7 Steps for Creating Your Story's Narrator

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7 Steps for Creating Your Story's Narrator

Chapter 5 “Characters” – Section 7 “Narrators”

Green Bat 1 by DesdemonaDeBlake

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Now if there's one thing you can be sure of, it's that nothing is more powerful than a young boy's wish. Except an Apache helicopter. An Apache helicopter has machine guns AND missiles. It is an unbelievably impressive complement of weaponry, an absolute death machine.”
-The Narrator of the 2012 film, “Ted”

When writing a novel, a short story, or even a poem, readers often wonder why the author uses certain words, phrases, sentence structures, or why the author holds a specific viewpoint. This is most noticeable when the author writes something that is totally contrary to what the author is renowned for believing (a gender-equalist author, for example, talking about women being inferior to men within the story). Often, this is the result of the author not speaking with his or her own voice, but through the voice of a Narrator. All stories, in fact, are told by a fictional character in your story called the Narrator—whether you realize it or not. Now, it could be that your story is told through the eyes of some sort of god, spirit, unknown invisible force, or a fictionalized version of yourself, but there always has to be a character who knows or sees the story, and tells the audience of the events that transpire. Today, I'm going to talk about the option you have for customizing your own Narrator, as well as the benefits and drawbacks to each feature.

Step 1: Choose what Point-of-View you wish to write in

There are three key Points-of-View: first-person, second-person, and third-person.

-First-person narration (where the narrator is talking from their own perspective) has the benefit of being more personal, but is more technically difficult to pull off without distracting the reader from the story.

I am currently writing in the first-person, as you can tell the story is very focused on me and you can know what I think, like that the sweater I'm wearing is a bit too warm and makes me feel kind of like a bum; but I'd have to add extra effort to tell you what was happening around me, like that my coffee is now empty and very sad-looking. And I certainly couldn't tell you what my cats, Ivysaur and Totodile, are thinking, only their actions or expressions.

-Second-person (where the Narrator talks directly to the audience) is rarely used except in Choose Your Own Adventure Stories and to a limited degree in stories for Young Adults, where you wish to directly address and explain things to your readers. Second-person also has the added difficulty of its requirement to be blended into first-person narration (when not in a CYOA).

You sit and you read the second-person part of the tutorial about Narrators, wondering how relevant this will be to your own story, and beginning to doubt. You look away from your computer and roll your eyes back at how presumptuous this Blake guy is of your actions and thoughts. Unfortunately, this is the nature of the second-person perspective, though it makes you feel much closer to the narrative. Then you get to the part of the tutorial where that Blake guy tells you that you have the potential to be an amazing writer. Reading it in the second-person—where you are directly addressed as an individual reader, wherever you may be—you feel more intimately engaged than you would by any other narrative perspective.

-Third-person narration (the most common form, where the narrator tells the story through the eyes of the characters) is the least finicky and most direct form of Narration. It has the benefit of being the form that is cleanest, most objective, and least distracting to the audience, but requires efforts to make it seem organic and personal, instead of dry and cold.

Ivysaur and Totodile, Blake's two cats who each retained resentment toward him for having given them such undignified names, watched him and planned his demise. Blake, meanwhile, naively worked on his tutorial and thought that all was well. He was happy to have changed to third-person narration, because it gave him the most freedom to tell a balanced perspective of the world around him, while giving away the level of inner and outer story-detail that he desired. However, he noted that he felt slightly more disconnected from his audience—less like he he was engaging them and more like he was objectively showing them a sequence of scenes, perspectives, and events.

Step 2: Choose the level of knowledge that your Narrator has within the story.

There are also three levels of knowledge that a Narrator can have within a story: limited, omniscient-limited, and totally omniscient.

-A limited Narrator knows only what is going on in their own head, and what they see, feel, or otherwise perceive. This form of narration is wonderful for extremely focused story-telling (think of it like a singular camera recording scenes in one comprehensive shot, as is best used in short-stories) but is extremely limited and generally only used in combination with first-person narration.

Blake looked at his cats and smiled, while they simply yawned with apparent disinterest. (Note that while we can gather some information about both Blake and the cats, we really don't know much because the Narrator is in neither of their heads. We only see the characters' actions.)

-Omniscient-limited narration is sort of the standard, where the narrator focuses on telling the story through the eyes of a single character, and knows everything about them. This is effective, again, in tightening your perspective—especially when you only have one protagonist. However, like limited perspective, you will have to make great efforts not to tell a very one-sided story.

Blake looked into his cats' sleepy eyes, and knew just how highly they thought of him. (Note that while we know what Blake is thinking, we have no idea the depths of evil hidden behind the cats' cuteness. This is because the limited-omniscient perspective only addressed what one character sees/feels/thinks/experiences.)

-Omniscient Narration is when the Narrator is a sort of god or spirit that knows all. This form is excellent for telling a balanced story, or telling a story through the eyes of multiple protagonists (or even through the antagonist). However, it is extremely difficult, in this form, to not over-explain the story, make it impersonal, make it boring, or to lose focus on the protagonist.

Blake who, like most humans, was rather oblivious to the thought and emotions of animals, thought that his cats viewed him like he viewed himself, like he was all that and a bag of chips (as his mother had always said in regards to how he thought of himself). Ivysaur, however, was still irritated about Blake having put flea medication on her, and was planning on clawing his heel when he wasn't looking. Totodile, who was much more dastardly a cat, planned on tripping him as he next walked down the stairs—sending him to his death for his audacity in changing the brand of cat food he bought for her.

Step 3: Decide whether your Narrator is a Head-hopper.

If your Narrator is Omniscient, it does not mean that you have to tell the story from the perspective of a god who can see and know everything at once. In fact, to do this is extremely distracting, tedious, and impersonal, especially if you are looking at several characters at the same time. Instead, what you can do is to create a Head-hopper Narrator. This means that between chapters (or multiple times within chapters, along with some sort of divider) your Narrator can play the role of omniscient-limited with as many characters as you like. This creates great freedom for balanced storytelling, without sacrificing a very personal story-telling experience.

Blake stood from his seat, stretched, and took a break from writing to go and make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He loved peanut butter, but was beginning to wonder if it had become his addiction.
-O- <— (this is my head-hopper logo, though any will do)
Totodile watched Blake leave the room and go down the stairs to the kitchen. He was probably going to eat that disgusting peanut butter stuff, which made him smell so repulsive. Regardless, she got into position, at the top of the stairs, and readied herself to destroy him.
Ivysaur watched both Totodile and Blake leave the room. She also knew that Blake was likely to bring back peanut butter, and her mouth watered at the though. Ivysaur thought that maybe she could put off scratching him until later, so that she could trick him into sharing some of his human food.

Step 4: Choose what point in time that your Narrator is writing in.

There are only two tenses that are generally used in storytelling in this day and age: past tense and present tense.

-Past-tense is by far the most popular, as well as the easier, form in which to write a story. This is when the Narrator is telling about something that has already happened. Unless you have a very specific purpose for doing otherwise, this is the tense you should default to.

Blake {made} his peanut butter and jelly sandwich and {poured} himself a glass of milk, thinking about how much he {enjoyed} the new cartoon he {was} watching called “Clarence.” He {had} no idea what his beloved pets {had} in store for him.

-Present-tense is certainly becoming popular in modern literature. This is when the Narrator tells the audience about what is happening in the story, as it happens. It has the potential to increase suspense within a story, as well as to make it seem more real. However, it is extremely difficult to pull off, without making scenes seem long, boring, and with very poor pacing. Perhaps this is because it is such a new and unexplored realm in writing, and one that is still relatively foreign to readers and difficult to adjust to.

Blake {makes} his peanut butter and jelly sandwich and {pours} himself a glass of milk, thinking about how much he {enjoys} the new cartoon he {is} watching called “Clarence.” He {has} no idea what his beloved pets {have} in store for him.

Step 5: Choose whether you want to use a present or non-present Narrator.

The level of presence in your Narrator ranges from Extreme Presence, to Presence, and to Non-Presence. Each can carry their own level of realism and style, or alternatively distract from the story. It's just a matter of choosing a style that goes well with your characters and the sort of story you are creating.

-Extreme Presence is generally (though not exclusively) the form used when telling a story from the first-person Point-of-View of the protagonist. This means that the Narrator not only makes themselves very noticeable in the story, but can actually change and affect the outcome of it. I've also seen this style done humorously in a non-protagonist entity, in movies such as Winnie the Pooh and George of the Jungle—producing a very funny effect.

While I found that Blake was a particularly likable fellow, and though I could probably have altered the course of the story so that things might end well for him, I couldn't help my deep love for dark humor at a human's expense. So, instead of some fortunate accident that could have spared him from his fate, a small bit of milk splashed, as he walked up the stairs, and hit Blake in the eyes.

-Presence is when the Narrator either makes themselves known or are a minor part of the story, but do not cause much change. This can also be done for the sake of humor, or for making the story seem more real by telling it in a sort of diary form—where the narrator tells what they think about what is going on—such as in “Moby-Dick” or “Dracula.”

Diary of Ivysaur 2/4/20167
The human called Blake walked up the stairs towards my fellow cat called, Totodile. I thought he would spot Totodile and that her plans would be for naught; but by the graces of the gods, milk splashed in his eyes. And so Totodile remained still until he reached the top step and his foot was being lowered onto her head. Suddenly, Totodile yowled and cried like a dying human child, to fill his foolish human heart with empathy and fear, and then she clawed the foot he'd used to keep his balance.

-Non-presence is when the Narrator is so absent that it seems like there is no Narrator—that the author is just telling the story directly. This creates a more honest and less biased account of a story, but can suffer from also being less personal. It is most often used in sci-fi, in order for the author to objectively explain the story's and world's technical details, free from their characters' ignorance or unrealistic exposition.

Blake fell down the steps, his food tumbling down the stairs after him, as he screamed in pain, fear, and agony. The fibula bone in his left leg cracked, as he fell down the steps, and then it was over. (Note that by using non-presence I was able to point out exact details that I would not have been able to in first person. Unless I was a doctor and very cool-headed, I would just be thinking something closer to “My leg, oh god, my leg. It hurts so bad, somebody kill me!”)

Step 6: Decide how trustworthy your Narrator is.

If a Narrator is Present (or extremely Present) or is writing from a first-person perspective, they will be flawed characters who tell the story through their own biases. It is possible to take this bias to the extreme and allow your Narrator to be dishonest with your readers. However, this is one of the most difficult skills to master, as you must give some real and noticeable (yet not painfully obvious) indicators of the Narrator's dishonesty, if you do not want your readers to feel cheated by you—the author. Also note that this should NEVER be done in children's literature, and rarely in that of young-adults, as the style requires a very mature level of sardonic appreciation to actually serve your story.

And thus I, Totodile, murdered the foolish human known as Blake. But my taste for blood was not quenched by his death alone. I had to kill another, and another, and another, until the humans were gone from this planet, and only cats were left to rule.
“So then, how are people reading this,” Blake asked, hobbling to the computer, with a cast on his leg and bandages all over his body, while his cat had finished typing.
“Oh, uhm, I guess they'll pick out the inconsistencies and obvious problems in the plot, and figure that out,” I replied, feeling a little crestfallen.

Step 7: Choose how many Narrators you have.

I have seen a few instances where writers have chosen to tell the story through two or more Narrators of completely different forms (the last one I read had a third-person Narrator as well as a first-person Narrator taking turns telling the story, based on whether the protagonist was featured in that chapter). This can give more freedom to your story, but note that it is difficult for your readers to stay immersed in the story, when you keep forcing them to change the lenses through which they see the story. It would be like playing a video-game that was a first-person shooter on some levels, and platformer on others; or like a movie that changed whether it was in color or black-and-white between each scene. It can be done, and done well, but it is a bit trickier to pull off.

I finished typing out my tips and then smiles in contentment at the additions I had made to the tutorial. And, of course, surviving my homicidal cats was a plus, too. Thus concludes the story of my epic adventure with cats, and sandwiches, and stairs. I hope you all enjoyed! Good luck and goodnight!
Blake finished typing and pushed the “save” button on his word document. He then looked at the desk and asked the cat named Totodile what she thought. The cat began to lick its paw with disinterest.
“You say it needs more action, drama, and suspense?” Blake asked, a wildness in his eye that spoke of grand levels of insanity as he spoke to a cat who was quite normal. He began to laugh maniacally and work on his second draft, while Ivysaur busily licked all the peanut butter that had spilled onto the stairs.

Recommended Weekly Reading: "Captain Underpants" (To analyze the varying degrees of narrative presence, and the effects that this has on various parts of the book.)

Write-a-Novel Exercise 5.7


Using the steps above, create your Narrator and write down exactly what type you have created for your novel.

Click here to submit your exercise to the gallery.


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Hinata-Wolf77's avatar
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Wonderful :) Thank you so much for featuring my work!
HobbyWriter's avatar
Another book one should look at to see how narration can affect a story: "The stranger" (1942) by Albert Camus. A book that seems very boring, but is, excuse the oxymoron, rather complex in its simplicity. You should especially look at the words the main character Meursault uses to express himself. 

This is incredibly interesting and funny to read through. I read a series by Rick Riordan (surprised) called "The Kane Chronicles" where the main characters are two siblings names Sadie and Carter. They narrate their adventures through a recorded tape, and the narrator changes between the chapters. Sometimes, a sibling might comment on something one said. Could be like this: "How should I describe Walt? [Other than 'Hot', Sadie.]" This style played very much into the humor and relationships in the franchise, I think.

Btw, I showed a friend your profile. She wants to grow as a writer, and I think your profile is perfect for that.  
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
I'll ass them to my long list of needed reading, haha :) But that second one definitely looks like an interesting read.

Awesome, thanks for showing her. 
HobbyWriter's avatar
No problem, you've helped me a lot, so why couldn't your tutorials help her as well?
HobbyWriter's avatar
Just sharing the helpful tutorials of Blake.  :D
MakingFunOfStuff's avatar
I like head-hopping, but I thought it was looked down on. Maybe it depends how purposefully it's done.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
I think it has to be done in a novel (as opposed to a short story) and it has to be done with a LOT of purpose and clarity. It's a little tricky at first, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes as professional as anything else. 
MakingFunOfStuff's avatar
Good way of putting it.

I think what threw me is what defines "purpose."
Entertainment can be a purpose, particularly comic effect. That would apply not specifically to head-hopping; I've heard it used (in cartoons) to apply to whether or not any action is necessary in general.

It's probably more common sense than it sounds when you look at each individual situation.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Exactly. When people fail at it, it's generally because they aren't clear enough for their audience to understand what's going on. 
ReishaTerrin's avatar
This is what I've been waiting for! Finally! I have had such an issue in this area. I thought that i was writing in third-person limited, but looking at this i'm wondering if I'm leaning more towards  a Omniscient-limited narration? Could your Possible show me a bit more of an examle of both Third-Person limited and Omniscient-limited? 
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Well the only difference between the two would be that omniscient allows "head-hopping' while limited just sticks to one character throughout the entire story. Otherwise, they are identical. Let me know if you have any more questions :) 
ReishaTerrin's avatar
Oh... then I don't want to do head hopping and just stick into the head of the protagonist. Then it would be limited?
ReishaTerrin's avatar
So then, the method i want is call Third-person limited?
ReishaTerrin's avatar
Then i should change my one statement! :) 
Dracozombie's avatar
I hadn't considered presence as a factor. That's a new one to consider.

I've been giving more thought to my narrative styles these days. I noticed I mainly wrote in third-person limited, but after reading more books in different styles, I'm working with something more omniscient. But, besides pronouns, what would you say is the core difference between first-person and third-person limited? Let's use your broken leg example: how differently would it be narrated in first-person versus third-person limited? Third-person allows for a little bit more of an 'outside perspective' compared to first-person, but it seems like if you're not careful, all it'd take for a shift between perspectives is some pronoun changes. Is a subtle outside presence, or a little more objectivity than in first-person, the key difference?

Something else I don't have much experience writing in is multiple protagonists in the same scene. An idea I'm working on has multiple protagonists. Right now the plan is that they'll have their own chapters to themselves, narrated by omniscient-limited, but later on, there will be more focus on them all together as a group. My question is how would I juggle all their actions and thoughts without being overwhelming, or stretching the focus too thinly?
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
To answer your first question, the differences would be very subtle and there would be many similarities between those perspectives. It would mostly be a touch of difference in the style and the world that the perspective shows, like you illustrated. Overall, they would be rather interchangeable, and which one you decided to use would mostly depend on your particular writing style and whether the protagonist had an interesting voice. 

My only answer to your second question is that it is extremely difficult. I made the mistake of doing it in my first novel (not a mistake because it was a bad creative choice but mistake because it was a difficult feat for one's first novel, but live and learn). You mostly have to just make sure to create an even amount of time between the multiple protagonist and a shared overarching plot that is equally swayed by the actions of both characters. It takes a lot of editing and tweaking of the plot. Also, it requires a longer novel, as you have to have the space to do all of that. You can do as many protagonists as you want, but you'll have to add roughly and extra 150 pages (very rough estimation based on experience) to give your audience enough familiarity with them for them to seem like primary protagonists. 
Dracozombie's avatar
Yeah, that's what I figured, but I didn't know if I was missing anything or if they truly were interchangeable in a lot of ways.

It looks like the story would have to be pretty dense, yeah. I'm reading Stephen King's IT, which has multiple viewpoint characters, and yikes it really is a beast. It doesn't help that I'm a pretty slow reader to begin with, so it's taking me forever to get through it. I'm not even at the part where the characters are all together! Gotta boost my reading speed. Otherwise I'd get through a lot more books a lot faster.
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