What’s in a Voice? by Ann Lewis
Sometimes an entire story!
When an author chooses a particular point of view for their story, or a particular voice, what they choose changes the entire color or flavor of the work. A first person voice, is, of course, more personal. It grabs the reader’s attention and pulls them into the narrator’s world in an instant. It is no wonder then that Conan Doyle, for the most part, chose the first person point of view for his Sherlock Holmes series of stories. And specifically, that he wrote them (again, for the most part) from the view of Dr. Watson.
I say “for the most part” because there are two stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon where Doyle changed voice, and two other cases where he changed the point of view. These four stories stand in sharp contrast to Dr. Watson’s first-person voice, which carries most readers through the canon in a gentle, unassuming, natural way. In a letter to Monsignor Ronald Knox that he wrote in 1912, Doyle said of his character’s first person narration:
“Another point – one of the few on which I feel satisfaction but which I have never seen mentioned – is that Watson never for one instant as chorus or chronicler transcends his own limitations. Never once does a flash or wit or wisdom or erudition come from him. All is remorselessly eliminated so that he may be Watson. One purple patch would have destroyed him and his illusion.”
That is, of course, another advantage of a first person voice – the narrator can only know what he experiences, and it works perfectly for mystery, in which clues are revealed in a subtle way to the reader.
Now, despite Doyle’s belief that there is no flash of wit or wisdom in Watson, his brave, humble and charitable personality does in fact come through to the reader in his narration. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t immediately indentify with him as we do.
By contrast, when Holmes’ voice takes over in the canon, it is a bit of a shock to the reader’s system. His writing is more scientific, more analytical, less a “story-teller.” If you want to have your head spin, read first “The Red Headed League”
(http://www.ignisart.com/camdenhouse/canon/redh.htm) then flip to “The Gloria Scott. (link: http://www.ignisart.com/camdenhouse/canon/glor.htm). One gentleman who reviewed my book recently (link: http://apiusman.blogspot.com/2011/04/review-murder-in-vatican-church.html) said that he stopped reading the stories after reading “The Gloria Scott” because he disliked Holmes’ voice so much.
I wouldn’t be that harsh, of course. But the stories with Holmes’ voice (namely the afore-mentioned “Gloria Scott” and “The Blanched Soldier” – link: http://sherlockholmes_cases.tripod.com/soldiers.htm) are not those that Holmes fans generally say are their favorites. And most will say it is because they miss Watson.
And then there are the two stories that Doyle wrote in third person. One story, “The Mazarin Stone,” (link: http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/doyle/arthur_conan/d75ca/chapter3.html) is a story Doyle repurposed from a play he’d written called The Crown Diamond. I once won a bet with one Sherlock fan who said this story could never have been written in Watson’s voice. I rewrote the story in first person to show him how it could be done. The result was published in a Sherlockian journal known as “The Serpentine Muse” with the approval of the Doyle estate, and most of those who read said it sounded much better than the original. Doyle is truly a master, and I’d never say I write better than he. I believe most of the positive response was the personal touch the first person voice gives to that piece. You can read my version here (link: http://www.holmeschurchmysteries.com/ref/ MAZA_1st_person3.pdf)
Finally there is the last story of Holmes’ career, chronologically, also written in third person point of view with objective narration. This story, entitled “His Last Bow,” (link: http://www.ignisart.com/camdenhouse/canon/last.htm) could not have been written any other way, and despite the change in voice, it does hold interest. It is not a standard Holmes mystery, but instead is a bit of a spy tale that reveals the changing life of the Great Detective at the beginning of World War I. For this reason the third person voice works well.
In writing my own Holmes book, I decided to start with Watson’s first person voice, since he is the narrator most readers remember and trust. After establishing a relationship with the reader through Watson, I switch voices in the second portion of the book to the first-person narration of Pope Leo XIII. I did this to force the reader to identify with this new, important character just as they had with Watson because Watson was not present for that case. I return to Watson in the third tale, to reassure my readers that the narrator they trust has not left them. In any case, with both narrators, I tried to choose the one who told the story best.
Choosing of point of view and voice is a commitment, or a friendship with your reader that you establish. You don’t want to break their trust or insult that friendship. What Doyle’s writing teaches us writers, then, is twofold: first, pick point of view and voice that tells the story best and second, pick the voice and point of view that gives the reader a narrator with whom they can at least identify. The result will be, for at least a good percentage of your writing, a reliable and powerful voice.