Who’s Telling Who?

Choosing the narrator is the trickiest part of starting a new piece, specially a long one. While revising your first draft, there will be tons of things you’ll want to change: setting, plot points, characters’ names, characters’ motivations and many, many other details. But it can be a real obstacle for your book when you read that draft and realize you’re not satisfied with who’s telling the story.

Switching narrators takes a lot of rewriting. It obviously takes more than simply changing verb conjugation. While switching narrators, you have to be ready to make choices that might change the story completely. Something that sounds perfectly plausible on one voice might not work in another one, because the understanding we’ll have of your book’s world is going to be different.

Here’s an example: Joe loves Mary, and he thinks she loves him. He thinks she’s giving him all the signs, when, in reality, Mary is just being polite towards Joe, and doesn’t even know he loves her. An omniscient narrator can show that situation by letting us see the point of view of both characters, which would create suspense by letting us wonder if Joe is going to ask Mary out. If you have Joe narrating the story, you can feel how much he’s in love, and the reader will believe Mary wants him too, what makes it a very awkward moment when she rejects Joe. It’s the same story, but while the first example is based on suspense (what will happen when Joe finds out the truth?) the second one has a tragic twist (how come didn’t Mary love him all this time?).

That’s why you have to think a lot before choosing your narrator. The storyline you have in your mind (or in your notes, if you’re the sort of person who likes to write it all down) will inevitably change while you’re turning it into prose, and that change will depend on who’s narrating it.

That also applies on which character you’re picking to tell the story. Can you imagine if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had chosen to write Sherlock Holmes’ stories from the point of view of the sleuth, instead of the classical Dr. Watson? It’d certainly not be the same thing. Novels like Treasure Island and War of the Worlds weren’t afraid of switching between different first-person narrator in order to overcome narrative limitations. In both cases, the main narrator couldn’t be physically  present in the place where the action took place, therefore a supporting character took control for a chapter or two.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter how carefully you choose your narrator, you’re still going to regret it at some point. The best thing to do is to work yourself out within your limitations. But remember there are a lot of ways of mixing different voices. Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, for example, is told almost entirely from the point of view of its main character, Louis Creed, even though it uses the third voice. In The Help, Kathryn Stockett uses not only three different first-person narrators, but also brings up an omniscient narrator for one chapter where all her main characters are together at a ball.

Some writers tend to use more the omniscient narrator, because it gives them more liberty to present the chain of events. Others prefer the psychological insight that a first-person narrator offers. A good writer must be prepared to use both, depending on what’s best for the book.

While editing the second draft for my novel Killing Dr. Watson, my editor suggested me to switch the book to a third-person narration. She felt this way it’d be clearer how pathetic my main character, Jerry Bellamy, was supposed to be. I gave it some thought and even rewrote a few bits, but decided to keep the first-person narration, while doing extensive rewritings in order to present the character the way I envisioned him. It probably took more work than if I did as she told me to, but I felt the novel would lose a lot of its appeal if it wasn’t told through Jerry’s eyes.

There’s no easy formula to decide whose voice you should use to tell that story. It’s all a matter of sensibility and knowing where you want your story to go. Writing a good book should be like reading a good book, and you must let it take it where it wants to. I believe a good story writes itself, and if it isn’t working the way it should, maybe you should reconsider a few things. And your narrator could be one of them.