Knowing your narrator

Interesting post at Writer Unboxed: Knowing Your Invisible Narrator

So we’ve got this whole “third-person narration” thing. You know it already. It’s that “he/she/they” thing instead of the “I/me/we” thing. The narrator isn’t the protagonist or (usually) any of the playing characters, and so the narrator is kind of floating above everybody’s heads, nonexistent, as lives are lived.

I would argue, vehemently, that in a close third-person narrative, you can indeed consider the protagonist the narrator. In that style of third-person, the reader is aware of the emotional reactions of the protagonist, sees and reacts to the world from the protagonist’s perspective, is limited to what the protagonist knows about the world, and so on. This is all exactly like a first-person narrative.

In close third person, we read paragraphs like:

Turned out, getting shot and then having a huge hole torn through your guts was a great way to get just soaked with blood. Even after the mogui took the injuries, the blood was still there, saturating the rags of Tommy’s shirt, his jeans, even his shoes, somehow. Blood was okay, great even, if it was somebody else’s blood, and if it didn’t make too much of a mess. This was definitely a mess. No wonder these other black dogs didn’t want him in their clean car. It was a nice car. Upholstered seats. Gray upholstery that’d show blood real well. Tommy kept his head bowed because Ethan was glowering at him. Probably thinking that if he just killed Tommy after all, he could leave the body right here and not get any kind of mess in that nice car.

The other two black dogs would do whatever Ethan wanted. That was obvious. Don was stronger than Ethan; Rip was close, but a little stronger; Tommy could feel that, or his mogui could feel it. Didn’t matter, though. Ethan was for sure the one calling the shots. Because he was Grayson Lanning’s nephew and Grayson Lanning was Master of Dimilioc, yeah. Tommy got how that worked. He wasn’t going to make a single move that might make Ethan mad, not if he could avoid it. He bowed his head a little lower.

This is the opening of Tommy’s story for the new Black Dog collection coming out this fall. (I presume it’s coming out then, even if, no, not every story is written for it yet.) Anyway, this story is finished, though I expect I’ll wind up fiddling with it a bit. The point is, this is close third and so the reader is right with Tommy, and will be through the whole story.

In distant third person, I guess one might consider the narrator to be some invisible person who isn’t the protagonist. This is the style where the author writes, “Tommy thought that … it occurred to Tommy … it seemed to Tommy that …” and so on

In the real world, this is more complicated than the above distinction makes it seem, because as a rule, an author moves from close to more distant and back again depending on the scene. Not all the time, though. CJ Cherryh generally writes in close third all the way through her books. Perhaps there are some exceptions, but that’s the rule for CJC.

A writer who starts a book as the Instructor Bruno mystery starts may be sticking to more distant third most of the time. I mean, let’s look again at the opening paragraph:

On a bright May morning, so early that the last of the mist was still lingering low over a bend in the Vézère River, a white van drew to a halt on the ridge that overlooked the small French town. A man climbed out, strode to the edge of the road and stretched mightily as he admired the familiar view of St. Denis. The town emerged from the lush green of the trees and meadows like a tumbled heap of treasure; the golden stone of the buildings, the ruby red tiles of the rooftops and the silver curve of the river running through it. The houses clustered down the slope and around the main square of the Hôtel de Ville where the council chamber, its Mairie, and the office of the town’s own policeman perched above the thick stone columns that framed the covered market. The grime of three centuries only lately scrubbed away, its honey-colored stone glowed richly in the morning sun.

“A man climbed out.” That’s as distant as you can get. The reader is most definitely not sharing this person’s perspective at all. You could consider the narrator an invisible person standing back from this scene, describing it to the reader.

I don’t, as a rule.

The linked post about invisible narrators goes on:

You, as the author, need to make sure you know who your narrator is and what they’re up to.

Since I’ve never thought about who my invisible narrator is, I don’t agree. Usually I stay in fairly close third most of the time — more so in more recent novels of mine, I think — and perhaps that is why the above assertion seems so odd to me. But it does seem odd.

Ask yourself:

  • Who is your narrator? (e.g. age, identity, experiences, likes and dislikes, personality)?
  • How are they related to the book? (Do they have any personal stakes here? Some sort of emotional connection? Why or why not?)
  • Why are they the one telling the story? (What is their authority, wisdom, or right to do so?)

And so on. The author is supposed to figure out this stuff in order to handle the narrator as a separate entity from the protagonist. I mean, seriously, this seems SO WEIRD. I have never pondered these questions. Never.

To me, it seems as though the post is confusing third with omniscient. Or something.

I will add that for me personally, this sort of question is much more relevant for FIRST person, not third. Yes, of course, in first person, the protagonist is telling the story. But when? And to whom? And why? For ME, getting those questions sorted out is much more important than thinking about some non-protagonist narrator in third-person narratives.

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9 thoughts on “Knowing your narrator”

  1. That is really weird. If the narrator is a fully fleshed out individual and not just a floating, disembodied view, then isn’t it just first-person at that point?

  2. Even books that feign a writer from within the world don’t usually worry much about personalizing the writer. As an example of one that does, I recently read Brust’s latest THE BARON OF MAGISTER VALLEY, one of the romances ‘written’ by Paarfi of Roundwood. His stylistic quirks (rather over-done in this book, frankly), asides to the reader and even personal concerns are an important part of the reading experience, separate from the story being told. But that’s a very unusual case.

    As a more typical — indeed prototypical, version — one may take LORD OF THE RINGS. Within the fiction, it was written by Frodo years after the events… but Tolkien was not in the least concerned with making sure the auctorial voice always sounded like Frodo, and it would have been a substantially weaker book if he had been.

  3. As an example of whatever this poster was trying to get at, I submit the Bartimaeus trilogy, which uses extensive footnotes that almost become a character in themselves. I don’t recall the narrator actually being named at any point, but man, those footnotes were *memorable*. Of course, it has been years since I read the series, so I may be wrong and it was one of the named characters who was footnoting everything with such abandon, but I really do think it was just the narrator going to town with the explanatory text.

    I . . . don’t think I have ever really thought about my narrator in detail unless my story is in first person. Which is a rare POV for me to write from, as I mostly prefer close third.

  4. I went over and read the original as well as comments. In the comments the author of the OP explains what she’s getting at is the need to keep in mind that the 3rd person POV character you’re narrating through (or whatever) has a background and should filter and notice accordingly.

    She should have just written that to start with.

  5. Narrators can be different from the character very subtly. There’s a Heinlein novel where the narrator comments that a character with eidetic memory forgot to do something and being ridiculed for it, thought correctly that two kinds of memory were involved.

  6. The article has some good points but, as you noted, the author doesn’t quite have a grasp of the different kinds of 3rd-person narration. POV is something beginning writers often get confused about, as this post clearly demonstrates! Problems in manuscripts often boil down to the writer not realizing who is telling the story to whom and when (this can result in some weird verb tense problems, as well as the knowledge and perspective issues the article mentions), or not realizing they’re writing in close third and they’ve just jumped into someone else’s head, or described something the narrator couldn’t be aware of. An omniscient narrator doesn’t have to have a background or a personality, but if they do it needs to be consistent. (It would be a great writing exercise to take a passage from LOTR and rewrite it as if it really were Frodo writing it down—and to extend the exercise, do it once if he wrote it right after he returned to the Shire and then again if he wrote it decades later from the West.)

    An inexperienced writer is probably unconsciously imitating the narration of books they’ve read without realizing that those books were using different narrative techniques, and so they mix them up.

  7. E.C., I’m afraid that the Bartimaeus trilogy’s footnotes were actually by a named character. They’re from the point of view of Bartimaeus (the demon). But maybe another example of what you were thinking of is the footnotes in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels? Those have a very strong narrative voice.

  8. Kim, I ran into exactly that kind of (really serious) verb tense problems when I initially, years ago, tried to write a first-person pov. That problem dragged the story to a halt. I couldn’t decide when the protagonist was telling the story and just wound up tying myself in knots and abandoning the story.

    The back of my brain had sorted that out by the time I wrote Tuyo, I guess, because it wasn’t difficult at all to handle that. I’ve changed my mind a couple of times about to whom Ryo might be telling the story, but I know when he’s telling it — a long time in his future. Being certain about that is absolutely crucial.

    I think you’re probably right that a novice could fail to notice the difference between, say, omniscient and distant third and close third and then get everything confused. That makes perfect sense. It would be easy to make mistakes until someone explains, or you just notice, the difference between close third and distant third and start to pay attention.

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