Identifying your narrator seems like an easy job—she’s (or he’s) the one telling the story. In first person or third-person limited POV it’s easy, but once we get into third-person omniscient POV, 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. For example:
In The Last Town on Earth, the narrator 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 just as wildly. 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. 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 on writing the omniscient narrator)
Knowing who the narrator was made these books better, because the type of narrator brought out and enhanced aspect of the novel itself.
Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to take a step back and ask:
Who is my narrator?
Even in a first-person POV, reminding ourselves who is actually telling the tale can be a good thing. It’s a nudge to remember to put things in their voice, use their judgment, their worldview, and not ours.
In an omniscient narrator, this is even more vital. Who is the narrator?
- Is it you, describing the story as you see it unfold in your head? Stephen King’s novels have a strong voice, and you can almost 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.
- Is it 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.
- Is it 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 his 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 likely feel flat and lifeless.
- If you want a faceless camera, using a character in the novel will probably make it feel more third-person limited with bad POV shifts.
Before you choose (and write) your narrator, consider who this person is and ask:
How do you want them to sound?
Determine the voice you want to use and how that voice will tell the story. Maybe the narrator is flippant and sarcastic, or reverent and respectful. Whatever they are, this voice will permeate the entire novel, so you’ll want it to fit the story’s tone.
(Here's more on 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?
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 on retrospective narrators)
How much do they care?
A camera just records, it doesn’t judge or have opinions, and it certainly doesn’t care about what it sees. 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.
Who’s your narrator? In third person omniscient, which do you prefer—the camera or the character?
Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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