Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Who is Your Narrator?

You've carefully thought out your characters and planned the plot and structure of a novel. Then, once your characters get moving and start revealing new aspects of themselves that you never expected, everything changes. They'll start doing things in your story that you hadn't planned and you'll find yourself going back to rework your plan. Again.

That's okay.
You are not the puppet master. You are a novelist. (Image courtesy of Matthijs and altered.)
As a writer of novels, you have to give up control. Planning gives you direction and helps you move through the story so you don't get stuck, but no matter how much you prepare, your characters will eventually take over.

There is one place you probably can retain a shred of your
control, though. It's unusual (but not impossible) for a narrator to change drastically from your early plan... as long as you know who your narrator is.

There is more to know than who your point of view character is, whether the narrator is first-person, third-person, third-person omniscient, or alternating person, or whether she is telling the story in past or present. Hell, is it a second-person story told in future tense?

I don't care. That's not what I'm talking about right now.

I'm talking about the voice of the narrator.

It's something a lot of new writers forget about when they write in third-person. But it's what defines the voice of the story, too.

Here are the 6 simple questions to ask about your narrator:

How visible is the narrator? 

You might have a narrator who is plucky or clever or menacing and that may create an engaging story. A narrator like this can also get in the way of the story or overpower it.

Your narrator could also be nearly invisible. You can do this and still create an interesting reading experience. Sometimes it's better not to draw attention to the narrator, but knowing the narrator is still important because, even if she seems nearly invisible, she is still the one telling the story.

Think of those wallflowers at the middle school dance. They may be hiding, but they still have a specific view of the situation—and often it is more intriguing than the view of the kids who dance wildly.

How much does the narrator know? 

Does the narrator know the thoughts, feelings, motivations, and history of the protagonist? Of the other characters, too? Or does she offer only limited information? 

Too often, when I edit or teach, I find inconsistency in what a narrator knows. If your narrator describes everyone's actions and only explains the protagonist's inner thoughts, then she begins justifying another character's feelings because the story calls for an explanation of why he feels that way, then you need to re-think your narratoror find another way to get that information across. If not, it's jarring to the reader to suddenly gain insight when we never had that access.

Think about this: Can readers glean information from context and narrative connotation? Does the reader know more than the narrator?

Is the narrator active in, or witness to, the action? Or is the story second-hand?

This sort of narrator will have limited knowledge of the story. She will only know what others have told her and can suppose things based on what she knows of the characters. Or she may have certain opinions based on her relationship with the characters.

Or is the narrator telling a story as she heard it? Think of those times when you tell a story over dinner, a story that has been told to you. How much of the event do you actually know? How does your knowledge affect the story? What do you do when there is a gap in knowledge? 

Is the narrator objective?

As an observer, she may interpret thoughts and feelings of the characters or describe details, like setting in a way that reveals more or offers more impact than with someone involved in the story.

Where is the narrator in time?

Are past recollections fresh, or distant, and maybe hazy?

Why is the story being told, and why now?

What does the narrator want the reader to know?

Yep. The narrator has motivation, too.

So that's my little list for today. Tune in next week to go over ways first-person narrators can trip you up.

Love to writers! Keep writing!


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Artemis... What browser are you using? I tried viewing this on Firefox, Chrome, and Explorer 11, and was able to see the buttons... I'm trying to figure out what could cause someone to not see the buttons... Thanks! Robin

  2. What I love to look for is where the lines of difference between the narrator and the author merge enough to blur. Then, a book review becomes an interesting study in interlinked psychologies.
    A very useful post. Something we all need to remember.

    1. That's interesting. You might need to know something of the author himself.... depending on how well he cloaks himself in the narration...