I just finished reading Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune. If you haven’t read it before, I highly recommend that you add it to your reading list.
One of the things that sets Dune apart from any other book I’ve read is (as the title of this post suggests) the narratorial voice. The narrator is 3rd person, but exists somewhere between the shifting and omniscient persuasions. That is, the narrator very clearly knows everything, but most of the action is related from the point of view of a specific character. This in and of itself isn’t weird; there are plenty of books that shift subject and plenty of omniscient narrators who deign to tell the thoughts of their characters. The uniqueness of Dune‘s narrator comes from the rapidity at which it shifts from subject to subject.
Characters in any story are defined primarily ways that fall into one of three categories: physical, social, and psychological. The physical refers to the way a character looks, talks, smells, moves; basically any objective quality detected by the senses (philosophical debates about the objectivity and reliability of the senses aside). Social refers to the way others see a character, both in the personal sense of a particular characters point of view and the more general sense of “this is how others generally perceive this character.” It’s an interpretation of a character’s words and actions by other characters. Psychological characterization is both what the character thinks of themselves and the mental processes they go through in perceiving the actions of others and the world around them. Interesting characters tend to have one of these elements lying in conflict with the others.
The narrator in Dune is particularly adept at employing all three of these methods of characterization. By switching quickly among different characters’ perspectives, the narrator is able to juxtapose one conception of a situation with another very easily. As we the readers see an event from a particular character’s point of view, we learn about both that character and those he or she is interacting with. Then the perspective shifts and we get an alternate take on the same scene. We learn the characters of Dune very intimately because of this.
The problem, however, and incidentally the reason I didn’t like Dune‘s narrator, is twofold. First, there are occasions that the reader is clearly seeing an event from the perspective of a specific character, but because the perspective has shifted it’s unclear which character is making the observation. And because so much of the characterization is intimately dependent on which character is observing the action, we readers really need to know who we’re “following” at all times. To Herbert’s credit, it’s not that often that we completely lose sight of who we’re following, though the rapid changes can be quite jarring. Second, always knowing what everyone is thinking kills some of the mystery. We as readers want to have something to figure out. Seeing a chapter exclusively from the perspective of one character would give us time to entrench ourselves in that character’s point of view, to wonder what the other characters think of the same situation. It’s not that finding out later how another character perceived a situation isn’t a good thing. It is. Juxtaposition, like I said, is valuable. But at least I, for one, would appreciate a little more space. We know too much too quickly.
So there you have it. A very brief rundown of one of the more unique narrators you’ll be likely to encounter.