Sunday, March 21, 2010

The right narrator

I'm designing a new story. I always enjoy designing because most of it I can do freely in my head any time I want, and not have to worry about whether I can find the time to sit down at my computer. Those who know me well also know that I design by talking out loud - so I do a lot of design while bouncing ideas off various friends (you know who you are - thanks so much!!!).

I've talked before about story design, and the various steps I go through to get a linguistics/alien story going (linguistic problem, aliens, technology level, plot, language, to summarize briefly). This time, though, I'm not dealing with aliens; I'm writing a fantasy story about ancient Japan. This gives me real-time research instead of intensive world and language design, but in fact my attitude about getting close to the thinking process of the people involved remains almost the same. I'm at the last step now, which for the aliens was "language," i.e. deciding what kind of language to use to portray the alien point of view.

For this story I'm calling the step "narrator." I could always generalize and call it narrator for the other type of story too. It's really important to think through:

1. who your narrator is, i.e. how they allow you to get the best point of view on the core conflict of the story, and
2. what their voice is like

I'm not going to spend much time on voice here because I've posted about it several times before. I'm going instead to talk about #1.

Protagonist narrators are the most common in all the works I've read. These come in a number of varieties - I'm not so much talking about 1st versus 3rd person narration here but about whether the narration is delivered in the moment or retrospectively. (I'll talk about non-protagonist narrators below.)

In-the-moment narration works well if you're looking for a sense of visceral closeness to the story. The reader shares sensations, judgments and discoveries with the protagonist as the protagonist has them. This type of narration also allows your reader to experience the protagonist's particular form of myopia, including unreliability (due to insanity, bad judgment, or ignorance). It keeps you as a writer from having to withhold information deliberately and potentially irritate your reader.

Retrospective works well for other purposes. A retrospective narrator has more control over the flow of the story, and can orient the reader on the meta-level to the story as a whole. This allows the writer more freedom to play with chronology because it typically involves less requirement for the end of one section to stick to the beginning of the next. The protagonist can comment on his/her past judgments and orient the reader to a larger moral/general message, like saying what a fool he was when he was a kid. And I'm sure you've often seen retrospective narration used for foreshadowing with phrases like "little did we realize at the time..."

Of course, you can also use more than one narrator. I don't think that switching point of view should be done lightly - it should have a distinct purpose. Crime novels will sometimes dip into the antagonist's viewpoint in order to increase the sense of peril. I personally use point of view switches to show misunderstandings, sometimes within the very same conversation. Part of what I try to do with a switch of narrator is show my readers that no issue is as clear-cut as it seems to any one character in the story, and that even the most reliable characters can still be a little bit wrong. This is definitely the case with my story, The Eminence's Match (forthcoming from Panverse Publishing) - not one of the characters is entirely reliable.

I promised I'd talk about a non-protagonist narrator, and here I am: when you're thinking about who the narrator is, you should think through what the consequences of your choice are for what the story is about. The story I'm designing right now is about a young woman in Heian Japan who goes mad and enters an alternate world (trying to avoid too many spoilers as yet). She's most definitely the protagonist, but there are some difficulties with the idea of using her as a narrator. The biggest one is that she goes mad and becomes unable to tell what is real and what isn't. This makes her a pretty tough vehicle for the reader if I want to keep my reader oriented in the story. I could go for distant narration, but I'd lose some of that sense of closeness that I enjoy so much. So I've just decided to have the story narrated by one of the people who is trying to influence her life (save her vs. cast her down). One of the effects of this is that the story isn't about her "figuring out what is happening" any more - an advantage, since it's going to be tough for her to figure out anything at a certain point. The story shifts when the narrator changes, into a story about three different people trying to influence her in different directions, and which one is going to win. I need to make sure that I keep the focus on her, but this is still a much cleaner model, and I'm very excited about it.

I hope you find these thoughts give you some insight into your own story design process.


  1. A limpid explanation as always, Juliette. Your laser-like analyses are immensely helpful to those of us struggling with aspects of craft. Thanks!


  2. Thanks, Dario. I'm glad you found it helpful, and I always appreciate your eloquent responses.