As authors, we become invested in our stories. We experience our character’s lives; we feel their feelings, and we live their live. We especially get to know our narrators; however, despite knowing our narrators on the deepest levels, our voice is not theirs and vice versa. In other words, you, dear author, are not the narrator because it is not your story.
Why the Author is Not the Narrator
Authors are artists who act as vehicles for a narrator’s story. This applies to creative nonfiction genres such as memoir as well as to fiction genres. In fact, the concept might be easiest to explain in the context of memoir. Let’s say you’re writing about your experience being bullied as a 13-year-old. Your story will encompass people, settings, music, clothes, beliefs, etc. held by your 13-year-old self. That self is you; however, that self is a completely different narrator with a completely different narrative voice than the you of today.
The same is true in fiction. You might base your protagonist off of you, or you might have some shared experiences; however, that fictional character has ultimately led a completely different life from you. Their parents, siblings, friends, triumphs, traumas, etc. are not yours. They should also have a different voice from you, the author, and that voice should be as clearly defined as their unique role and character in your story.
Why a Strong Narrator is Needed
It’s important that the narrator’s voice be clearly defined and that they have strong identities because the narrator carries the story. Whatever POV you choose (or rather, that best-serves the story), the narrator is in charge.
The narrator should speak to you; you should hear their voice in your head. Listen to how they talk. Are they using first-person (I, me, we) as they start to tell you their story? Are they speaking in third-person? Are there multiple voices struggling to share their sides? Listen to the voices and how they are speaking because that is most likely the POV. Don’t impose your wishes for your story on your narrator; let them impose upon you.
Multiple Narrators vs. a Single Narrator
I realize this sounds a bit touchy-feely artsy-fartsy, but writing is an art form regardless of whether you approach it as a business or as a creative expulsion of gas. Let’s look at what I mean. First, the narrator vs. the author. In The Great Gatsby, Nick Caraway narrates the story. Were he not the narrator, Nick would pale behind the stronger players (Jay, Daisy, Tom, Jordan, and Myrtle. Nick is a great narrator, though, because he’s a quiet observer, and ultimately, he’s not telling his story…he’s telling Jay Gatsby, but it’s coming from Nick’s POV. Nick’s ultimately disillusioned by the capricious hedonism demonstrated by his friends, and the audience experiences that with Nick. We know it’s not Fitzgerald’s narrative voice because he’s already a disillusioned modernist from the onset of the story. If it was Fitzgerald’s narrative voice, he wouldn’t have the naivety that Nick possesses at the beginning of the book; he would start out cynical and corrupted.
Another example comes from Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. The single narrative viewpoint of Camille Preaker reveals a very specific narrative voice. It’s the voice of an emotionally and psychologically damaged girl who come back to the place that ruined her to write a story for the small Chicago rag she works for. Preaker is fragile, has low self-esteem (evidenced by her admission she’s a “second-rate reporter”, her social anxiety, alcoholism, etc.).
Contrast this narrator with another of Flynn’s characters from another book. Amy Dunn is a savvy, narcissistic sociopath who is vindictive, vengeful, and manipulative. She is unforgivable; yet, she’s impossible to look away from. I mention both of these narrators because they are by the same author; yet, they are clearly not the author. Having read all of Flynn’s works, I can say that there are some common features in her stories that clearly reflect her experiences.
All of Flynn’s works take place in the Midwest. They all feature characters who have psychological issues (indicating a strong interest or professional knowledge of psychology). All characters feature characters living on the cusp of outright poverty (or in it) and in two of the works, this is juxtaposed with characters who possess unparalleled wealth.
Liane Moriarty (Big Little Lies, The Husband’s Secret, What Alice Forgot, The Hypnotist’s Love Story, etc.) does the same thing. Her settings are always Sydney or Melbourne, Australia. The characters are typically always Catholic (standing in the Church varies depending on the character). At least one character typically has three children and is a mother. The mother is usually in her 40s. I see these things as being based on Moriarty’s personal experience. Beyond that, each narrator in her multi-narrator works is distinct with her own life, profession, and POV.
To conclude, I recommend you start to listen to the narrator in works you read. Think of their back story. Are they clearly defined characters or are they merely caricatures? Do you feel you’re in the narrator’s story, or do you feel you’re being told the story? More importantly, how can you translate this understanding into your own writing? Will you be able to hand the reins over to your narrator(s)?
Not sure if you’re allowing the narrator to tell your story? Let me (or another editor) do a manuscript critique. A manuscript critique is less costly than a copyedit, but it gives you important feedback regarding your story’s content and your technique in telling it, which helps when revising. If you’re interested or have questions, contact me, Vonnie York at firstname.lastname@example.org or click here. Happy writing!