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:
- 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.