Wednesday, May 08, 2024

Do You Know Who Your Narrator Is?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

If you don't know who's telling your story, how do you know whose story you're trying to tell?

Before I dive in today...

A quick reminder that today is the last day to register for my online workshop, "How to Write Characters with Agency" on May 9. 

As for the SFF writers out there, the Fantasy & Sci-Fi Authors Summit runs May 13-17, with my session on The Power of POV in Shaping Narrative on May 13. 

Identifying your narrator seems like an easy job—they're the one telling the story, right? It's obvious with first person and third-person limited points of view, but once you get into third-person omniscient point of view, narrators can get a little murky.

An omniscient narrator stands outside the story, with access to multiple views, thoughts, and characters. They can be a faceless voice trying desperately not to be noticed, or a strong personality telling the story as they see it, with all the judgment and attitude of a strong character.

The more distant your narrator, the less connected they can feel to the story itself, and this holds true no matter which POV style you use. Are they the author? Are they a god-like being who sees and knows all? Do they change depending on which part of the story they're telling? 

Your narrator sets the tone for the entire novel, because they're the one who's really telling the story.

In The Last Town on Earth, has an omniscient narrator who follows various characters in the novel, sharing information relevant to the scene in a matter-of-fact way. This is what it is. It sounds and feels like someone from the time (1918), but there’s no “person” there—it simply shows readers the information and lets them decide things for themselves—which fits the ethical themes of the novel quite well. The narrator sits back and lets the reader judge.

On the other side of the scale, Death from The Book Thief is telling the story with his opinions, perceptions, and feelings about what’s going on. He butts in and talks directly to the reader from time to time, jumping to the front or standing in the back of the room as he sees fit. He knows what’s going on in the book thief’s life, and he has things to say about it. He's the one telling the story, so he'll tell readers the parts he feels are important.

Two very different narrators, and the approaches to writing them differ. They probably wouldn’t have worked so well reversed. A tale where readers are asked to consider the various ethical issues of a situation would have been influenced by a single narrator with his own opinions, and probably would have felt preachy. A novel about a fascination with a random girl would have felt impersonal had her life been recorded and not commented on.

(Here's more with Why You Should Know Who Your Narrator Is Talking To)

Knowing who the narrator was made these books better, because the type of narrator brought out and enhanced aspects of the story.

It’s not a bad idea to take a step back and ask:

Who is my narrator?

Even in a first-person point of view, reminding yourself who is actually telling the tale can be a good thing. It reminds you to put things in their voice, use their judgment, their worldview, and not yours.

In an omniscient narrator, this is even more vital. Is the narrator...
  • You, describing the story as you see it unfold in your head? Stephen King’s novels have a strong voice, and you can hear the author there. The voice might change from book to book, but there’s a style that’s all King no matter which book you read.
  • Someone in the story relating events after they’ve happened? The movie/graphic novel 300 is a good example here. It’s told from the perspective of the Spartan who survived and uses the tale to rally the troops and honor his fallen brothers.
  • A nameless and quiet observer who functions like a camera, with no opinion on what’s being broadcast? Unwind follows a single character, but from the outside looking down. The narrator knows things Connor doesn’t, but it’s still Connor's story, with the details relevant to what’s going on in the scene and world.

There are no wrong answers here, it’s just what you want for your story. But using the wrong narrator can hurt that story if it’s not achieving those desired results.
  • If you want a sense of a personality telling your tale, a faceless camera will feel flat and lifeless.
  • If you want a faceless camera, using a character in the novel will make it feel more third-person limited with bad point of view shifts.

Before you choose (and write) your narrator, consider who your narrator is and ask:

How do you want your narrator to sound?

Are you looking for a judgmental character with opinions all their own, or a reporter who keeps to the facts and just the facts? Maybe the narrator is flippant and sarcastic, or reverent and respectful.

Whoever they are, their voice will permeate the entire novel, so you’ll want it to fit the story’s tone.

(Here's more with How to Find Your Character's Voice)

How much personality do they have?

If the narrator is a character (either in the story itself or as an outside observer like Death), then they’ll probably need the same development as any other character before you write. Who are they? Why are they telling this story? What’s in it for them?

If they’re not a character, will they have any input on what’s going on? Will they be a “person” or just a camera?

(Here's more with A Core Question for Getting to Know Your Character)  

How involved in the story do you want them to be?

Some narrators simply narrate, but others play a role and influence events. Where does your narrator fall on that scale?

How much do they know?

Fully omniscient narrators know and see all, but the less all-knowing narrator might not be privy to everything that happens in a tale. A retrospective narrator might only know what was told to them or what they personally witnessed.

(Here's more with Going Retro (Spective))

How much do they care?

A camera records, it doesn’t judge or have opinions, and it certainly doesn’t care about what it sees, but a character has all the emotions and desires as any other character. Death cares about some things in The Book Thief, and is indifferent to others.

No matter what tale you’re telling, somebody is behind it. 

Understanding who that person is can help you create richer novels that better illustrate the story you want to share.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and consider who your story's narrator is, and how involved in the story you want them to be. Are you using the best narrative distance to tell your tale? Would another point of view style work better? Or it is perfect just the way it is?  

Who’s your narrator? In third person omniscient, which do you prefer—the camera or the character? 

*First published June 2015. Last updated May 2024.

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Such great advice & information! I just got your book, Planning Your Novel---excellent. I feel as though I have a teacher in my writing room with me! Thanks. JanO

    1. Thanks so much! Glad it's helping you :)

  2. Such great advice & information! I just got your book, Planning Your Novel---excellent. I feel as though I have a teacher in my writing room with me! Thanks. JanO

  3. For me, this is one of the most important concepts I’ve had to think about in my attempt to write something that someone besides my mother will want to read.
    It's funny, I’ve noticed with myself, that I kinda lock myself into writing in only one type of POV for long periods of time and across multiple stories before I realize what I’m doing. I always have to remind myself to be more flexible in letting the character and story inform my POV choices.
    But its’ hard!
    Habit. Creature.
    I think it’s hard because to remain flexible I have to have some command over what I’m attempting to do. So when I bump up against my limitations as a writer it makes me retreat back to the areas I’m most comfortable in. And I don’t think comfort is a good ingredient for writing.

    1. You never want your characters to get too comfy, and I can see that applying to the author as well :)

      But you can have styles you're strongest at, and there's nothing wrong with sticking to one if that's where your strengths lie. Shake things up when you feel like it, but don't feel you have to.

  4. Thank you, that's the goal :) I want to help writers understand how they write and how to use the tools of the trade to get the story results they want.

    Your books so adorable and so much fun! I love those kinds of stories. have you read John Scalzi's "Agent to the Stars?" Different plot, but in the same vein, and would probably make a great comp title for you.