Can’t or Cannot?

As with subjective/first-person narrators when we write a limited third-person narrator it can help readers to identify different perspectives if we individualise the voice. We can do this the same way as we might with first-person narration, tailoring the words to match the character’s speech or carrying on the narrative as if it was their speech but with he/she/they instead of I. Alternatively, we can distinguish the narrators by focusing on different things to describe, such as someone with an interest in artwork describing art more than someone who is completely disinterested in art. Or through what the narrative voice reveals of the character’s internal thoughts, such as whether it is open or guarded. We can even combine all of these things.

There are a wide range of things that can be done within limited-omniscient, and I’ve noticed that people have started sub-categorising limited omniscient but giving each ‘type’ a different name isn’t necessarily helpful. For a start it suggests we can’t mix and match techniques to create the effect we want. It can also increase the confusion and difficulty, particularly for new writers, as we can get caught up trying to figure out exactly where we sit on the scale. This is why I prefer to keep it simple, I think discovering and exploring different techniques is more important than listing technical jargon. And less confusing.

A common problem is deciding whether or not to use formal language (do not, cannot, shall not) or informal (don’t, can’t, shan’t). There is no definitive method, it simply depends on the voice you wish to create. However, if we are telling the story from the perspective of a character, particularly if we’re focused on their perspective, and they don’t use formal language we might want to consider this when forming the narrative voice. One problem that can arise is if we’re very focused on a character but the narrative language is very formal. This doesn’t mean it can’t work but the difference can easily become jarring, a little bit like if we wrote a first-person story with informal dialogue but formal prose. So when we are constructing a voice is best consider language and how closely we’re going to follow the characters.

If in doubt it is sometimes better to use informal language as a default because it is most people’s default and therefore much easier for the reader to sink into. One of the problems with formal language can be that the lack of shortened words can become frustrating for a reader because it doesn’t always flow as easily as informal language. As I say this doesn’t mean it can’t be done but these are all things that are worth considering.

Similarly if we decide we’re not going to use retractions then we also have to consider our other word choices, for instance it might disrupt the flow of the narrative if we’re using words such as do not and cannot while using more colloquial language mixed amongst this. While this could work if we establish a linguist/character based reason and follow this rhythm consistently, inconsistency would be particularly glaring.

Ultimately however we choose to write our narrative voice we need consistency to make it a convincing, even if people might consider our use of language unusual. There are books such as 1984 and Clockwork Orange which use very unusual language but have gone on to become considered classics.


Article Archive 1

Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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