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N is for Narrator

When we speak of a narrator, we’re talking about the person, or entity, telling the story. Depending on the type of story, there are different types of narrator.

There’s no one narrator, or narrative voice that’s better than the others. They all have their good and bad points and they all have their techniques. It’s a matter of finding out what fits the story, and what you as a writer find most useful.

And, sometimes, it’s good to step outside your comfort zone and try something new. I’m going to go over some of the more common types below. If you do decide to try them, hopefully this will help!


First Person Narrator

With a first person narrator, the story is told from the point of view of the main, or central character – although it has been used from an ‘observer’ point of view, of someone watching events unfold, such as the story of a hero knight, told from the point of view of their squire. It can also be from the point of view of someone telling the story, after the fact, of a story they’ve heard. Mostly, however, it’s the story of the main viewpoint character.

We know when we’re reading a first person narrative when we see ‘I said,‘ instead of ‘he/she said’. This is a very close point of view. The reader is right inside the mind of the narrator, seeing their thoughts and knowing everything that’s going on in their observation. However, it is limited to that one character and we can only know what they know.

“It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.” – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The first person narrator, can also be an Unreliable Narrator.  Because we can only know what the character knows and sees, if they jump to a wrong conclusion, then so does the reader.

Or perhaps the narrator sees the situation in a particular way, that’s at odds with the way everyone else might see it. In this case, you’re still only getting one point of view, but it’s twisted because the narrator isn’t necessarily telling the truth. They aren’t keeping anything from the reader – they can’t, because the reader is in their mind, watching the story unfold – but what they see as the truth, isn’t necessarily the actual truth.

In The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks, the unreliable narrator is believes something about himself that isn’t true,  and tells the story from that point of view. It’s not until later in the novel, when the narrator makes a discovery, that we and the narrator discover that the opposite is true. I won’t give out spoilers, because it’s a good, dark read. But here’s a quote from the novel:

“My greatest enemies are Women and the Sea. These things I hate. Women because they are weak and stupid and live in the shadow of men and are nothing compared to them, and the Sea because it has always frustrated me, destroying what I have built, washing away what I have left, wiping clean the marks I have made.”
– The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Second Person Narrator

This is a less-often used narrative voice, where the narrator is speaking directly to the reader, putting them into the story. It’s not easy to pull off, and while I’ve attempted stories in second person, I’ve never been happy enough with them to submit them for publication. I’m going to keep trying though.  Here’s an excerpt from the opening of a novel told in second person.

” Four P.M.

The day the stock market falls out of bed and breaks its back is the worst day of your life. Or so you think. It isn’t the worst day of your life, but you think it is. And when you give voice to that thought, it is with conviction and a minimum of rhetorical embellishment.”  Half Asleep in Frog Pyjamas – Tom Robbins.

Third Person Limited Narrator

If the first person narrator is looking out from the viewpoint character’s eyes, and therefore is the voice of the character, then the third person limited narrator is looking over the viewpoint character’s shoulder. They know what the character is thinking, they can see what the character is seeing, and the narrative has all the nuances of the character’s voice, but it is not the character. In this narrative, the writer is acting as a conduit for the reader to see the character, rather than relating the story as the character. We know this because they use ‘he/she said/says.’

Here’s the opening of a short story I’m working on, in third person limited. The narrator in this case is Edie. Hopefully, I get close enough to her to let her personality come through in her internal narrative.

“It began with a bird house.

“Miss Edie, come and see!” Vani called her into the garden, beaming all over her face. Something she seldom did these days.

“What have I told you about calling me miss?” The scolding was half-hearted, futile: no matter how many times Edie had told Vani she despised titles, the woman insisted.

“But miss is what you are, is it not? It is what we both are.”

Edie held her tongue. Vani was technically correct. She had never married, but that didn’t mean she should wear the title like a badge of shame, a declaration to the world that no man had ever found her worthy. Why couldn’t she be known simply as Edie? Not that she should be laying the blame for society’s insistence on labels at Vani’s feet. The poor dear couldn’t help taking everything so literally; it was just the way her brain worked.”

A third person limited narator, like first person, can also be unreliable. Because we’re so close to the character and we can only see from their point of view, the character can make incorrect assumptions and the reader won’t know the assumption is incorrect until the character does. This is especially useful if you want to add a twist to your story. For instance, if you wanted make your reader think that a particular character was an antagonist, you’d let your viewpoint character see that other character do something suspicious, like stealing shoes from the door of a hotel room. Then, later, you might reveal that the character was actually taking the shoes to be mended.

Third Person Multiple Narrators

This is similar to the third person limited narrator, in that the writer brings us close to a particular character, except that throughout the novel the viewpoint changes to different characters, from scene to scene, or chapter to chapter. A good example of this is George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones and other novels in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin uses quite a few narrators to tell an epic story.

Third Person Omniscient Narrator

This narrator is the storyteller, a specific entity, unrelated to the main, or central characters, and has a distinctive voice. They know everything that’s going on in a story and will likely adopt a conversational tone, because they are telling you a story. A third person omniscient narrator is usefull to allow the reader to see the way different characters percieve the same event.  It’s the most distant viewpoint of all, however, and doesn’t allow the reader to see the characters’ direct thoughts. Terry Pratchett employs the omniscient narrator well.

“It was a moonless night, which was good for the purposes of Solid Jackson.

He fished for Curious Squid, so called because, as well as being squid, they were curious. That is to say, their curiosity was the curious thing about them.

Shortly after they got curious about the lantern that Solid had hung over the stern of his boat, they started to become curious about the way in which various of their number suddenly vanished skywards with a splash.” – Jingo by Terry Pratchett

In the above example, the narrator takes us from Solid to the squid and gives us a general idea of how they feel. For Solid, the moonless night is a good thing, but for the squid, their curiosity is not so good. Much of Pratchett’s storytelling starts this way and then moves closer, especially when he’s focusing on a particular character. Then, he’ll move into a more limited narration. Imagine a camera that opens on a wide panorama and them moves closer and closer until it focuses on one person. A writer can change the narration in that way, to suit the needs of the story.

What third person omnisicent doesn’t do, is head hop. This is where the narrator gets close enough to a character to be in third person limited viewpoint, and then jumps to the thoughts of the next character. This can be confusing because the reader doesn’t know who they’re supposed to be following.

If you’re writing in third person ominiscient, you use the voice of the narrator and tell the reader what the character is thinking; if you’re writing in third person limited you’ll use the character’s voice and let the reader see what the character is thinking.

If you are going to write a third person limited narrative, it’s probably best to stick to one character per scene, or at least have a definite break, where you switch. It could be something as simple as having the viewpoint character hand something to another character, who then becomes the viewpoint.

I try to experiment with different narrators, and voices, until I find the one that suits the story best, but I do find that third person limited, or multiple is where I’m most at home. What about you? What’s your favourite narrative style?

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is excellent, Cheryl. Very clear in the distinctions between narrative voices. The difference between omniscient and head-hopping is a tough one and hard for lots of writers to get. As you’ll recall, I was a terrible head-hopper until you straightened me out! LOL. I honestly would recommend that novice writers avoid omniscient until they have some experience or are writing a story within a story. Great post. 🙂

    July 10, 2018
    • Thanks Diana. I recall your head-hopping with great fondness. When I first started to write, I did it too. I think, if they’re honest, everyone does. Still, writing is the only way to learn to write (and lots of reading), so better that we make these mistakes and learn from them. As I recall, you learned very quickly. And thank you for still being my friend after my nagging. 🙂

      July 10, 2018

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