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. Whichever point of view style a writer chooses, it’s pointing at someone.
In grand terms, it’s 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 like we’re watching on closed circuit TV.
All of these point of view styles can work, and one 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, or just want to kick you novel up a notch, it might be worth identifying a few things:
- Who is your narrator?
- Who is he or she 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.
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 she’s narrating the story to.
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 her story. These are the events that passed at a certain point in a certain life. The narrator is literally talking to the reader, intending the novel to be read by someone. But take a step back and think about what that means to the protagonist–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 probably 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 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 can guide you in 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.
Conversely, a third person omniscient narrator is often more like a camera recording the event, 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. People act differently when they think no one is watching, and you can use that to your advantage with this kind of narrator. The narrator is putting the information out there for whoever wants to view it.
Of course, the narrator might 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. Maybe the narrator does convince readers, or maybe she doesn’t and readers can see through that lie to the real truth.
The novel might show just one side of a larger issue. The story is the narrator’s take on what she feels is the truth, even if it’s not accurate. The story (or her part of it) is what she thinks happened.
Or, the narrator is only talking to herself. It’s her internal monologue, a private peek at her world and her life, and she hopes no one else ever sees inside that life.
Even if narrators never expects 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.
Taking some time to consider who your narrator is and who she’s talking to can add another layer to the story. It can color the details and bring out a richness just “telling” the story doesn’t achieve. That “person” never needs to be revealed, but having an idea of who it is can guide you to making the novel feel like it has a greater purpose. It’s not just a book, it was a story written to serve a larger goal.
Who is your narrator talking to?