The Invisible Character

Every story has it. Fiction and non-fiction, blogs, even your journal has the Invisible Character. Who is this hard to see person?

See the source image
The Where’s Waldo Character

Your narrator.

Who’s telling the story? The answer to this question can radically impact your manuscript.

Let’s first look at the “levels.”


  • First Person, meaning one of the characters is telling the story—“I watched Hortense move like a snake.”
  • Second Person is rare and reserved for short fiction—“You walk into the room. You see her…”.
  • Third Person means someone outside the characters is telling the story—“He watched Hortense walk into the room…” This may eventually be revealed to be first person, if the narrator appears later in the story as a character.

There is also:

  • Past tense: The narrator tells a story that has already happened.
  • Present tense: The reader discovers things as the narrator and characters to do (not a fan of present tense, but it has its place).

We haven’t spoken to the power of narration yet. The question is: Who is your narrator? When is your narrator?

Imagine how different a story would be if told by someone else? To Kill a Mockingbird would be very different if Atticus was the narrator rather than Scout. Scout is effective because she is a very limited omniscient character. She’s young, naïve, and learning as we do. What a different book it could be if the Scout telling the story was an old lady, interjecting her wisdom in the place of young Scout’s innocence.

An educated narrator uses different words than an unlettered storyteller.

Ask yourself, if using past tense, how far removed is the narrator? Is she five seconds away from the action or five decades? Does the narrator offer her view and opinions of events, even subtly, in the way the story is told?

How reliable is the narrator? Is he telling the truth only to surprise you later with broken trust? Is the narrator making personal discoveries in the retelling of the story?

Who you choose as narrator can broaden or limit the story scope. Characters are limited to what they know, unless they are far removed in time. Detached narrators simply tell the story, no frills, but word choice still enters in.

In non-fiction, YOU are the narrator, but you are a multitude of worlds, which do you narrate from? Are you informal? Humorous? Clinical? Just how much of “you” do you put into your manuscript?

Pro Top: If you get stalled in the first couple chapters of your book, or if readers say your voice is uneven, you have narrator problems.


Few things in writing are definitive, and neither is this, but I do believe it’s true:

Your first book should be intensely personal.

My first novel was supposed to be a Dime-Store Novel, an imprint that published short stories as tiny novellas, somewhere around 6,000 words. It ended up being 150,000 words. It took three years, and while the concept was good, the novel wasn’t. It had powerful moments and is worth cleaning up someday, but it wasn’t a personal story. Sure, it was set partially in my old university, but that was about it.

My second novel, the published one, Do Angels Still Fall, I now consider my first novel. It was intensely personal because I wrote for my kids and what I want them to know about their creator.

See the source image
If that’s true for you, you have a story; if that’s not true for you, you have a stronger story.

Bonnie Manning Anderson’s book, Always Look for the Magic, was intensely personal–it tells the story of her dad, uncle, and mother. It was fiction, but it was based on her extended life story.

Debi Gray Walter’s first novel, Through the Eyes of Grace, was about her grandmother, also fictionalized, but the rugged story of her grandmother’s life is personal to her and her entire family.

Does a story have to be about your family? No, of course not, but what rich soil there is in your own history.  My second novel, Me and the Maniac in Outer Space, ended up being more personal than I was aware–the main characters were based on my own odd BFF in school (I didn’t even know it until I was finished with the book).

That first novel is the hardest to get through; it helps to have a personal connection. I think all your stories should be personal, of course, but that first one needs the muscle a deep personal connection provides. Maybe it’s a family story, maybe it’s a hometown story, or maybe it’s something else that is unique to you.

Where do you find your inspiration?