Monday, April 26, 2021

Why You Should Know Who Your Narrator Is Talking To

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Your narrator has a bigger impact on the novel than you think.

Every story has a narrator–some narrators are the protagonist, others tell the tale as a group, and some lurk in the shadows or hover above the story like an all-seeing-eye. Sometimes we’re in someone’s head like an imaginary friend, other times we’re a fly on the wall. Whichever point-of-view style a writer chooses, it’s pointing at someone.

In grand terms, that someone is the reader, but it can be more subtle than that. Some novels break the fourth wall and address the reader directly, while others have their characters exist in a world that feels as if we’re watching it on closed-circuit TV.

The narrator is how readers access the novel.

Some readers want to feel part of the story, while others prefer voyeurism. I like close narratives over distant ones, but I have friends who can’t stand being inside a character’s head. The type of narrator a writer uses determines where the reader is going to “live” in that novel, and what type of information (story) they’re going to get.

This is why genre plays such a strong role in choosing a point-of-view character. Readers of each genre are looking for a particular type of book and reading experience, and when you don’t give them that experience, they don’t like the book. If they’re looking for a distant, omniscient narrator, a first-person narrator will probably feel suffocating. Just like a distant narrator will feel detached and impersonal for readers looking for a first-person tale.

Any point-of-view style can work, and one type of narrator isn’t preferable over the other, but if you’re struggling with your novel, or feeling like your point of view is off in some way and don’t know why, it might be worth identifying a few things:
  • Who is your narrator?
  • Who are they talking to?

Answering these two questions can help you pinpoint who is at the center of your story and the best way to convey that story to your readers.

(Here’s more with Keeping Your Distance: How Narrative Distance Works in Your Novel)

Who is Your Narrator?

In most cases, this will be easy to answer. A first-person novel is clearly narrated by the first-person character. Same with a tight third-person perspective. Third-person omniscient has an outside narrator. But when you add more characters or write with a medium narrative distance, the narrator(s) can become less obvious or even get lost. If you’re unsure, ask yourself:
  • What point of view am I doing?
  • Who’s story is it?
  • Am I inside or outside of the point-of-view character’s head?
  • Do I share any information the point-of-view characters couldn’t know?

Once you know your narrator, think about who they’re narrating the story to.

(Here’s more with Do You Know Who Your Narrator Is?)

Who is Your Narrator Talking To?

A common trope (especially with first person) is to treat the novel as if the protagonist was writing or had written down their story. The narrator is literally talking to the reader, intending the novel to be read by someone. Imagine a young woman sitting with pen and a notebook, documenting her life as “the novel” unfolds around her.

But take a step back and think about what that means to the protagonist in that story–the “reader” means something different to her than it does to us, because in her mind, it’s someone living in her world.

If she’s writing about her struggles to overcome a natural disaster, she expects her readers to know about that disaster and understand it on a personal level. She’s not picturing people sitting in a comfy chair at Starbucks while they sip a latte, but assuming they’re either going through the same thing she is or are reading it after they survived it. She might even be writing this story to help them survive it.

If you keep that in mind, it will guide you when deciding what that narrator is going to share with that reader–what aspects of the world she might think are vital, what she wouldn’t bother explaining because it’s so well known to everyone, what secrets she might reveal or lessons learned she might pass on. There are things the intended recipient of this story is going to need to know.

(Here's more with Is Your Description Helping Your Story or Holding it Back?)  

But not all first-person narrators are writing down their life stories.

If the first-person narrator is just living her life, then the reader is inside her head experiencing that life as she does. The narrator isn’t talking to anyone in particular, she’s just existing in her world and has no idea readers are spying on her.

That unawareness has a different tone and style than a narrator who knows that every word they “write down” is for someone else to read. Internal thoughts might contradict external actions or dialogue, because she has no idea people can see inside her head. And people act differently when they think no one is watching.

The unaware narrator works for third-person omniscient as well.

An omniscient narrator is often like a camera recording the novel, relaying the information with little or no judgment, and letting the reader decide what it means. The point-of-view characters aren’t specifically talking to anyone, and they might not know they’re being “recorded” at all.

An omniscient narrator can also have reasons for telling the story. Their judgement and opinions might be all over the tale, coloring what’s shown and said, and maybe the narrator even butts in to talk to the reader directly.

(Here’s more with How a Limited vs. a Tight Point of View Can Confuse Writers)

The narrator might even have an agenda. Maybe the novel is one big propaganda piece designed to make the narrator look good or someone else look bad. The story could be trying to convince people of a lie. Unreliable narrators often fall into this type of narrator.

The novel might also show only one side of a larger issue. The story is the narrator’s take on what the truth is, even if it’s not accurate. The story is what they think happened. You might even have multiple points of view and thus multiple narrators all sharing what they think happened, or showing just their part of it. It’s only through seeing the various aspects does the reader see the real truth.

Even if narrators never expect anyone to hear or read their stories, they’re talking to someone. And knowing who that is can be a great tool when crafting or polishing a draft.

Who the narrator is dramatically changes how a novel reads. It brings out a richness just “telling” the story doesn’t achieve. It affects word choice and voice, and determines which details are shared and why. It engages the reader and triggers their emotions in different ways. Choose the right narrator for your genre and story, and you’ll have a much better chance at that reader loving your novel.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and clarify who your narrator is and who they’re talking to.

Is your narrator talking to someone or just living their life?

*Originally published on Publishing Crawl, January 2015. Last updated April 2021.

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 ShifterBlue 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. A wonderful post. I'm not sure I always know who my narrator is, although I do try.

    1. Thanks! Sometimes it's not easy, especially in an early draft.

  2. The post is timely! The hubby and I were discussing this topic yesterday. He has a hard time reading novels that switch from third person to first person, even if by chapter. It pulls him out of the story.

    When I began writing in ernest I did a whole lot of head hopping. That took a while to get past. Reading aloud helped.

    Thank you for this very thorough post!

    1. Most welcome. The first to third switch is a tough one. I've only read a few books that did it well and didn't jar me out of the story.

  3. You mention that different genres have differing expectations, care to expand on that a bit? :)

    1. Sure. It's not set in stone, but if readers are used to a particular type of point of view and narrator, and a novel is outside that and doesn't fit their expectations, they might not care for the book. They read that type of book because they like that type of narrator and voice (and POV style).

      Police procedurals are often third person omniscient, and the narrator is a "see and knows all" type talking to the reader (but not a breaking the fourth wall way). YA is often first person, because readers want that closeness.

      Romances typically have dual POVs, one for each love interest. Not seeing one character's POV would likely feel odd and not like a "real romance" to some readers.

      Having an adult-sounding narrator in a middle grade novel probably won't connect with readers, because they want to see the story from a kids' perspective. Even when the narrator is an adult, they usually have a silly or kid-like voice and see the world as a kid would.

      An overly introspective YA narrator makes the characters feel too adult, and a self-absorbed narrator in an adult novel might feel to young and "teenish."

      Whatever your genre, it's useful to consider what's normal and what readers expect from that type of book. There's usually some variety, but if you go too outside the "norm," the reader experience isn't what they bought the book to get.