Who’s Your Narrator?

Over Spring Break I had an opportunity to catch up on many books that had been on my TBR pile including two that raised some interesting questions about a writer’s choice of narrator. The first of these, Room by Emma Donoghue, has a child narrate the harrowing story of a mother and son held by a kidnapper in a one-room shed, their subsequent escape and their rocky road to adapting to the wide world beyond. For me, the choice of narrator made for a compelling read and I think it was both a wise and savvy move on behalf of the writer. It was difficult to pull off I’m sure, but the choice of a child to tell the story added an unexpected element and twist to what could have been a more typical abduction thriller.

The second book was a real summer read – Me Before You by JoJo Moyes – and it was not the kind of story I tend to read (i.e. romance). However, the choice of narrative viewpoints in this book too was the reason I think it was so compelling. As a reader we see into the mind of a slightly ditzy 20-something, her more mature sister, and the mother of the quadriplegic man who the 20-something year old has been tasked with being a companion for. The writer (wisely I think) only briefly give us the perspective of the male protagonist (the quadriplegic) before his injury. Other than that his character and motivations are clearly revealed in terms of his interaction with the other characters. Neither Room nor Me Before You are typical book choices for me (I did also read The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson, which is much more my usual cup of tea:))  but they gave me some interesting perspectives on narrative choices.

I typically have a strong female narrative voice – though in a few of my WIPs I have adopted multiple perspectives, including male characters. I’ve never attempted a child’s voice, nor the perspective of someone much older than me. For me, the choice of narrator has always been guided by the story and, so far at least, that has meant I haven’t delved too far outside my comfort zone (though I’ve had some fun with darker and more amoral characters than myself!).

So, TKZers, what about you? What was the most challenging narrative voice you’ve ever used? Do you find yourself typically using a voice closely allied to your own, or have you gone far beyond this to perhaps channel someone of a different ethnicity, age or gender to you own? What challenges did this present?

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18 thoughts on “Who’s Your Narrator?

  1. I often use three narrators in my novels, both females and males. In flash fiction is where I experiment most, with the crude, the nasty, the evil, and the sweet. That’s what’s so special about flash, if you ask me. You can jump into any character’s skin long enough to give them life, then jump out.

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  2. I don’t like a lot of POV characters in books I read, although it’s not a reason for me to stop reading. What I don’t like is a quick pop into a character’s head for only one short scene in the book. In romance, hero and heroine are a ‘must’ so writing both male and female POV characters is part of the requisite skill set (I do have male beta readers/crit partners to help). To date, my most ‘out of my box’ POV character is a 17-year-old boy in my next release. (And, FWIW, all my beta readers thought he was their favorite character, even though it wasn’t really ‘his’ book.)

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    • I agree, Terry. I like multi-POV books, if the story is rich enough to merit it. But sometimes, you run across a book where one or more of the POVs feels unneccessary, as if the writer did not really think out how to solve a plot problem and decided to just tack on an extra POV to “explain” it. I’m of the mind that if a character has only one or two scenes (from their POV) you should maybe look for other people from your cast to convey that info. If you give a character a POV, you need to be sure that character is important enough to merit and to carry it.

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      • Agreed and I must admit when the narrator changed first in Me Before You I was like ‘uh-oh’ do I really need this other character’s perspective??…I think overall it ended up working – at first though I was wary as I liked inhabiting the thoughts of the main character and would have been happy to stay there.

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      • Absolutely. I did use a ‘bad guy’ POV in one of my mysteries (which then turned it into a suspense), but I think I had at least 6 scenes from his POV. By giving a character a voice, the author is telling the reader “this character is important” and then to find out he/she rarely, if ever, returns feels like lazy writing to me.

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  3. Re the book “Home” that you mention, Clare: I tried to read it, but I just couldn’t buy the child’s POV. It was incredibly wearing to be in the little boy’s head, not just because it meant using a really simple sensory/language/experience filter. But also because I thought it strained credibility at times. I couldn’t finish the book. But I do admire the writer for pushing the envelope.

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    • Sorry…got the book’s title wrong! It’s “Room” not “Home.” Geez…going to get coffee refill now before I try to write my own book…

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      • I must admit I reached a point in the book where I was weary of the child’s viewpoint and I would have probably preferred the narrative view to switch to the adult mother but as I continued to read, I realized that the child really had to be the narrator throughout. Overall I admired the writer for choosing that – even though, like you, it did grow cumbersome at times for me as a reader.

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  4. I am experimenting with writing an autistic narrator–I don’t think the narrator will put off the reader, because I envision the person as having a rich, coherent interior voice that is not recognized by the people around her. I have collected a small library of books on the subject, to make sure I don’t go off track in the process. We’ll see how well it turns out!

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      • Wow, Kathryn, I admire your guts in trying that. I would be so afraid of getting it wrong and pissing everyone off. It makes me think about Jonathan Lethem’s Tourette-afflicted narrator in Motherless Brooklyn. Most of my friends loved it, but I had trouble buying the voice, or maybe I just didn’t care for the character. Will be really curious to hear how it works out for you.

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  5. I love writing in different voices, many far different than my own: petty criminals, master criminals, psychotics, sociopaths, kids, lawyers, stockbrokers, male and female adult survivors of childhood abuse… the list goes on.

    For readers, even the male voices pass their tests BUT my writing doesn’t pass the gender genie on the Internet (www.hackerfactor.com/GenderGuesser.php) It ‘outs’ me every time. It knows I’m female; in fact, according to that software, I’m so female I should be wearing pink, ruffles and lace.

    But I’m happy I can write convincing characters who are far different than I.

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    • I seem to recall when I did the gender genie test my writing was also decidedly ‘female’ but that doesn’t stop me writing male narrative viewpoints:) It’s no fun if you don’t get to play different characters!

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    • TKZ is full of gems to discover. I wasn’t familiar with the gender guesser till Sheryl and Clare mentioned it. Gave it a test drive with two scenes, one each in male and female POVs. Says I’m male in both, even tho I’m a very girly girl. Fun toy, even if it’s not terribly accurate. But also reassuring that my male POV character sounds convincingly male.

      Thanks, Claire, for a thought-provoking post.

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    • Oooh – I’d forgotten about this site. Tried my first scene, male POV, and got Male for informal, Weak Male for formal. Then I tried my female POV scene and got Weak Male in “informal” and weak Female in formal – with the suggestion in the ‘weak’ analyses that I might be European.

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  6. Not sure about the toughest I’ve done, but I quickly land on the toughest I wish I had done: “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett. Three protagonists, three first person narrators, one core dramatic arc that was smothered by the thematic weight of the story, three first plot points (one for each), three each of the other primary story turns (one for each), and three resolutions that dovetail together. No wonder 46 agents turned it down, they couldn’t keep up, couldn’t wrap their head around it. Thankfully the reading public did, 22 million hardcover copies later, even more paperbacks, all leading to a stellar movie, which also gave us not just three POVs, but four.

    As for me, I discovered a narrative strategy I really liked, and have used twice, in the Nelson Demille thrillers: “The Lion” and “The Lions Game.” The hero narrates in close first person, intercut (almost chapter by chapter) with an omniscient narrator with a POV on the villain. We see the two coming closer and closer, scheme after scheme and move after move, to an inevitable collision. As a reader we know things that one of the parties doesn’t know, which is a brilliant narrative device.

    In my writing book “Story Physics,” I put forth “six realms of story physics,” which are categories of things that empower a story, each of which is an opportunity to do something original and powerful. “Narrative strategy” is one of them, too often taken for granted. But when you nail it, when you let the story dictate the best narrative approach (rather than your own comfort zone or lack of willingness to think outside the box), amazing things can happen as a result.

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  7. My books tend to be pretty vanilla in terms of narrative tricks–either first person, or close third, male or female, depending on the book. Someday I’d like to try something as bonkers as Hexwood, by Jones. The entire plot happens out of order (I believe chapter one happens near the end), but for sanity’s sake, the characters KNOW that it’s out of order. The characters are frantically trying to make sense of things, and so is the reader. The fun thing is, once you hit the real chapter 1, the story moves forward in a linear fashion, and you’re galloping like mad through the book to find out what happens.

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