All Speakers Great and Small: The Non-Human Narrator

Having a central character who is not human is certainly not unheard of in genre novels. I can easily think of a few fantasy tales with creature protagonists. Tad Williams “Tailchaser’s Song,” and Richard Adams “Watership Down” and “The Plague Dogs” are the first to come to mind. “Sirius” by Olaf Stapledon is another. While having an animal as a protagonist can be difficult at times when writing in third person, it is an even greater challenge if you choose to present the story in first person.

My latest NaNoWriMo project does exactly that. The story, a post-apocalyptic tale that looks at the world after it has been devastated by a biological warfare agent gone wild, is told from the perspective of one of the few survivors – a crow named Ash. He’s not an ordinary crow, either. His plumage makes him a bit of an outcast because it is a sooty grey rather than black, he is smaller and less imposing than the majority of his brethren, and his role prior to the apocalypse was as “translator” for his murder because he is clever and has developed a talent for understand the human or “no-wings” tongue, English in this case.

Writing from an animal point of view presents a few obstacles. If you write too much from a bestial perspective, the story could become incomprehensible. Your human reader needs something he or she can relate to; otherwise, there’s not much point to reading the story. Sure, it may be novel and surreal at first, but this can get tedious after a point. If you write too much from a humanistic perspective, there’s not much point to choosing an animal narrator to begin with, and you’ll lose that sense of realism, even if the story makes a lot more sense as a result.

I chose to aim for a happy medium. Having my protagonist understand human language, think more in human terms than a typical crow, but still apply very distinct crow nuances to his perspective of the tale, means I can have the best of both worlds. He can make sense of the dialogue of his human companions, but he can’t speak to them directly (he can speak with other crows.) He uses those humans to make sense of what is happening because he would not be able to on his own.

On the other hand, he attributes things “crow” to everything he experiences. Birds are “winged ones”, with crows being “his kind”, other animals are “four-legs” and humans, because they walk on two feet like birds, are “no-wings”. All homes are considered “nests” and he makes references to fledgelings , nestlings and murders. Because he has flight, he can do things that no human narrator could do without magic. Many of his actions are influenced by instinct and he has a clear connection to nature.

All that being said, I think one of the most important things to keep in mind, when making use of a non-human narrator, is that you should do your research. I did significant research on crows before even starting my outline because I wanted my narrator’s behaviour to be as realistic as possible. That meant knowing how crows live, their mating habits, their relationship to their environment and things that are important to their survival in the wild. If you are using a non-human narrator and you are ignorant of these kinds of facts, it will be easy to flub details in your story. If you value realism in your speculative fiction, research will be essential for this narrative approach.

Considering I rarely write in first person and this is my first attempt at a first person novel, this choice is admittedly an unusual one. At the same time, I think it adds a new dimension to the story and provides an extra source of interest for the reader.

After all, doesn’t the idea of a crow’s-eye view of a post-apocalyptic future pique your curiosity?

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5 comments on “All Speakers Great and Small: The Non-Human Narrator

  1. Another great example is the Warriors series by Erin Hunter (actually a collection of four authors and an editor, I believe). I’ve been reading them to my daughter and they are written from the POV of cats. They share tongues, avoid the twolegplace, open their mouths to better smell, and regularly nuzzle each other. They live near the thunderpath (road), along which travels smelly monsters (cars) which carry twolegs in their bellies. The POV is very consistent.
    Good for you giving it a go, Chantal. Sounds like a great story!

  2. My son and I also loved the Warriors series – must have read 8 or 10 of the books.

    This is great advice, Chantal. It helps with my own future WIP, a book I started and abandoned about half-way through, about tigers.

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