Turns out, today’s literary market has very definite ideas as to who should be narrating the story in your book.
You think you are narrating your book?
Sorry, you are wrong.
You are writing your book.
The narrator could be one of the characters. In the parlance of the trade, the POV character.
Or it could be an “omniscient narrator”, god, as it were.
But then, there are many considerations as to who the best narrator is.
At present, the most popular is the third-person narration.
There are a lot of advantages to this POV. Since the story is being told about the character, there are all kinds of mischief you, as an author, can get away with. You can have the character be wrong, misunderstand situations, be surprised (right along with the reader) with turns of events, and many other devices to keep the readers at the edge of their seats.
Another popular choice is the first-person narration. Again, there are all kinds of mischief you can get into. However, since the reader is going to be reading in the first person, the implication in their mind is that they are doing or experiencing what’s happening in the novel, and that is a risky proposition. Gender comes into play. A reader of a different gender from your main character might be baffled by the character’s actions, even if they would perfectly accept the narrative if read in the third person. Also, some experiences might be too intense to be framed in the first person. An example would be any violent scene, where the main character suffers or inflicts bodily damage. This is common in action sequences in many genres. Fantasy, Science Fiction, Historical Fiction, Thrillers, and many others could easily have intense scenes that in the third person might work well enough but would be devastating in the first person.
Let’s see an example.
Third-person POV: He was tired. Tied to the pole, he knew what was coming. He knew prisoners were regularly tortured. The first lash of the whip forced a grunt to escape his lips. Thick, warm blood flowed from the wounds ripped open on his back by the coarse leather. He knew this pain was nothing, there was much more pain to come and he’d have to endure it, or die after telling them what they wanted to know.
First-person POV: I was tired. Tied to the pole, I knew what was coming. I knew prisoners were regularly tortured. The first lash of the whip forced a grunt to escape my lips. Thick, warm blood flowed from the wounds ripped open on my back by the coarse leather. I knew this pain was nothing, there was much more pain to come and I’d have to endure it, or die after telling them what they wanted to know.
In the third-person POV we, as readers have some distance from the character. Whatever is happening (I chose a torture scene, but it could as easily have been a romance scene, a sex scene, chase scene, anything) it’s happening to the character. In the first-person POV, the reader is the main character. The reader is having the scene happen to them, not to a character. While there is certainly an audience for this, some readers will not be OK with it.
If that was the extent of it, then it would be unfortunate, but not devastating to us, as the authors. However, if we did not include a warning at the beginning of the book, we might find ourselves the objects of some rather bad reviews, and that hurts. A lot.
So first-person POV is something that we have to tackle with a lot of care. Make sure we target our audience carefully and have all the warnings and disclaimers where the reader can see it before they dive into our book.
A POV choice that is rarely seen is the second-person POV. This is extremely difficult to pull off. Furthermore, it has all the problems of first-person POV, plus a few of its own.
In second-person POV the author is telling the reader what is happening to the reader as they progress through the novel, and what the reader is doing. So, all the problems we commented on before, with the reader getting told they are experiencing the torture, or engaging in the romantic, sex, or thrilling scene, as with first-person.
But here, the author faces yet another problem. The reader might read “You approached the spy. She couldn’t see you, distracted by what she was taking pictures of through the opening in the curtain. You slipped the garrote around her neck and squeezed. She frantically tried to escape. You dragged her down to the ground, all the time tightening the garrote. Blood started to stain the front of her blouse. The fight, along with her life, slowly left her. You left the body there, as a warning to others.”
While some readers might be OK with this, many readers will be yanked out of the story because they would certainly not strangle anyone with a garrote. Again, reading it in the third person, they might have no objection at all, but when reading that they are performing the action or experiencing the action, they might balk at the idea and be pulled from the story and the novel.
Again, while written in a third-person POV, the review might be OK or even good, when written in the second person the review might be rather scathing.
Now, let’s say we are writing our novel in third-person POV. However, we do not restrict our tale to the experiences and perceptions of a single character, but rather we write the story and have each character present their experiences and thoughts to the reader. Of course, here we have to avoid “head-hopping” most of all. That is to say, we have to stay away from knowing what everyone is feeling and thinking at all times because, in real life, we only know what we are thinking. We can infer what others are thinking or feeling, but we don’t know.
Here we could have the “omniscient narrator”, a narrator that knows everything. What people think, why they do what they do. Even if they are far apart. However, this is difficult to pull off. After all, it is very difficult to build tension and keep the reader guessing what’s happening because “someone” knows everything that’s happening and every motivation.
We can have the omniscient narrator be an unreliable one, that is to say, they know what everyone is thinking and doing, but is wrong about their motivations or unaware of the consequences of their actions.
The risk here is to lose the interest of the reader because the story is being told to them, rather than experienced by them. However, if skilfully done, and there are many instances of this, the omniscient narrator is bringing the reader along, to witness what the characters are doing, to find out what happens to them, and why. Far from alienating the reader, a skillfully written omniscient narrator will enthrall the reader and have them shake their head at the mistakes and missteps of the characters, or rejoice at their triumphs.
So, what is your preference? Do you write in the third person? First-person?
Omniscient? Limited? Unreliable?
I prefer third-person, but that is a reflection of the many, many, many novels I’ve read, most if not all written in the third person.
Let me know what your preference is. Drop me a line. And thank you very much for reading.