Thoughts on Classic Narrators
I’ve been working my way through H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, and was struck by a random thought. The narrative structure of the book is very similar to other contemporary works.
This is actually my first time with this particular work. I am also surprised by the shortness of it. I had been under the impression that The Time Machine was a novel, but it is in fact a novella. Only around 33,000 words depending on the source. Wells’s The War of the Worlds is only around 46,000 words. Both details have me thinking about the current demand of publishers of 80k or more words for fantasy and sci-fi books. Where does that come from? But that’s a question for another time.
For this post, I am thinking about the narrators used in The Time Machine and many of its contemporary works. The narrator takes the form of a side character who is witnessing the actions of the main character of the story. This is the same narrator used by Arthur Conan Doyle in the Sherlock Holmes stories, in the form of John Watson. Though I haven’t read it, I believe it is the same in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, accounts of the famous vampire conveyed by a third party. The same is true for Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, though you might not notice it as most of that novel is told in first-person. But this is a first-person account being heard and relayed by the narrator, who is not himself, the person who traveled back in time.
The Time Machine is similar to Twain’s work in that–at least what I have gone through so far–the narrator is not part of the actual story. He is simply a witness that relays this incredible story to us. It seems to me that classic fiction–for popular fiction for wide audiences emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries, as did the modern form of the novel–demanded very straight-forward, realistic narrators. That old writing question, that is now unnecessary but is often still asked, “How is this account delivered to the reader?,” is a critical component of classic novels. So you tend to find a lot of discovered letters, and third-party witness type stories.
We have grown a lot since that time. Now we feel no need to explain where a third-person account comes from, nor how the narrator knows what it knows. Though many would argue with me, I would even go as far to say that first-person narrators do not need to be accounted for. I have indeed written on the topic before.
It quite interesting to look back and see, what appears to be, much more rigidity than what we have in modern writing. There’s nothing wrong with having realistic narrators, especially if you’re writing historical fiction. I have even though of writing a “discovered letters” story myself. But it is not necessary. We have so many more narrative tools than they did back then.
I am having a lot of fun with The Time Machine, much more than with the last page of IT, which is becoming a major drag. Maybe I should get back to it, eh?
Thanks for reading.
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