Storytella Blog


Who tells your story? Why the theory of narrative view is important

Clad in his dressing gown and blinking through the tail end of a shivering hangover, Ben attempted to craft a clever introduction to his article about narrative view.

To a reader, this mode of writing should be familiar. ‘Third person’, the name given to this mode, is perhaps the most common form of narrative view in fiction writing. First and second person should also be familiar because unless you’re Julius Caesar, you probably speak using these modes.

In technical terms, ‘person’ refers to which nouns or pronouns the writer uses. First person uses “I” and “we”, second person “you”, and third person “him”, “her” and “them”. But to a writer, narrative view might seem more a matter of intuition than theoretical knowledge.

Certainly, these basics are well-established. Most writers know, for instance, that the pronouns in a sentence should agree in person. When writing in the third person, most writers know not to confuse the reader by shifting points of view too suddenly.

Get to know the theory of narrative view

But there is still a benefit to learning the theory behind the instinct. A sound knowledge of the rudiments of writing can make your intuition much more powerful. If you take the time to master your craft and then forget what you know when the time comes to use it (to paraphrase Charlie Parker), the work you produce will be stronger and more consistent.

A novel that I have written and am currently editing is written from a limited, subjective third person viewpoint. This means that the narrator is external to the characters, but the reader sees only the feelings and thoughts of one focal character at a time.

In this case, the focal character is a foil to the protagonist; a diffident academic apprenticed to an inscrutable eccentric. Apart from in one introductory scene, the reader views the events of the story through this character’s experiences.

At least, this was the intention. But like all first drafts, my initial attempt was flawed. It veered back and forth between the two characters and sometimes abandoned them altogether, becoming omniscient in tone. The discrepancies were jarring and immersion-breaking.

This is not to say that all stories should maintain a single, consistent narrative view. (Indeed, many highly successful books do just the opposite.) But for my story, it is important that the reader has no insight into the motives of the main character. With more attention to formal structure, my first draft would have been far more successful.

Different perspectives

The narrative view is more than pronoun choice. It is the lens through which the reader observes the events of the story. Narrative view determines how a story is told and by whom; it determines how much information the reader gets, when they get it and whether or not it’s reliable. It is a fundamental aspect of a story and important to decide on early on.

First person: A first-person narrator is by nature unreliable, able only to convey a subjective view of events. They are likely to be biased and may have agendas or opinions that are hidden from other characters, but not from the audience. Alternatively, they may miss details or elements of the story that the reader does not.

Choosing first-person narration is a big commitment because often, though by no means always, the narrative voice will remain static throughout the story. Because the pronouns are always “I” and “we” no matter who is speaking, shifting first-person narration can be confusing to the reader. The voices must be distinct for this approach to work.

A first-person narrator need not be the protagonist. They could be a ‘peripheral’ narrator. Often, they serve to provide necessary level of ambiguity and subjectivity when accessing the protagonist’s thoughts or feelings would not work. Examples include Doctor Watson in (most of) the Sherlock Holmes novels, Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird and Lockwood and Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights.

Similarly, a first-person narrator could be retelling a story that somebody else told them. Lockwood again provides an example of this, as in Wuthering Heights he recounts details of the earlier time line that Nelly has relayed to him. (Though there is only ever one ‘layer’ of partiality, because he faithfully transcribes her monologues word for word.)

Another important consideration is how the first-person narrator is telling their story. In Wuthering Heights, Lockword is writing in his journal. Other first-person narrators might tell their tale aloud or write it in correspondence. In Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor, the protagonist dictates his story into the black box of a hijacked boeing 747.

In other works, the narrator has no conscious input into the prose. The prose is just a vehicle, and the reader witnesses events unfold as though they were a phantom sitting on the narrator’s shoulder. The Hunger Games is an example of this use of the first person mode. Katniss Everdeen is neither writing down her story nor relating it aloud. Rather, she is experiencing it moment for moment and unconsciously describing her experiences to the reader. The use of the present tense in The Hunger Games series further reinforces this sense of immediacy.

This is a unique use of the first person mode insofar as there is no audience, at least as far as the narrator is aware. Thus, the narrator keeps nothing hidden that they do not deliberately hide from themselves. The reader joins the narrator on each of their emotional tangents, ruminations and reflections, with unfiltered access to the inner workings of their mind. It stands to reason that the narrator in this case is often the protagonist or at least a character in whom the reader should have some emotional investment

Second person is far less common in fiction than first and third person. Its uses are few and niche, and it can be difficult to employ effectively.

One use is to place the reader, rather than a fictional character, at the heart of the story. Or rather, put the reader in the place of a fictional character, who may or may not be described or named. The wonderfully innovative Choose Your Own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy books, and their many imitators, do just this. Through the use of the pronouns “you” and “your”, the narrator takes the passive role of describing to the reader what they are experiencing and the outcomes of the decisions they make.

Alternatively, the narrator may address a character, usually the protagonist, directly. In some cases, the character and narrator are the same person, with the narrator adopting the role of a passive observer of their own life.

You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not.

It’s Six A.M. Do You Know Where You Are?

This creates a sense of disconnection between the character and events in which they participate. The narrator might do this deliberately, adopting an ironic or even condescending air. They might be sitting in judgement of themselves, or attempting to distance themselves from their own disturbing or immoral deeds. Or the disconnection could be mental, perhaps due to neuroses, or a trauma the narrator has suffered.

Whether or not the narrator is also a character, second-person writing takes the bold step of placing the reader in the position of ‘another’. Good writing should be emotive, and certainly absorbing. But the reader is usually separate from events, able to draw their own conclusions and make their own judgements.

The second-person mode forces the reader to go along with thoughts and actions that don’t always align with their own. Attempting to strong-arm readers down these avenues can be alienating. As a result, some writers feel that second person works best for shorter stories and sections of larger works.

Third person affords a writer more flexibility than either of the other two modes. Because the narrator is clearly distinct from any of the characters they are describing, they can readily switch perspective to give the reader an insight into different characters’ experiences and thoughts. The use of character names rather than pronouns makes this mode better-suited than first person for portraying multiple perspectives.

Moreover, a third-person narrator can know more about the story and setting than the characters themselves. The divide between limited and omniscient views is one aspect of third-person narratives. The other is the divide between objectivity and subjectivity.

The joke in the Asterix comics that Julius Caesar spoke in the third person is based on his Commentarii De Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War). Despite being a recount of his own experience, he wrote his commentaries in the third person. He made this decision to legitimise his exploits; his campaigns in Gaul were losing support back in Rome, and he needed to win popular endorsement to prevent his deposition. By writing his accounts in the third person, he removed his obvious personal bias and imparted the illusion of objectivity.

A third-person narrative can be subjective, showing the feelings and thoughts of the characters. Or it can be objective, restricting itself to what can be observed. For truly objective writing to be emotive is challenging, as the characters’ deeds alone must convey what they are feeling.

The ‘axes’ of objectivity and omniscience can be combined to achieve different effects. A narrator whose knowledge is limited to one character may know everything that is going on inside that character’s head. An omniscient narrator, on the other hand, may be able to flip from character to character, but recount only their words and actions and not what they are thinking.

Find the view that best fits your story

Each combination achieves a different effect. The more objective and omniscient a third-person narrator, the more likely it is that the reader will accept the authority of their version of events. The author may want this, or they may want the reader to question what they are reading.

Likewise, the use of first and second person have vastly different effects on how they make the reader relate to the writing.

It might be that you know in which voice you are most comfortable writing. Or it might be that you only find your preferred mode after much playing and experimentation. In either case, though, it pays to know the intricacies of the view you employ and how best to employ it. Because who or what is telling a story is just as important, sometimes more so, than the story itself.