On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in UK“, JJ Barnes wrote about how to write the narrator of your story, different kinds of narrator, and how to have confidence in giving them a strong and unique voice.
Written by JJ Barnes
When you’re writing your book, you need to decide on the narration. Are you writing as the Protagonist, or are you a separate voice talking directly to the audience? Are you aware of every character’s thoughts and feelings, or just one? Can you hop between perspectives, or are you staying rooted to just the Protagonist? Whichever you decide, your narrator’s voice is a key part of your story. The narrator’s voice is how you communicate with your audience, it’s their access, the voice in their heads.
I’ll be talking you through how to find confidence in your narrator’s voice and different examples of how it can be done well.
First Person Narrator
The first person narrator is the voice of your Protagonist. You write as if you’re in their thoughts and they’re sharing their experiences directly. This can be a very captivating style of narration. You’re drawn in, you’re one with the Protagonist. By experiencing the story through their eyes as if it is happening to you, it feel intense and real. The use of “I” pushes you directly into their head.
To do this, you have to have a full handle on who your Protagonist is. Know their sense of humour, their fears, their hopes. Everything will be viewed from their perspective so how they perceive things will be impacted by their own experiences and feelings. Your Protagonist could be wrong. They could focus on something and miss something else, forget things, be afraid of things. You need to feel at one with your Protagonist and understand how each scene would feel to them and why.
The Narrator’s Voice In The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
In The Handmaid’s Tale, you’re rooted directly into Offred’s POV. It’s her voice, her views, her experiences. The first person narrative style gives you access to her history and emotions in a way that makes the horror of her experiences feel intense and real. Her voice is clear and strong, full of thoughts and personality. The Handmaid’s Tale is not an easy read and doesn’t try to pretend it is.
“I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will . . . Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping.”
Offred has a strong personality. She is smart, she is bitter, and she resents everything that is being done to her whilst also numbing herself so she can cope. But, unlike many of the handmaid’s, Offred hasn’t numbed herself down enough to lose her fight. She starts an affair with the driver, she manipulates the Commander, she gets involved in plans for escape.
From the narrator’s voice in The Handmaid’s Tale you can find confidence to infuse the personality into the way your Protagonist speaks. She is a definite person with strong views which she is capable of expressing. There’s nothing bland about Offred. Her focus and drive and intelligence pushes the story forwards, and her pain and despair makes it a painful read. But that pain and intensity makes the story powerful. We don’t need to make it easy on our audience, we don’t need to cushion it. Let your audience suffer with your Protagonist, don’t be afraid to make it feel as real and agonising to your reader as it is to your character.
Second Person Narrator
The second person narrator is almost like another character in the book. It’s the writer speaking directly to your audience to describe events, using words like “you” and “yours” to speak to the reader. By speaking to the audience in this way, you make it personal. You’re including them. They’re not in one of the character’s heads, but they’re pulled into the story by the direct way they’re addressed.
To do this, you need to establish in your mind WHO is speaking to the audience. Is it you, the writer? Or is it another person who is actually a character who is also observing the story? Second person narrative offers a lot of opportunity to pile personality onto your narrator’s voice. If the narrator is you, make sure your voice is clear. Your humour, your interests. Be brave. People are coming to read your work, so accept that interest and be part of it. If your narrator’s voice is another character, somebody else talking, work out who they are. Give them a strong personality, give them a unique way of speaking. Just because it’s not written as speech doesn’t mean the prose shouldn’t have a voice.
The Narrator’s Voice In A Series Of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
In the A Series Of Unfortunate Events books, the narrator is Lemony Snicket. Whilst technically written by Daniel Handler, the narrator is made so much his own character, that it is he who appears on the cover. Lemony Snicket is both outside the story, telling the audience about the Beaudelairs, and part of it. He describes events in his unique voice, and speaks directly to the audience about his personal opinions.
“If you are allergic to a thing, it is best not to put that thing in your mouth, particularly if the thing is cats.”
Lemony Snicket has a very strong voice. He overly describes things, he has a dry sense of humour, he is melancholy. In various scenes he intrudes on the action, talking directly to the audience even as the events are occurring. He knows what characters are doing, even when other characters don’t. This often puts the audience ahead of the characters because they know more. The audience is caught up on Count Olaf’s schemes before they impact the Beaudelairs, but never so much that the story is ruined.
From Lemony Snicket’s narrator’s voice, you should find confidence to infuse personality into your story. So much of the appeal of these books comes from the narrator. The story is good and interesting, and the plight of the Beaudelairs is interesting, but without Lemony would they be so popular? Don’t shy away from having a strong narrator’s voice. Use the narrator’s voice and their relationship with your audience to excite and captivate and entertain. A bland, flat voice just describing events might communicate your story, but it won’t create a unique experience that your audience will be hooked into.
Third Person Narrator
The third person narrator is probably the most common, but also the easiest to make boring. Whilst first person and second person draw your audience in by being made personal, third person can be bland. The third person narrator describes events using the character’s names, but doesn’t speak to the audience as if they’re a person. The narrator is as external to the story as the audience, they just know what’s going on.
To do this, you can use a God perspective where you have access to every character’s interiority in every scene. However, I personally would advise against this. It can be overwhelming and also distances your audience from the Protagonist. My advice would be to root into one characters POV in each scene. Don’t perspective hop throughout the scene. Whilst you’re not riding directly inside your Protagonist’s head, it’s still their story. Describe their life and events as they happen from how the Protagonist views them. You can hop into different characters heads at different points, but, for the most part, follow your Protagonist from scene to scene.
The Narrator’s Voice In What Ivy Wants by JJ Barnes
In What Ivy Wants, even though it’s third person, you stick with Ivy for the entirety. Events are described by her own feelings, her own personality. The narrator’s voice channels Ivy’s own personality because it is her story, her life.
“Ivy swallowed every feeling down. She wouldn’t lose her shit there. Not right there. Not in the swanky salon in front of all those people. All she had to do was get through the appointment and get home. Then she could scream and cry and rage all she wanted. But right now, all she wanted to do was get through it. Just get through it.”
Ivy repeats thoughts, rambles. So the Narrators’ voice does too. She is anxious and nervous, she over thinks. The narrator’s voice mirrors Ivy’s own personality throughout. Whilst the third person gives you feeling of looking in from the outside, the rooting in her perspective keeps the story personal.
If you hop from perspective to perspective, you won’t want to mirror the Protagonist’s personality throughout. If your Protagonist is an anxious rambler, like Ivy, but the Antagonist is confident and secure, it’ll create an uncomfortable juxtaposition. For a story where you do hop, you can still infuse personality into the scenes. Either establish a firm personality that is unique to the narrator, or use the personality of whoever’s perspective you’re in at that moment to shape the narrator’s prose style.
From What Ivy Wants, find the confidence to not write as if you’re a perfect and smooth narrator. Put personality in. A perfect and smooth narrator can create a nice experience, but it won’t feel personal. It won’t feel like the characters are living and breathing life into that story because no person is perfect. Let thoughts and feelings be part of the prose, not just a bland description telling your audience how a character got from A to B. This isn’t a play or a script. A to B is just one part of your character’s behaviour. Personality makes prose feel alive.
Your Voice Is Interesting
Ultimately, you have to put faith in yourself. Believe that you are interesting, that you voice is interesting. Whether you put your personality into a character with a distinct way of speaking, or speak directly as yourself, trust yourself. You have a unique take on life, you have thoughts and feelings and experiences that matter. Let your Narrator’s voice be a strong and interesting as you are yourself.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose
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