Saturday, April 16, 2011

"N" is for Narrator

And now for something completely different!  An actual informative post, courtesy of me.

If you're writing a story, you need someone (or something) to tell it.  That's a fact.  That person or thing is called a narrator.  A story's narrator can be a character within the story, or even the author as an all-knowing presence.  The narrator also functions within the world of the story that's been created.

There are a few ways to tell a story; these were actually pretty confusing for me when I started writing, and can still trip me up.  For brevity's sake, I'm only going to touch on the following types of narrators:  First Person, Second Person, and the billions of kinds of Third Person.  If anyone's curious or wants more information, search Wikipedia.  Though not all their information is correct all the time, stuff like this is pretty reliable.

First Person
First person narration is told from the point of view of one person at a time, speaking for and about themselves.  You'll be able to tell a story is in first person because you'll see the narrator referring to themselves as "I". The audience will see the plot and actions from the point of view of this character, including their thoughts, feelings, and opinions on what is happening.

One thing to keep in mind when using first person, is that it's a very skewed perspective.  Everything that happens in the story is filtered through your character's eyes; if your character misinterprets something, that's what the reader is given.  So, not everything in a first person story should necessarily be taken as fact.  Some authors hop narrator to narrator (head to head) when writing in first person, and though uncommon, it's not a bad thing.  You just need to keep in mind that you can't have a scene in a first person story that the narrator is not in, because they won't witness it.

Second Person
This is probably the least common way to narrate the story, because the narrator is referred to by second-person pronouns, namely, "You."  Because this is a little tough to wrap your head around, here's an example from Wikipedia's entry on second person narrative.

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. —Opening lines of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City (1984)

Frankly, in my opinion, second person is awkward to read, and makes you feel like you're reading an instruction manual.  It makes it seem as the "you" being referred to is the reader, and that's odd to me, and apparently a lot of other people agree because it's not used that often.

Moving on...

Third Person
There are a few methods of third person narration, so I'll break them down as easily as I can.

Third Person Limited
Here, the reader experiences the story through the senses of one character.  This is almost always the main character, and has similar limitations to first person narrative: the narrator can't tell the reader things that he or she doesn't know.  Literary example: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemmingway, and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

Third Person Objective
With this type of narration, the story is looked at objectively by the narrator.  It's often referred to as the "fly on the wall" or "camera lens" approach, and only records observable actions, not interpretations.  This is most commonly associated with news articles, scientific journals and biographical documents.  It's also called third person dramatic because the narrator is like the audience of a has no effect on the plot and is an innocent bystander, watching the show happen.

Third Person Omniscient
A common form of narration, "the reader is presented the story by a narrator with an overarching, godlike perspective, seeing and knowing everything that happens within the world of the story, regardless of the presence of certain characters, including everything all of the characters are thinking and feeling. 'Third-person omniscient' should not be confused with "third person limited" or 'third person intimate' in which the narration is restricted to relating the thoughts, feelings about knowledge of a 'point of view character.'" 
 Wikipedia explained it very well in a nutshell.  Examples from popular works include The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien and Douglas AdamsHitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  

Also, unlike first person and third person limited, third person omniscient is the type of narration that is least capable of being biased.  It is the most objective way for narrator to tell the tale.  

How does a writer know which type of narrator to use?  I'm not sure.  I always let the story choose for me.  If one sticks out to me before I begin writing it, then I'll use that, but sometimes I actually have to write short pieces of the same story in first person and in third person limited to see which one fits better.  Allow the story to drive which narrator you use; don't try to cram your story into one that won't fit.  It's like square pegs and round holes, and the end result could be a disaster. Personally, I like the biased perspective and intimate thoughts you get with first person, but that's personal preference.  

Well, that should do it.  As much as I like posting about fact-y things, I can't resist throwing in a little funny.

So here you go: 


  1. I agree, it's very important to decide on the narrator because it'll set the tone for the whole story and will also limit what and how you can tell. If you don't get it right, it won't matter how good the story is or how great the characters are - those just won't come through.
    Thanks for this post!
    - andrea, an A to Z participant

  2. Great post. We teach this as point of view in our writing workshops.

  3. Second Person is a bit odd, but I find that it sometimes is the point of view that makes the most sense for a story. Not often, but sometimes. It's also a good way to challenge yourself.

  4. @wordyliving: Exactly. If you don't get the narrator right, the whole feel of the story is "off". I'm glad you liked it!

    @Kris: Yep, I've definitely heard it called POV before, but I had a pretty good P chosen already and a crappy N, so I changed it to Narrator, lol! Glad you liked it!

    @Kayla: I'm sure there's a place for second person, and I can't honestly say I've read a lot of second-person stories. I'm sure if I found one that was particularly well-written that I would enjoy it, though. :-)

  5. I like first person too. I might be biased though, since I'm working on my first book and I went with first person narration. Thanks for getting me thinking about this today-great post.

  6. I'm a third person limited kind of guy. Boring I know. I've written a few shorts in first person, and in an early draft of one book, I had chapters alternating between first/third. It got to be quite a mess. Cut/gone/out. Now I mostly stick to third, but I still like to stay close to the protagonist, so that i don't lose a lot of intimacy.

  7. Third person limited works for me every time. Very informative post.

  8. One thing that's tricky - but rewarding - to pull off is the unreliable narrator. That is, we are seeing the POV of the narrator, but the reader is able to pick up on things that the narrator is too dense/distracted to realize.

    Gone with the Wind is an example - the reader knows Rhett's in love with Scarlett, and that Ashley's a wimpy weasel, long before she does. Again, hard to pull off without making your character look like an idiot, but if you do, then the reader feels like part of a secret club.

  9. Great post.

    Second person works best in "choose your own adventure" type of books. An occasional short story might be okay but I really don't think I could read a novel in it. The problem for me is the speaker makes claims and assumptions about me and usually they aren't true. They try to say what I think about something but that's not what I would think.

    I'm not much of a fan of first person either. It can be well done but if I start to not care about the main character then I'm stuck in that pov the rest of the book, does not go well. I can't get into the story as well and sometimes I struggle to remember simple things like the main character's name. Plus, I'm just not very good at writing it either. So, I prefer third.

  10. Quick, hide teh body. Iz aint goin to no cage. Tried ta feed me no cheezeburger. Dead. Now, pusch, pusch..

  11. I find your post very interesting. I have no aspiration of becoming a writer but I like blogging so I guess in a way, I am interesting in writing. I'll continue to follow your posts as they are well written and easy to understand.
    Wanna buy a duck

  12. Haha, cute kitty pic!

    Third person limited seems to be my method of choice. I like to get in one person's head and stay there, but third person gives me the ability to work my own voice into the narration.

    "Head hopping" first person and even limited third, seems to be creeping more frequently into writing, and it's something writers/editors need to be careful with as it can get confusing to readers and even weaken the story if it's used as a crutch instead of a device.

    Thanks for laying out all the choices so neatly. And I agree, second person is...weird.

  13. Very detailed and useful post. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Great post. I hadn't even heard of second person. I've heard of the others but this is seriously the first time I've seen second person mentioned!

    For my stories, the POV comes with the character. He/She pops in my head and either starts saying "I did this..." or "So-and-so started this..." I'm wondering if my mind is weird like that.

    (Ps stopping through on the challenge!)

  15. @Tim: Me, too. First person is my favorite, and that's what I'm using for both my erotic short and my first novel.

    @Mickey and J.L. Campbell: Third limited is usually a great choice, you just have to write what you're comfortable doing. It definitely gives you that great intimacy with your characters.

    @Writing Goddess: Great point! The unreliable narrator is hard to pull off...the other characters have to be fleshed out very well, but the novel (and therefore the reader) still has those first person goggles on. It's fun to do, though!

    @Dawn: I can't believe I forgot about the "choose your own adventure" books! They were so fun. And I agree, second person makes these weird assumptions about "you" so I always want to argue with the book. It's okay that you don't like first person...I won't hold it against you. :-P Third person is great, too.

    @BornStoryteller: Hahaha! I love that. I have a big thing for LOL Cats. :-P

    @Manzanita: Thank you so much! Hey, if you're blogging, you're writing. Everyone has something to say. Thank you for the follow! I'll be returning the favor shortly.

    @Nicki: I completely agree...third limited is good for letting your own narration into the story. I don't do the head-hopping thing in any original work...too hard to keep track of. :-P

    @damyantiwrites: You're very welcome! I often need things laid out like this for me, so I figured it would be helpful for other people, too.

    @Patricia: Thank you! Nope, your mind isn't weird. That's pretty similar to how stories come to me, and I try to work with the POV I get from them. I'm glad you're enjoying the blog!

  16. This is a great post! I write from the POV the characters tell me to write from. Usually it's first person.

    Thanks for the follow and good luck on your journey!

  17. Thank you, Lori! I'm glad you found the post informative. Like you, I write how the characters tell me to, and it's generally first person as well. :-)

  18. Second person is the status quo for choose your own adventure type books.
    It is used in the way so that the reader does, in fact, become the protagonist of the story and can be effective if you want to draw the reader in and "make them feel it." I've used it a few times for short stories, but I'm not convinced a whole novel can be sustained effectively in second person.

  19. Hi, Andrew! I'd completely forgotten about the "choose your own adventure" books. They were awesome, and you're right, they do put the reader in as the protagonist. I agree, I don't think a whole novel in second person would be very readable.