapters are peppered with minced oaths, idioms and exclamations: ‘Jeez oh man’ (Kingsolver, 2008, loc.637), ‘man oh man’ (loc.2305), ‘it gave me the heebie-jeebies’ (loc.6545), whereas Adah uses ‘palindrome poem[s]’, for example describing Leah’s relationship with Anatole as ‘eros, eyesore’ (loc.3789). Through use of different vocabulary, Mitchell and Kingsolver distinguish the voice of each of their characters.


Excerpt out of 10 pages


‘Its own language of key, scale and colour’. The Challenges of Distinctive Characterisation and World Building in First-Person Narratives
University of Birmingham
BA English with Creative Writing
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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456 KB
Creative Writing, David Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, Fiction, writing, narrative voice
Quote paper
Rachel Eames (Author), 2014, ‘Its own language of key, scale and colour’. The Challenges of Distinctive Characterisation and World Building in First-Person Narratives, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/334619


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