Many writers describe their narrators as “coming to them” in a distinct voice as they draft, rather than creating narrators through consideration of craft. This mysticism is part of the writing process and for many of us these are thrilling moments as a writer, when a voice “just comes” and we see where it takes us. Although it’s great to draft without wrestling too much with narration, clarifying point of view and the narrative voice are essential components of revision.
Establishing a strong narrative point of view requires separating yourself from the narrator and clearly distinguishing between the writer, narrator and characters. Let’s look the most common narrators you’ll encounter in your reading and writing with a consideration of the distance between writer and narrator.
First person narration is the default point of view for memoir writers, and the most tempting choice for highly autobiographical fiction. But that first-person pronoun “I” temptation for the writer to insert himself into the main character. It’s essential to remember that the author exists outside the work, and even if he is narrating an event that happened to him last week, he isn’t the narrator.
Consider an example from Jeannette Walls “Glass Castle,” a memoir that reads much like fiction. Walls begins the book like this:
“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.”
It’s a great first line, partly because it gives us some brief framework about character and setting. The book will be in the first person, the narrator is an adult, she most likely lives in an urban area, and at least some of our story will focus on her relationship with her mother. The narrator is also engaged in the action. She is the one sitting in the car, she is the one who ultimately makes the decision to “ask the driver to turn around and take me home to Park Avenue” rather than speak to her mother. Make sure your first person protagonist is encountering conflict and making choices as he or she is conveying the story, rather than becoming a static observer.
Walls’ second chapter starts, “I was on fire. It’s my earliest memory. I was three years old, and we were living in a trailer park in a southern Arizona town whose name I never knew.”
The woman we met in the taxi, or a version of that woman about the same age, is still our narrator, but for this chapter the character is her three year old self. We aren’t given a three year old’s perception of events, we recognize the middle-aged version of Walls as our storyteller, and as the owner of the memory and emotion the writer imparts on her. The narrator commands the timeline for us and approaches her treatment of each scene as we expect an older woman looking back at a troubled childhood might.
Close Third Person
Choosing a third person narrator to tell the story from the perspective of the protagonist is a way to help an author gather distance from the storyteller because you can think deeply about the attributes of the narrative character you are developing. Once you have a good sense of your protagonist, it’s easy to assign a voice to relay his or her thoughts and experiences to readers.
In order to provide successful close third person narration, the point of view needs to be completely consistent. Any jump to the thoughts and feelings of another character will weaken the narrative voice, pull the reader from the story, and compromise the narrator’s reliability.
Strong third person narration often starts like a movie, with a distant pan of the scene, and then narrowing to focus on one particular character. Consider the prologue of “The Summer Guest” by Justin Cronin. It begins,
“North of Boston they followed the sea. A day in January, 1947: the carriage of their train was nearly empty. Just the three of them, the man and his wife with the little boy in her lap, and far ahead, a lone man in uniform….”
The second paragraph directs us to the protagonist,
“…Joe rose to stretch his legs. Thirty-one years old: he had been a lawyer, and then a soldier….”
The rest of the paragraph takes us right into Joe’s mind, we discover the lone man has a prosthetic foot because the narrator tells us what Joe sees. The narrator interprets Joe’s thoughts and experiences for the reader, and the author, that mysterious artist typing away on a laptop at Starbucks, isn’t part of the reader’s consideration at all. The narrowing of the narrator’s focus helps us to first familiarize ourselves with the narrator’s voice and then follow it into the story.
Third Person Omniscient
Third Person Omniscient narrators tell a story as though hovering above it, relaying the events of an entire story without aligning the narration with one character more than another. Sometimes, these narrators will enter the minds of one character for a few moments before jumping into the head of another. It’s a powerful tool as a writer, because a scene can be thoroughly enriched by approaching it from different perspectives, but the potential for the storytelling to become confusing or for the narrator to lack a clearly defined, authoritative voice is substantial.
The third person omniscient narrator is the best illustration of a clear separation between authors, narrators, and characters. The author is a mechanic, the narrator is the voice providing the story, and the characters are the actors within the scene. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck uses a third person omniscient point of view. In alternating chapters, his narrator pulls far away from the Joads and instead gives us sweeping descriptions of the dust bowl era. When the narrator returns to the characters, the voice dips into the minds of different people for varying lengths of time, rather than choosing to tell the whole story from Tom Joad’s (or any other character’s) point of view.
Steinbeck’s handling of the third person omniscient point of view is masterful, and a good example of how much freedom can be gained by establishing a strong, reliable narrator. Readers of The Grapes of Wrath have been following the book’s narrator from the minds of truck drivers to used car salesmen and lonely drifters for decades, never for a moment stopping to wonder whose story they were reading.
Consider the manuscript you’re currently working on. What point of view have you assigned to your narrator, and is it consistent or does it shift around between characters? What’s distinctive about the storyteller’s voice, and what information does your reader have about him or her? Think about ways the narrator’s voice is different from your own, especially if you are working with a first-person narrative. Working with voice can feel ambiguous, but if you try reading your work aloud to yourself, you may catch changes in tone or perspective that don’t belong in later drafts. The more you refine the narrative voice, the more distance you’ll have between the author and the narrator, leaving your characters, and your readers, in much better hands.