Know Your Narrator

Understanding who your narrator is will greatly enhance your ability to narrate effectively.

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When you are telling an anecdote, you do so in your own voice, even if you were present or part of the yarn you are spinning. You don’t make up the story—it is true—though you might embellish certain aspects or make alterations for dramatic purposes. You could reorder events, add in or cut out people that were involved, or take any manner of artistic licences with the tale, yet at its core it remains an anecdote of what happened.

That is because you are the narrator, not the author.

When writing fiction, you are inventing characters and sending them off to undertake a plot. You are not telling the story, your narrator is—whether they are part of it or not.

Your narrator exists in their own right. If your narrator is part of the story, they will be recalling it from a first-person perspective. You need to get their voice right and you allow them to tell the story in their own way. If, however, your narrator is not part of the story, what do you do?

The answer is the same: you need to get their voice right and allow them to tell the story in their own way. Otherwise, it will be you telling a story, and that won’t work if you are also the person inventing the story.

Often, writers use narrators who have voices similar to their own, and occasionally find that an ‘author voice’ creeps in. This is where the writer’s own opinion or thoughts manifest on the page and is a big distraction from the story. The great advantage of separating the narrator from the author—even in third-person—is that this is less likely to happen. The thoughts will be the narrators, not the writers, and so will be in-keeping with the tale being told.

Whenever I write a story—in first or third-person—I like to think of my narrator as a character who is telling me the tale. I am the one writing it down—capturing it—as they are telling it to me. They could be of a different background, they might not be human, sometimes they are slightly drunk; whatever the case, each story has a different narrator. Some are formal, others are not. Whoever they are, I cannot write the story properly without knowing their voice.

Narrators are characters. You are creating their truth—who, what, where, when, why—but it is up to them to decide the how. They could speak in a similar way to you, but they might not. They may take considerable liberties as they tell the story, but so be it. It’s their telling that matters.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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