How to choose the right Narrator

The first and most important thing to understand is that you are the writer. But, unless you are writing nonfiction, you are never the Narrator.  The Narrator is a character, either seen or unseen, who relates your story and again, it is not in your voice, but their own.

The Narrator may be the protagonist of your story. If so, the story will be told from their point of view. In Treasure Island, Jim Hawkins is both the Narrator and the central character (Protagonist). The story is told from his point of view. We, the reader, remain with Jim from his encounter with Billy Bones at the Admiral Benbow Inn, right up to his final departure from Treasure Island onboard the Hispaniola.

So, is the Narrator the POV character?

No, not always.

The Narrator will, in many cases, be an unseen character, a commentator who is not directly involved in your story. But, because they are the one telling the story, you must treat them as a character. Indeed, they might be assumed to be the most important character and yet, they are the one most often ignored.

If you imagine your story as a movie, ask yourself this question: Who is holding the camera? Then relate that to your story. You are the writer, but your Narrator is the director and the cinematographer.

Robert Louis Stevenson, in selecting Jim, picked a Narrator who was young and naive, who saw Silver not just as a brigand but as a free spirit. Added to this, Jim is a boy who can be manipulated by the various forces within the story and who could also inveigle his way into both camps. Stevenson utilises Jim as the Narrator because he is ideally placed to be in the thick of the action for the entire story.

However, in telling the story from Jim Hawkins’ viewpoint, Stevenson had to accept certain limitations, the story had to be seen through the eyes of a boy, a smart one, but still a child with a child’s voice and a child’s understanding. Where a scene required adult insight, Stevenson introduced this through dialogue with an adult character, so the reader is informed, but the Narrator,Jim, still perceives everything as a child.

Stevenson’s choice of Narrator dictates tone, theme, prejudice, and bias. Think what Treasure Island would be if the story were told by Silver or Trelawny. It would be a different story entirely.

Imagine changing the Narrator of a successful franchise; it seems like an insane thing to do, to upend a successful formula, yet this is exactly what Irish writer John Connolly did with his Charlie Parker series.

The first seven of John Connolly’s Charlie Parker novels were written in the first person, so narrated almost entirely from Parker’s viewpoint. For those who are fans of the series (and if you are not, then I recommend it.) you will know that in those earlier novels, we view Parker from his own perspective, as a man driven to seek justice for the dead. He is dark and his notion of justice has little to do with the societal rules of law and order.

So, why change the formula?

In choosing to write The Reaper in the third person, and thus introduce the unseen character of a Narrator, we get to view Parker through the eyes of those who know him. Thus, the Parker we encounter, though the same man, is seen as somewhat different.

The voice of the Narrator is authentic, the book is still a fully-fledged Charlie Parker novel yet the choice of an omniscient Narrator allows us to learn more about other characters, notably the pairing of Angel and Louis, plus the darker character of The Collector.

To Summarise:

The Narrator is the person/character who tells the story. They are a unique character even if they do not appear on the page. They have a unique voice and their perception is limited by experience, education, bias and gender.

A Narrator is a device used in fictional texts or in a narrative poem.

What the Narrator can and cannot see determines the perspective of the story and also determines how much or how little the reader will know.

Narrative voice v Narrator’s voice

Narrative voice deals with viewpoints and these are well covered in this article by Emma Lee. But what about the Voice and character of your Narrator? 

One of the first things to consider when choosing your Narrator is a question.

Can I write in this voice?

Consider the character of Thomas McNulty in Sebastian Barry’s wonderful novel, Days Without End. Thomas is an Irish boy in the 1840s who travels to Canada, fleeing starvation. His story thereafter encompasses his experience as a soldier during the Indian Wars and later the American Civil War.

The entire story is told in and through Thomas’s voice. Yet, despite his potential shortcomings, Days Without End is narrated as a work of openness; it is startlingly and starkly beautiful. Each sentence is so beautifully written that it is difficult not to reread. Yet Thomas’s voice is so propulsive that you are compelled to read on.

Thomas is a man with little education whose voice is authentic for the time period, he is the ideal Narrator for Barry’s work because he is curious, he thinks deeply, he appreciates the beauty and brutality of war and of the vest landscapes. Thomas communicates his insights in a tight but wonderfully controlled colloquial voice, a startling, complex blend of empathy for his enemy, an appreciation of brutality and a mix of pathos and native intelligence.

For those who haven’t read the book, I provide a flavour of it here, a taste not just of the writing but the mind and vocabulary of the Narrator, Thomas.

“Then rain began to fall in an extravagant tantrum. High up in mountain country though we were, every little river became a huge muscled snake, and the water wanted to find out everything,”

“Empurpled rapturous hills I guess and the long day brushstroke by brushstroke enfeebling into darkness and then the fires blooming on the pitch plains. In the beautiful blue night there was plenty of visiting and the braves was proud and ready to offer a lonesome soldier a squaw for the duration of his passion. John Cole and me sought out a hollow away from prying eyes. Then with the ease of men who have rid themselves of worry we strolled among the Indian tents and heard the sleeping babies breathing and spied out the wondrous kind called by the Indians winkte or by white men berdache, braves dressed in the finery of squaws. John Cole gazes on them but he don’t like to let his eyes linger too long in case he gives offence. But he’s like the plough-horse that got the whins. All woken in a way I don’t see before. The berdache puts on men’s garb when he goes to war, this I know. Then war over it’s back to the bright dress. We move on and he’s just shaking like a cold child. Two soldiers walking under the bright nails of the stars. John Cole’s long face, long stride. The moonlight not able to flatter him because he was already beautiful.”

The choice of Narrator is integral to your story. Even though your Narrator may or may not be a character, they still require a voice of their own. The way you write your Narrator will, more than anything, determine how the text is received. Remember, other than dialogue, every other word of your story is spoken by the Narrator, so if the Narrator is written well, the story will be well written.  A good Narrator draws in the reader and gives them a sense of being fully submerged in your story and the lives of its characters.

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