The Narrator: The #1 Most Important Fact of Fiction
A writer and nothing else: a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right. – John K. Hutchens
When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing. – Enrique Jardiel Poncela
One of the greatest dangers most new fiction writers face is that they have seen many more movies and TV shows than they have read novels.
The film audience looks through the camera, and its lens can look wherever it wants from any perspective it wants.
Take the case of a basic conversation at an Italian restaurant: the camera shoots over the man’s one shoulder, then the woman’s, then the man’s, close-up on her face, then over at the guy skulking by the pay phone, then back to the man, then at the bill, then at both people at the table in a wide shot that turns out to be from the perspective of the guy at the phones, then in his pocket where…there’s a gun! End of scene.
Film gets away with split-second changes in perspective for many reasons, but most especially because the audience doesn’t have to do the work to imagine the visual or auditory details of the story. They don’t even have to think, “Two people are talking at Italian restaurant.” The actors, score writer, prop master, lighting guys, grips, make-up and hair artists, cinematographer, set designer, wardrobe mistress, and caterers do that.
The novelist has only themselves and the words on the page. The relationship they form with the reader is much closer, much more intimate without cast or crew. The author must provide the reader with what they need to participate in the story, to be “shown,” not “told.” And absolutely essential to this intimacy is that the reader be able to listen to the narrator without distraction or disruption.
Of course, we are talking about a mainstream writer who wants to get published. Perhaps you’ll be self-publishing your book. The editors at a self-publishing company, if it’s reputable, will want to be sure that your book is well-written. If you’re Toni Morrison, Joshua Cohen, or the latest reincarnation of Jack Kerouac, you can make your narrator do whatever you want. How do they do that?
There are four major concerns:
1. Changes in Perspective
A writer’s arsenal:
- First person (I, me, us, we)
- Second person (you, your)
- Third person (he, she, they, them, it)
- Third person limited (the narrator is limited by following along a character’s perspective, or chronological order, or a specific place, or some other boundary)
- Third person omniscient (the narrator knows everything everywhere all the time)
Perspective is the primary difficulty of novel writers and their narrator, because the fictional narrator cannot leap about from character to character, peering over one shoulder then the next, without causing confusion. While the audience of a movie peers consistently through the eyes of the camera, the reader of fiction can be made to look through the eyes of multiple characters, including the character of the narrator.
Let’s try that scene at the restaurant as though it were in a novel:
John looked at Helen, concluding that she looked tired. It had been so long since he had been a date that he wasn’t sure if asking after her health would be an insult.
“I like this place,” he told her. “I’m almost a regular.”
Helen wondered if that were supposed to impress her. If John really wanted to win a woman over, he might try to visit the gym from time to time. She picked up the menu, tilting it up to block her eyes so she could gaze critically at his bald spot.
“Anything on the menu you want to recommend?” she asked, looking over the prices.
John worried about what Helen might like, scanning over the prices. While he ate here often, it was usually for one. Thank goodness they had agreed right away to go Dutch.
“I like the soup,” he said.
Helen’s face squinted just slightly, or perhaps flinched. John spotted a small scar on her nose. It made him think of small pox.
The guy hadn’t even picked a good table for his date, Baker thought as he scanned the lobby of the low-end Italian restaurant, making sure he was always the closest one to the pay phone. They were too close to the kitchen.
“I think I’ll have the minestrone,” John announced. Helen seemed to suppress a sigh.
Baker looked over the other diners. What a boring bunch, he decided. When was the damn phone going to ring?
Dinner ended, the waiter set a single bill on the table. Both John and Helen looked up in annoyance. They had specifically asked for separate checks.
What a cheap-o, Baker thought. The guy wasn’t even treating.
Inside Baker’s pocket was a Walther PPK. James Bond’s gun.
Whew, what a mess.
The reader can follow along if they try, but there is nothing to be gained from making them work so hard. The reader can’t even tell who the main character is supposed to be. There are many hints about the characters’ true selves, but what reader could keep them all straight as the novel progresses, leaping about from person to person?
Note that by writing from a character’s perspective and then shifting to third person omniscient, the astute reader will wonder just who, exactly, knows there’s a gun in Baker’s pocket and that it’s James Bond’s gun. Why would some all-seeing narrator make a Bond reference? Is this, in fact, Baker’s perspective we’re getting? Or maybe the gun’s?
Consider the basics of setting the scene while using multiple perspectives. How can the story “paint the picture” to provide a context when the meaning of the words change? To John, the restaurant is a familiar and comforting place, it seems to make no impression on Helen at all, and Baker thinks it’s low-rent. While that’s interesting, how can the reader develop an emotional connection? How can they fill in the blanks and see the restaurant for themselves?
Changing the narrator’s perspective means you’re swapping out a new speaker. Say you start with the perspective of an artist, “who finds the red sunset diluted with the soul of the world.” Then you start talking through an electrical engineer. The words “red” and “diluted” will no longer hold the same meaning. What is the reader to think?
Be kind to your poor reader, who simply wants to settle into the story and have a good time. Pick a perspective and stick with it. Let the words come from a single voice, or, if you must shift perspective, do it plainly and with obvious purpose.
A good exercise is to write at least one story of some length in the first person and be 100% honest about it. This is, after all, the way we actually live our lives. If we’re John sitting at that table, we may notice that Helen is trying not to be obvious about staring at our bald spot. If we’re Helen, we may learn she’s so critical of John’s appearance because it looks nothing like the photo he emailed her.
But if we are John and Helen and Baker and James Bond’s gun all at once, we’re probably going to put the book down and wonder how it got published.
2. Inappropriate Knowledge or Lack of Knowledge
This one is similar to perspective, but has its own concerns. It’s also something people usually associate with character. If your lead is, say, Trickster McGee, a steamboat captain of the 19th century who is not magical, then he should know how steamboats work but have no clue what a “computer” is.
But narrators are characters too. If the narrator is ever once limited in their perspective, then they must continue to be limited in that fashion unless they make a formal change in perspective from one character or location or time to another. Take the example:
Ace looked up at the sky, perhaps wondering if he could get right back into his plane. The sun was hot on his face, and the runway was clear and golden as a sunbeam. He thought he’d better get back into the cockpit before someone doubted his reputation.
There is no reason for the narrator to wonder what Ace is thinking one minute then know what Ace is thinking the next. Either the narrator can tell what Ace is thinking or the narrator doesn’t. Be your own editor and pick one.
3. Changes in Voice
A writer’s arsenal:
- Tone: primarily described as an emotion: happy, sad, mean, angry, delirious, rapturous, serious, conversational, casual, formal
- Voice: primarily described as a person: news anchor, scientist, boss, mother, child
The temperature hit ninety degrees the day she arrived. New York was steaming – an angry concrete animal caught unawares in an unseasonable hot spell. But she didn’t mind the heat or the littered midway called Times Square. She thought New York was the most exciting city in the world. — Jacqueline Susann, Valley of the Dolls
Nostalgic older man:
I scooted up farther and rested my worn Keds on the hump that ran through the middle of our old Pinto station wagon. I was skinny and tall for my age, which made my knees curl up toward my chest. Mom said I was safer in the backseat, but deep down I knew that it wasn’t really about safety, it was about the radio. I was constantly playing with it, changing the dial from her boring Perry Como station to something that played real music. – Glenn Beck, The Christmas Sweater
Outside it was getting dark. The streetlight came on outside the window. The two men at the counter read the menu. From the other end of the counter Nick Adams watched them. He had been talking to George when they came in. – Ernest Hemingway, “The Killers”
This isn’t an article on finding your voice. I’ll have to tackle that later. But once you have a voice, whatever it is, you need to stick to it.
If you’re writing, as most writers do, in a detached third-person limited perspective that does not comment on the action, you will startle the reader out of the story if you suddenly change your voice.
Hannah was really tired of the coffee at McDonald’s, but she saw no reason to shell out $5 for something equally horrid at Starbucks. The new place on Edison sounded halfway decent, and it wasn’t much of a walk out of her way to work.
Standing at the street corner and waiting for the light to get a move on and change, she idly watched a red car make an illegal U-turn. Man, pushing the start button on that monster would set off the distinctive roar of a pure thoroughbred race car, all muscle and no mercy.
She considered buying a bagel or something. The pastry cart that came around at work was so expensive.
The break in voice is actually good, if we’re looking to startle the reader and if there’s a payoff to being startled, such as finding out that Hannah is a car nut.
If there is no reason for the break in voice other than that the author likes cars, then it is again time to be your own editor. The sentence about “the distinctive roar of a pure thoroughbred” has got to go.
If your narrator has taken the perspective of a child, don’t use big words. If the narrator is supposed to be well-educated, use big words, but make sure they mean what you think they mean and check your grammar.
Your narrator is the one speaking to your reader and it is their voice they hear. If the voice irritates or confuses them, they’ll stop reading.
4. Breaking the Fourth Wall
The “Fourth Wall” is a theatrical term made popular by Denis Diderot. The stage usually provides two wings, a back wall, and the front, which looks out over the audience. Traditional theatre has the actors pretend that the audience isn’t there, that there exists a fourth, invisible wall between the action and the rest of the theatre.
Characters have been breaking that wall since theatre was invented. Shakespearean characters make asides to the audience to reveal what they’re thinking. Characters in political plays turn away from their scenes to make social commentary. And so on.
The term is used in film when a character directly addresses the camera and the audience beyond it (Ferris Beuller, Wayne Campbell).
In novels, an author breaks the fourth wall by directly addressing the reader with warnings, commentary on the action, jokes, and other “asides.” As with other media, narrators can break this wall if they choose, but they must do it consciously and consistently.
Narrators break the fourth wall when they throw in judgments that don’t belong to characters, such as “fortunately” or “unhappily.” They break it when they point out that it’s a shame a character doesn’t know something.
Spot the break in the fourth wall below:
Tex walked up to his horse, the best damn animal a man could have. Lil Sal would eat from his hand and kick a stranger in the head. They’d survived more than one suddenly blizzard crossing the Rockies. And the sweetheart still had a soft mouth, meaning she only needed light guidance on the reigns. He’d sell his gun before he’d so much as rent Lil Sal to a sheriff’s wife.
Just who is saying “meaning she only needed light guidance on the reigns”? The narrator was speaking as Tex, and then breaks the fourth wall to explain what he has decided the reader can’t figure out for themselves. As an editor, I’d take the phrase out.
A narrator breaking the fourth wall on purpose can be fun, as long as the author never forgets how intrusive this is between the story and the audience. Let’s take a look at some excerpts from the classic story Andy Griffith used to tell in the guise of a clueless country bumpkin at a football game.
And what I seen was this whole raft of people a-sittin’ on these two banks and a-lookin’ at one another across this pretty little green cow pasture.
Somebody had took and drawed white lines all over it and drove posts in it, and I don’t know what all, and I looked down there and I seen five or six convicts a running up and down and a-blowing whistles…
I seen that the men had got in two little bitty bunches down there real close together, and they voted. They elected one man apiece, and them two men come out in the middle of that cow pasture and shook hands like they hadn’t seen each other in a long time…
I don’t know, friends, to this day, what it was that they was a doin’ down there, but I have studied about it. I think it was that it’s some kind of a contest where they see which bunchful of them men can take that pumpkin and run from one end of that cow pasture to the other without gettin’ knocked down or steppin’ in somethin’.
This is wonderful, funny stuff, but you had better not want the audience to care about that football game. Basically, when you make your narrator this intrusive, the narrator isn’t just the main character, but the only character.
Break the fourth wall only if you must, and only with the greatest of care.
Following these basic guidelines for narrating fiction should keep your reader in a comfortable and imaginative space. Once there, they can concentrate on your story in the right way, getting to know your characters, envisioning your scenery, figuring out your symbolism, and enjoying themselves.
Give the reader an enjoyable experience, and they’ll always come back for more. If you’re not positively sure that your narration works, ask a good book editor or your self-publishing company to evaluate your book prior to self-publishing it.