I know I've said this before. But reading Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao just brought that lesson back home.
Your narrative voice not only creates the world in which your fiction operates, it defines the boundaries of that world. This doesn't just apply to what the narrator can realistically know or not know (this is especially an issue in the case of first-person narration, when the narrator is also an actor in the story). The even larger issue is what the narrator can and cannot do. And it's the nature of the voice itself that establishes those parameters.
In Wao, Diaz's narrator, Yunior, possesses a wide-ranging intellect, a powerful and outraged sense of history, a dark and hilarious sense of humor, and a command of many languages--not just English and Spanish, but academic-ese, science-fiction geek-speak, 1980s New Jersey teenager, and a bunch of others. Bakhtin would have really loved this guy.
The voice so energetic and captivating, we as readers will let Yunior take us anywhere. We'll read lengthy footnotes on the history of the Dominican Republic and long passages of what attendees at a lesser sort of workshop would criticize as summary (no, don't tell us what happened to Oscar's mother, show us!). Well, he does get around to showing eventually, but there's lots of telling first--and the telling is fascinating because of the voice. The story isn't separate from the voice; the voice is the story, and the story's requirements made the voice.
How does Diaz do it? I mean, aside from being brilliant. That helps. But as authors, we can all be more aware of what our story needs its voice to do. There is no law against summaries and histories in fiction; the law is to make them interesting--which you must do via the voice.
Now, not every narrative voice is as prominent as Yunior's; many authors take a more minimalist or transparent approach to storytelling. But those voices may not be as capacious--the straightforward, "I'm-not-really-here" narrative voice would, I think, have a harder time inserting long passages of history into a fictional narrative, because they'd come off as dry and boring. That's not to disparage the minimalist style; it doesn't seek the kind of capacity I'm talking about in the first place. But if you need greater range in your story, your voice needs greater range, too: so give it more bravado, more curiosity, more offbeat humor, more fury. The more distinctive the voice, the more places it can go.
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