Episode 56: Choosing a Narrator

On August 17th, we shifted gears into Point of View, a re-visit of a topic from earlier in our tenure. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Choosing a Point of View


  • The Narrative Perspective
  • Strengths and weaknesses of each
  • Questions to ask before deciding
pile of envelopes
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Segment 1

We covered this about a year ago. Here’s the link to those notes.

There are basically three kinds of narrative perspective: first, second, and third person. Some of the more interesting versions include collective first (“we”) and epistle second person (letters) and omniscient third (all-knowing). 

So let’s start with strengths and weaknesses of each and then we can explore some of the more compelling ones.

First person:

Strengths include intimate knowledge of the narrator and (presumably) the protagonist. First person means we’re in the narrator’s head and see things through his or her perspective. This means readers are acutely aware of decisions, risks, worries, and stakes.

Weaknesses are of the same variety — because we’re so close to the narrator, we can get fatigued by the proximity, and a single person can only see a limited amount of the story. That limitation can be a deciding factor in a common alternative of the first person: multiple narrators.

Second person: 

Less used in fiction because it relies heavily on the pre-defined reader. Some info on making this choice here.

Here are 12 books that use the 2nd person successfully (link) — the one I’ve read is The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern); also recognized Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

The best reasons to use 2nd person include 1) making the reader so close to the story he or she is actually acting in it; 2) standing out — very few authors attempt 2nd person, so the use of it can be unique and impactful.

Challenges include 1) predetermining who the “you” is, 2) which tense you will use — if it’s the reader’s memory (past tense) it may be harder to convince them to suspend disbelief.

Third person:

Distance is the primary advantage here. Third person is like watching a play on a stage. Both the reader and the narrative have a comfortable distance from the story. The close third person is best described as being on the main character’s shoulder. Most third person stories suggest at least one characters be the “close.” You can alternate by chapter.

Weaknesses of third person are the inability to be in the characters’ heads without risking the narrative. In multiple characters’ heads in the same chapter? You’re head hopping.

Segment 2

So how do you choose? Here’s one blog of advice. Highlights: Who’s carrying the camera? 

When we think about choosing who will tell the story we need to ask “Who’s story is it?”

Here’s another blog of 7 steps to choosing: choose the level of knowledge you want your narrator to have, choose what point in time you’re writing about, and how many narrators you will have.

Here’s another blog with 6 tips — except the blog doesn’t actually number the tips so that’s awkward. Highlight (spoiler): the closer the narrator, the less of the author should show.

Seven narrator types? Try this blog. First person narrator can be the protagonist or the observer (think Nick Carraway). Third person can be limited or omniscient. The narrator can be the commentator — with insight and advice — the interviewer — researching and asking questions.

Some books where the narrator isn’t the main character here. Ones I’ve read: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See; Absalom, Absalom! By William Faulkner

Here’s a pretty comprehensive discussion on the subject of point of view, narrators, etc.

When deciding on narrator to use, have you ever tried multiple narrators on the same story? How’d that work out?

Has something started with one narrator and you realized it needed to be a different style?

Segment 3

Unreliable narrators — are they new? Are they overdone?

More examples of various types of narrators here.

Multiple points of view — should you use them? 

Some of the “rules” that govern narrators:

Dos and donts for the third person narrator — no head hopping, don’t tell too much, don’t overuse he/she

Dos and donts for the first person narrator — don’t write out of the POV of your narrator i.e. she doesn’t know how other people feel unless they tell her

Does the viewpoint character someone we can care about? (link)

Or does that person make us care about others?

How invested in the story is the narrator?

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