Writing Tip of the Week: Get to Know Your Narrator

There’s more to a narrator than just deciding whether you’re going to write from the first- or third-person (let’s be real, how often do you see second-person out there?). Knowing your narrator can change the entire feel of your work, from a narrator who’s very present and has personality to a narrator who tries to remain invisible. It’s not very often that a novel is strictly one or the other, they usually fluctuate. It is these fluctuations that I want to talk about today.

There are levels of visibility of a narrator, which I won’t go into today, as knowing them won’t necessarily make you a “good” writer. But, the awareness of them is incredibly important and could make you a better writer.

Your narrator is who your readers see your story through. Yes, you may have your main character speak in the first-person, but there is still a narrator describing the events taking place. This narrator can be omniscient or limited. This narrator can have a sense of humor or strictly dole out information. This narrator can speak for your character or simply repeat what was said.

Like I said, there’s a lot to it.

I’ve put together 3 simple questions for you to ask yourself of your narrator. Take some time to think these over as you write. See where you may have done some of these naturally and what needs improvement.

Questions to Ask About Your Narrator

  1. How transparent is my narrator? The more your narrator talks about your character and their circumstances rather than through them, the more visible the narrator will be. There is nothing wrong with this, it’s simple a style and what you want your reader to experience. For example, telling me about Cindy’s hair and how it curls and frizzes in the Seattle rain makes me very aware of the narrator. However, showing me how Suzy nervously pats down her hair as she leaves her Seattle apartment, does not.
  2. Will your narrator be first- or third-person? I’m not even going to touch on second-person here. This question is obvious in itself, because whatever you decide, you should stick with. Jumping between the two will give your readers whiplash and shows inconsistency. Not to mention it shows a lack of editing on your part.
  3. Will your narrator be like an additional character or will they be a floating voice? There are so many options with this. Your narrator does not have to be in the body of the protagonist/antagonist. Your narrator could be watching from the outside. It’s a complicated topic, which is discussed more thoroughly in Creative Writing and Stylistics by Jeremy Scott, which I definitely recommend you read (granted it’s very dense, so take it slow). Regardless, you need to decide who your narrator is and what they are like. Some narrators have a personality, some are straightforward. The ones with a personality almost operate as an additional character. For example, a book about a group of popular girls told from the view of an outsider. The outsider may not be a character in the story, but they are definitely not a popular girl and the story isn’t necessarily coming from within the clique. This is a difficult one to digest, and works better in practice.

Working through some of these might be difficult at first, but so is writing, so you probably should have picked a different career if you didn’t want to be challenged. What you need to remember is that although you may feel like your sloshing through your work right now, things will become clearer the more you try to understand the entities within your story. Yes, your plot is important, but if you don’t get your characters or narrator, the plot will be a muddled mess.

[Follow me on Twitter at @tclem91]

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