The best way to write something interesting is to have a narrative voice that is interesting because everything in a story is an expression of that voice. The characters, the plot, the style, these are all elements that come from voice. And the best voice is found when you realize that your narrator is a character. Perhaps the most important character in your story.
This is obvious if you’re writing in first person, where you are using the perspective of one particular character to color the narration. A big part of the appeal of this approach is the simulation of intimacy and point of view that comes from using first person narration.
Yes, I said simulation of intimacy. Storytelling is always a simulation attempting to evoke something in the audience, but that’s a topic for another day.
But even in third person, there’s a narrator. And that narrator is a character with opinions and thoughts about the story. They may never have a name. They may only be an abstract device. But they are rarely distanced from the story because the object of storytelling is to evoke, not report.
One thing new storytellers often have to unlearn is this false notion of narrator objectivity. The narrator is not objective. The narrator has their favorites, their anger, their sadness, their disappointments. The narrator may care about everything in your story or nothing in your story. The narrator might even have their own hidden character arc, odd as that might seem.
The simplest example for me can be found in a Man meeting a Bear. The scene can have the exact same events play out, but be almost completely different depending on the narrator’s biases. It is almost impossible to not include those biases either.
One day, Jack stumbled across the bear.
One day, the bear stumbled across Jack.
The bias in the above examples are about who the narrator chooses to introduce first. Who is more important? While nothing is set in stone, the order of introduction does bias us toward one over the other. The audience is still likely to be biased toward Jack. After all, the reader is presumably human and not a bear. Though if bears could read stories, they would probably have the opposite inclination.
Now let’s tinker with our introduction:
One day, Jack stumbled across a ferocious bear.
The adjective ferocious makes the bear more menacing. With just one word, we’ve made Jack the underdog and possible victim of an angry bear attack. Not only do we already have a bias toward Jack, but audiences love underdogs. We are so conditioned to root for underdogs that if you put a character in a rotten position, we usually want to see them get out of it. Assuming we think of them as an important character. We’re also conditioned to not root for supporting characters in the same way. Again, a topic for another day.
Or how about this:
One day, while throwing his garbage in the old creek, Jack stumbled across a ferocious bear.
A reversal. Suddenly, Jack is a jerk who is wrecking the environment. Now the bear seems like it might be a karmic reward. And we love karmic rewards. Absolutely adore them.
One day, Jack and the bear found themselves standing on opposite sides of the old creek.
This one might be the closest to true neutral we can get. While Jack is mentioned first, the bear is mentioned alongside him and the situation is deliberately ambiguous. We aren’t sure what to feel here because the narrator has deliberately withheld clues that would help us.
Yes, the narrator can withhold information to manipulate us. Taken to more extreme measures, the narrator can even lie to us. The unreliable narrator has been around for a long time.
The narrator is a powerful character in your story. Partly because they filter the story for us. In the same way a movie camera can determine everything about a scene simply by how it chooses to frame the shot, the narrator is in charge of our story experience. We need not play along, but we usually do. We know that the narrator probably isn’t telling us everything, which is good. We don’t a three page description of the plates on a dinner table or a history of the universe up to this point. But we assume the narrator is telling us everything we do need to know, and we assume they’re telling us what we should feel about something, even if we don’t know that.
One day, Jack stumbled across the fucking bear says something entirely different than One day, that idiot Jack stumbled across the bear. The narrator has an opinion and is sharing it in both of those sentences.
Of course, as your narrator becomes a more evolved character, they might manipulate the reader more. It’s possible to introduce bias against the bear only for the narrator to suddenly switch sides halfway through. It’s possible for the narrator to not care and then decide they do. It’s even possible for the narrator to leave it entirely ambiguous, to throw their hands up in the air and just ask the audience to figure it out on their own.
Narrators, like characters and plots themselves, can be fluid and change as the story carries on. They might grow to hate a character in your story. Or love a character. Or get tired of all the stupid mistakes the characters make. Or chuckle knowingly at the absurdity of it all. They might have their heartbroken. They might discover refreshed optimism. Even if the narrator is never named, even if they’re just an unseen observer floating through the ether of your tale, they’re still a character.
Part of being a better writer is never forgetting that.
FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT, WRITING THE GOOD WRITE,