Tag Archives: narrator

Unifying Your Narrative Voice

In first-person narrative, your character tells the story. In third-person narrative, an unidentified narrator tells the story.

First or third-person, you need to know your narrator to make sure it’s a unified, consistent voice.

That’s a little easier with first-person because you’re developing that character for us. In all but the unreliable narrator*, your third-person character is whole at the start of the story, just unseen.

Hallmarks of the invisible narrator include:

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Imagine if bruises weren’t invisible.

  • Trustworthiness.
  • Competence.
  • Consistent vocabulary, reading level, rhythm, narrative distance, and word-choice.

Trustworthiness is achieved by accurately telling the story, placing reveals in the proper order (when the reader needs and not after the fact), and not spieling off into irrelevant prose. The trustworthy narrator is concise and complete, but not pedantic or over-explaining. This is also true for the first-person narrator.

The competent narrator understands the subject matter, using appropriate language correctly. In a sci-fi novel, the narrator has to competently handle the concepts and technology of the story. They psychological thriller must have an insightful narrator who can relate complex concepts with an approachable style, but clear understanding of it. For the first-person narrator, competency may begin low and build to competency, which is an effective storytelling device and sometimes may tell you if your narrator should be first- or third-person.

Trust and competence are like butlers; they are noticeable only when a mistake is made. (There’s a story about a director struggling with a supporting character, a butler, who was finding every means to take the spotlight. The director finally asked him, “John, are you playing a good butler?” “Why, I’m playing the best butler!” “Excellent. Great butlers are invisible. Make it so.”)

Use of language is often visible in a tingling kind of way. You never want your prose to pull the reader out of the story, yet you do want the occasional thrill at the back of the reader’s mind. This is done with the occasional, consistent metaphor. “His heart pounded a paradiddle on the snare drum of his chest.” Paradiddle is a musical term, suggesting the narrator should stick with artistic metaphors. She should NOT throw in nautical metaphors unless the story is suddenly in an oceanic setting. That doesn’t mean metaphors must always be musical. No character is a single thing, however, consider that few people are several major things. So your narrator may have other, minor, metaphors and similes, but it would be wise to make most of the metaphors artistic in this case.

Hemmingway kept his word choice to one or two syllables. Ted Geisel was challenged to write a book with only single syllable words, and Dr. Seuss was born. Consider the texture of your words. Crunchy, spikey, edged words should be used as seasoning… not too much; not too little. Sticking to a consistent rhythm makes deviations of the rhythm more powerful. Long sentences and large paragraphs can begin to shorten to increase pace and shave to a punch!

Narrative distance refers to how close to the characters and actions the narrator is. Can the narrator hear the character’s thoughts? If so, relating those thoughts need to be consistent. Is the narrator warm or cold? Warm means close; cold means distant, that is, the descriptions are clinical, not insightful.

A couple caveats:

  • You can use different narrators based on the chapter’s major character as long as it’s the same narrator each time for each character (don’t use more than a couple narrative voices). In shows and movies, certain characters have musical themes that play when they are the focus. Same idea here.
  • Unreliable narrators first appear to be trustworthy and competent before showing their true colors as a liar or incomplete narrator who withholds vital information. With an unreliable narrator, it can be the only narrator (except in rare cases). Writing a good unreliable narrator is difficult to pull off.
  • One of your first editing jobs is to evaluate the consistency of your narrator. Get this right and your story will probably fly.

Think about your favorite stories and examine the narrator. A great narrator will make you fall into the story despite your intent to analyze. Now go find your narrator.

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?

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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.