Know Your Narrator

The Narrator: Know Who's Talking

speaker You're familiar with the three basic points of view- first person, second person, and third person. You've probably experimented with all three in different stories. It seems pretty simple but there's more to think about than just the pronouns. Think about your story in terms of the narrator.

Every story is told in someone's voice. In the first person point of view, that voice belongs to the main character. In second and third person, it's the voice through which the reader learns what the characters are doing. If you're more of a visual person, here's another way to conceptualize it. In a film, that voice, the narrator, is camera angles and cuts that make up the final product. Simply stated, he's the story's delivery boy.

Since he's how the audience hears the story, spend as much time developing him as the rest of the characters.

What are the Implications?

In fiction, there are three people that participate in the story. The first is the implied author, the second is the narrator, and the third is the reader. Notice that it's the implied author, not the actual author. The implied author is not you. He's the picture of an author that the reader gets based only on the decisions you make for the story. You, as yourself, are separate from the story as soon as it's finished. The most important implication of this is that you get to distance yourself even further from the story. You aren't involved once the story is on paper.

If you start to think of yourself as the narrator, you're limiting the story. Think of him as a character in the story, even if the reader doesn't, and you'll open a new set of possibilities. One of the characters may have super powers that you don't, but does that mean you can't write that character? Of course not. In the same way, you know everything that happens in the fictional world, but the voice you use to tell the story doesn't have to.

It may not sound useful but it means you can do a few things. If the person telling the story doesn't know everything, you're free to withhold information from the reader without betraying their trust. If he is completely omniscient- if he can see everything in the fictional world- then the reader can feel tricked when he withholds crucial information. They start to doubt everything and wonder what else he isn't telling them.

Maybe that's something you want.

How Can I Trust This Guy?

A reliable narrator will have some of these attributes:

1. Shares values with the implied author and the reader.
2. Accurately tells the story to the best of his ability.
3. Tries to stay objective or has no stake in the story.

An unreliable narrator will have some of these attributes:

1. Lies purposely out of self interest.
2. Shapes the story in a way that will make himself look better.
3. Has values that are different from the implied author and the reader.
4. Isn't in a position where he can accurately tell the story.

If you want him to be reliable, just keep him as distant as possible from the story. That's where the third person omniscient, or the "god-voice," is useful. You still need to decide what to include and what to leave out. The reader isn't interested in everything that's happening in the fictional world, just the events relative to the story. However, you can have a lot of fun if the storyteller is unreliable.

First person stories are unreliable by nature. When the main character tells his own story he has a big investment in the outcome. The author can build suspense and tension by putting the audience in the shoes of a character who doesn't know what's going to happen next. That's why mystery novels are usually written in first person. But you can also do this in the third person.

Up Close or Personal

Third person narrators can be unreliable as long as they're distinct characters. But first you have to decide how close he's going to be to the story. You already know the omniscient "god-view," but that isn't the only option in third person. You can also have third person attached to a single character or a group of characters. If he's attached to a character or a group of characters, he has access to their thoughts and emotions but not to everyone else's in the world.

Most stories use this limited narrator in some sense. He's much simpler to use because he limits the choices the author has to make and it keeps the reader focused on the story. He's also has much more potential to become unreliable.

If you're using a limited third person narrator, there's one main guideline you should be aware of. Pick a distance and stick to it. You get to set the rules but once you do you need a very a good reason to break them. If the narrator only had access to the main protagonists thoughts, it's probably a bad idea to suddenly jump into the mind of the bad guy at the end of the story. It confuses the reader. If you need the bad guy's thoughts to be in the story, find a different way of doing it. For example, put them in the dialogue or show it in his actions.

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