I thought I would go back to the basics this week with a brief on the various types of narrators and POVs fiction writers employ. I have gotten my reading mojo back thanks to The Ex-Wife’s Survival Guide by Debby Holt (you can read my review here) and have been indulging heavily in my TBRs since. Needless to say, I have written very little in the meantime but it’s okay for once since I just published a book, yay. But the point is, I was reading a novel over the weekend and it made me reflect on how even established and traditionally-published authors sometimes get their POVs all mixed up. I pondered maybe it’s because once we become “mainstream”, we stop revising the guidebooks on creative writing, maybe we become complacent.
For me, keeping my POV on the straight and narrow is fundamental. Your story is the product of your imagination but that does not mean it does not deserve your full attention in selecting the right devices and techniques to make the storytelling impactful. And jumping POV-to-POV, and selecting different narrative styles in one book is a rookie mistake that should have been corrected during the editing process. So I hit the academic texts and Googled and brushed up on the subject because part of choosing the right narrative style and POV for your story is knowing all the options out there. I thought I’d share my notes with fellow writers here just in case there were others also needing to pace themselves.
Narrator – According to my ‘A’ Level textbook Literature, Criticism, and Style by Steven Croft and Helen Cross (Oxford), the narrative is “a piece of writing that tells a story”. So by means, the narrator is the person, animal, or object that is telling the story. This storyteller is inserted into the text most often as an imaginary entity separate from the author whether or not he/she is a character living within the story. In essence, it is the voice that describes what is happening.
Point of View (POV) – The POV is the perspective from which the narrator tells the story. Whether the narration is conducted from a singular POV or multiple, I have always felt that the POV breaks down and identifies the various components of the storyteller’s voice, i.e. the personality, style, tone of the narrator. It demonstrates to us the level of involvement with which the narrator relates the tale, how far into the story the narrator is willing to insert themselves.
While the narration and the POV are closely related and often overlap, the distinction is that the former is the device with which the plot is moved forward, the characters are revealed, the setting is built, etc., while the latter allows the reader to experience the story from the angle(s) that makes these various illustrated components relevant and relatable.
The most common forms of narrators are the first person, second person, third person limited, and third person omniscient. However, academicians have further broken down the types of narrators to include the [detached] observer or third person objective, commentator, and unreliable narrator. The following is a description of each of these major types of narrators with an example of popular works where they were successfully employed:
First Person – The first person narration is used when a character within the story relates the events in the story. The narrator is most often the main character, first person protagonist, or someone close to (or enemies with) the main character, first person witness. The reader is dependent not only on what the character witnesses within the story but also on his/her view of the world. At the same time, the reader becomes privy to the innermost thoughts of the character. In the case of first person narration, the narrator is referred to by using the pronoun ‘I’. The first person POV is currently again becoming the trend, as per many literary agents and editors. In fact, a visit to the online call-to-action circulars by many publishers would show you that editors nowadays are openly encouraging writers to submit works written in the first person POV.
E.g. Among modern authors, I find that YA romance writer Stephanie Perkins does a pretty great job in telling first person narratives. Her Anna and the French Kiss trilogy tells the tale of three different female protagonists – one per novel – where the heroines are related to one another across the pond via friendship with the heroine (Anna) and hero (St. Claire) of the first book. My favorite in the trilogy is Lola and the Boy Next Door (my review here), where Perkins really managed to pull out all the stops to develop a fully-formed-and-circled literature despite the limitations a first person narrative may present.
Second Person – The least common of the narrator types is the second person. It is when the narrator directly addresses the reader in telling the story or is actually addressing the main character as he/she narrates, personalizing the experience for the reader in the most vivid way imaginable. The POV is rather imposed on the reader where they are compelled to feel involved. The writer employs the pronoun ‘you’ to feature the second person narration. Many interactive novels employ this technique.
E.g. The novel that always comes to mind when I think of second person narrative is R. L. Stine’s Give Yourself Goosebumps #5: Night in Werewolf Woods. It was the first and only copy of a “choose your own adventure” novel that I purchased. As a kid, I used to love the Goosebumps books, always ordering anything that cropped up in the monthly Scholastica order forms that the publisher used to send out to the school, and this love evolved into collecting the Fear Street novels as I entered adolescence. But frankly speaking, I never quite acquired the taste for books with second person narratives.
Third Person – Stories told in third person narratives are the most common types of fictional texts out there today. It is told by a narrator who does not exist within the story and may often be indistinguishable from the author. The narrator refers to all the characters in the story using the pronouns ‘he’ or ‘she’. The author has the opportunity to spread out the most in a text employing third person narrative because he/she may choose any point in the POV spectrum from exposing and exploring the inner thoughts of multiple characters to simply relating that what is seen and heard in the story. Often time, the third person narrator may require the reader to rely upon the authority of the narrator’s knowledge of all that is going on in the story.
Third Person Limited – The third person limited narrator is a narrator who relates the story as an outsider but from the perspective of an individual character within the story. This type of narrator is bound by limitations similar to the first person narrator, who may also divulge only what he/she has witnessed and the impressions the events and other characters in the story create on this individual character.
E.g. I thought Still Alice by Lisa Genova was a brilliantly written third person limited narrative. It couldn’t have been easy trying to portray the intelligent mind of a cognitive psychology professor who has always been in her A-games as it deteriorates so quickly and at such a young age from the patient’s own viewpoint. A tough burden to bear for both the character and the author but Genova has done remarkably.
I too wrote Bad Daughter with third person limited narration. It was a first time for me using this POV, as I have always written in the third person omniscient but I felt the main character Obaira being sexually abused at the age of six and spending the rest of her life trying to “make up for it” while living with the guilt and shame imposed upon her deserved a very personal perspective. On the hindsight, perhaps to me Obaira too was a patient as much as a victim.
Third Person Omniscient – By far, the third person omniscient provides the narrator with the most freedom, allowing him/her to tap into the inner workings of any of its characters, making for a more cohesive and in-depth examination of the story. The narrator knows everything and has the opportunity to sift through the various information resources to reveal only relevant data. Most romance novelists opt to write third person omniscient narratives so as to provide fair glimpses into both romantic participants in the story to affect the meet-in-the-middle appeal. However, as said before, more and more romance authors are venturing into writing first person narratives.
E.g. A fair pick for third person narrative would be Romancing Mr. Bridgerton by Julia Quinn. Both the main characters, Penelope and Collin, are writers with plenty of social insecurities. They form an unlikely friendship given their past experiences with one another and current roles within society as well as behind the curtains. But they come together and form an alliance built on understanding and mutual respect, providing an interesting view that is similar but with significant parities within the details, i.e. two sides of the same coin.
The [detached] observer – Sometimes also referred to as the third person objective, this type of narrator mostly looks into the story from the outside (though in some rare instances first person narrations have been used). However, whereas both the third person limited and third person omniscient form the storytelling from the perspectives of their characters, the observer-narrator merely relates the events of the story according to what is seen and heard without sharing any inner thoughts from the characters, hence allowing the reader more license to form their own emotions and opinions. They also make for speedy and action-oriented storytelling and remove the element of rhetoric from the narrator’s voice. Plays scripts greatly achieve this effect, as they only relate scenes with dialogues and gestures with very little cue on emotions.
E.g. William Shakespeare’s Othello is a fine example of how dialogues and actions alone may direct strong emotional reactions from both the actors and the audience without scripted help from the narrator. He uses emotive language in the dialogue alone that is uncouth in some spheres and flowery in others to draw out a kaleidoscope of reactions. Moreover, Shakespeare was famous for the use of soliloquies to paint characters and advance plots in his tragedies, which was excellently applied for the character of Iago in this play.
The Commentator – Again, a third person narrator with usually an outsider view of the entire story and its characters but with a “close companionship” to some of the major players in the story. While the narrator never enters the story, he/she has an opinion about many of its happenings and characters that are greatly apparent in the attitudinal tone of the narrator’s voice. These editorial snippets may harbor a sentimental quality and often are riddled with rhetoric.
E.g. Jane Austen’s writing often dabbled in commentating. Though she preferred the omniscient viewpoint, another supporting favorite of commentator-narrators, her satirical tone towards society broadcasted her own opinions through the narrator’s voice. Whether reflecting the witty attitude of Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, the self-importance of Emma in Emma, or the pensive apprehension of Anne in Persuasion, Austen did not refrain from making open suggestions for societal cures in her novels.
The Unreliable Narrator – Despite the reproof in the title, the unreliable narrator is not criminal. Whether used in the first person or the third person, most often the unreliable narrator relates the story from a distorted viewpoint because they themselves have misinterpreted the events and characters. The writer has purposely inserted flaws in the narrator’s outlook of the story and its characters. It may be that the narrator is insane, misinformed, or inebriated, however, it is not unusual for the narrator to be willfully deceitful to misdirect the reader to add plot twists. But whether the narrator is a gullible schmuck or a proper badass, the unreliable narrator can make for riveting reading.
E.g. Among unreliable narrators in recent works of fiction, I think my favorite is The Girl on the Train written by Paula Hawkins. The atmosphere of the entire novel is rife with mistrust in this murder mystery where we see the central character Rachel skunk drunk from scene one. The reader’s sympathy is aroused by her self-loathing even while the reader is filled with exasperation due to her sabotaging tendencies. Because Rachel passes out in the most critical moments in the novel from drinking too much, the mystery unfolds very gradually as she fights more and more for self-control, depicting a wonderful character arc.
Bonus – Now, while these seven types of narrators provide the major POV experience for the reader, an eighth secret character-narrator often springs from unreliable narration. Authors sometimes misdirect the reader’s attention throughout the novel by adding plot elements and revealing character details to lead the imagination towards one conclusion only to reveal that the narrator was someone else entirely or that the narrator withheld a detail to his/her own character that completely changes the game.
E.g. The 1996 BBC adaptation of Emma featuring Gwyneth Paltrow used this element to add a little pizzazz to the end of the story by revealing the narrator to be really Mrs. Elton. This, of course, makes sense to a point because we know Jane Austen is rather severe upon Emma in her portrayal of the character and Mrs. Elton believes herself somewhat of a rival to Emma. But it also detracts from the fact that despite Austen’s staunch stance for truth, she holds a certain affection for the character of Emma as well, which Mrs. Elton would lack – not to mention that Mrs. Elton is highly unlikely to possess the intellect to narrate such a tale.
Well, there you have it – the whole gamut of fictional narrator types. It’s a really long read, I know, but I hope you will find it useful in the long run. Remember, the first step is to know your options.