Narrators are a tool that writers use to tell stories. As stated before, stories are generally told in one of two points of views:
- First-person point of view
- Third-person point of view
First-person point of view means that one of the characters in the story will narrate–give an account–of the story. The narrator may be the protagonist, the main character. Writing in first-person point of view brings the readers closer to the story. They can read it as if they are the narrator because of the personal pronouns I, me, my, we, us, and our.
Third-person point of view means that the narrator is not in the story. The third-person narrator is not a character. They are like the reader; they are outside of the story and watching it unfold. Third-person point of view can be done two ways:
- Third-person limited
- Third-person omniscient
Third-person limited means that the narrator limits him/herself by being able to be in one character’s thoughts. Whereas, third-person omniscient means the narrator has unlimited ability to be in various character’s thoughts. Writing in third-person point of view removes readers from the story because of the pronouns he, she, it, him, her, his, hers, they, them, and theirs.
Types of Narrators
In addition to the point of view writers select for the narration of the story, narrators can be unreliable, reliable, naive, or detached observers.
Unreliable narrators cannot be trusted to present the story accurately or with credibility because they have a skewed view of life events. This may be due to the narrator’s mental health state (i.e.: depression, psychosis, schizophrenia, etc.), or it may be due to the narrator’s devious nature (i.e.: murderer, rapist, thief, compulsive liar, etc.). The unreliable narrator may tell lies, withhold information, assess situations incorrectly, contradict information, etc.
Unreliable narrators may reveal their character flaws in three ways:
- They may openly admit their problem at the beginning of the story.
- They may gradually reveal it throughout the story.
- They may wait until the end of the story, which can create a plot twist for readers.
Reliable narrators also have their own view of life events. However, they generally are attempting to present the story in an accurate, impartial way. Reliable narrators often have a strong sense of observation that is seen in how they present the events (scenes) in the story.
Naive narrators are innocent, inexperienced individuals. They lack knowledge about the events (scenes) that are unfolding in the story. This may be due to age, such as a young narrator or senile narrator, or it may be the narrator’s limited experience with a different culture or country. Readers may view the narrator as unreliable because of their lack of experience and/or knowledge.
Narrators that are detached observers stick to the facts. They are a witness to the story. They report what unfolds in the story. They do not interject their conscious thoughts or opinions about the events or other characters.
Choosing a Narrator and Point of View
Writers sometimes choose their narrator and point of view via the trial-and-error method. They might start out with a third-person point of view, detached observer, and a few pages into the story realize they want a first-person, unreliable narrator instead. They either scrap the first draft and start again or they revise it into the new point of view.
However, writers can ask themselves questions in the prewriting stage to determine a closer match to selecting the right type of narrator and point of view for a story before they begin to write. The questions may include, but are not limited to these:
- Do you want your readers to identify closely with the main character? Then, choose first-person reliable.
- Do you want your readers to experience mystery, intrigue, and fear? Then, choose first-person unreliable.
- Do you want to write a story about a young naive character or a senile, old character? Then, choose first-person or third-person, limited naive.
- Do you want to strictly write a factual account of a story? Then, choose third-person, detached observer.
Multiple Points of View in Novels
Because a novel has multiple chapters, it’s possible to have more than one narrator. Chapter 1 may be told in first-person point of view by one character, and chapter 2 may be told in first-person point of view by another character. Usually, this is done with two narrators (characters) alternating in the chapters. However, it can be three or more narrators if the writer knows what he or she is doing. This type of writing requires a strategic plan identifying which scenes which narrators will tell to move the plot, so that scenes are not repeated by the different narrators. It also requires that the writer develop a unique voice for each character who narrates.