Traditional Versus Modern Voices

Why have I chosen the following photo from my place of birth, Grafton, taken in 1924, as an introduction to this post? For several reasons:

  • I like it very much, firstly  because of its classical and historical attributes, as well as for the varied expressions and actions of the  subjects in the photograph.
  • It’s from my family album, showing my paternal grandparents, “Pop” and “Ma”, at reverse ends of the photo, with their tennis group.
  • For me, it illustrates, metaphorically and visually, some of the aspects underpinning the concepts of Voice and Point of View. The varied poses and personas of the subjects lead me to ask what each person is doing, thinking, feeling and expressing in this photo. What have they just said, or are about to?
  • It’s traditional or classical in terms of voice and contrasts with modern voices to be looked at later on.

This is reminiscent of the questions asked by the author when managing point of view and voice in modern fiction.


Omniscient Voices of the Past

The POV used by creative writers since the 1950s, at least in the United States of America, and in Australia, differs greatly from the Omniscient approach so widespread in earlier times. Classical novelists portrayed multiple viewpoints throughout their novels and within segments. These authors managed skillfully to create huge works of art, peopled with many characters, whose thoughts and behaviours reflected the society of the time. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina remains with us today as an aesthetic monument to its creator and to the social and historical setting portrayed therein.

The omniscient narrator knows and shares with the reader the same experiences and senses, but from multiple viewpoints across and throughout the novel.

Omniscience is still found, occasionally, in well-structured modern literature, when its use is warranted by the genre or by the needs of the particular story being recounted. But it has come to mean a certain style and voice typical of the past, reflecting large, wide-ranging works and distance—coolness?—rather than closeness, between the narrator telling the story and the reader.

Modern Voices

Modern writers of fiction today, however, write within and about a very different social milieu. Readers in the “New World” have seemingly lowered concentration spans, by comparison with the past, and have less patience with tackling long works. And they want to know about the “modern” societies in which they find themselves. This is a more hectic and frantic world than that of the past. Books have begun to “thin out” in relative terms.

Authors today tend to focus on a particular character’s viewpoint, within and throughout a select part of a story or chapter in a novel.

POV has come to signify a style of writing, with its own constraints and conventions, that tends to result in greater character intimacy and deeper understanding of persons involved.

Usually, the writer selects one character in the story to be the principal POV character. This character might reflect a certain voice or style of speaking, which is also typical of modern POV. This may be consistent throughout the novel, or last for a chapter, or for a section within the work.

In 3rd person POV, as with 1st person, the narrator knows and experiences everything sensed by the POV character. What the character sees and hears is crucial to the vivid unfolding of the story, as are the smells, thoughts, tastes, dialogue and feelings linked to the main character. The narrator will show, and sometimes tell, what the character is experiencing, as directly as possible within the POV conventions.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, in which a child character tells the story, is an example of 1st Person Limited POV. Modern POV is, like this, up-close and personal.

Novels may be narrated from one or from multiple points of view. Modern POV expects narrative to adhere strictly to one point of view for the duration of at least a whole scene. This may last for a chapter or more. Multiple viewpoints can be written in both first and third POV, but the more POVs there are, the more difficult it is to establish closeness between the reader and the characters.

An example of a multiple 1st person POV novel is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver;  and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is an example of a multiple POV 3rd person novel.

For Whom the Bells Toll by Ernest Hemingway is an example of a novel with 3rd person limited or close POV.

In Australia, Tim Winton is a typical “modern” or “new millenium” writer, who likes to be up close and personal with his characters.