effective narration 101: narrative characterization

If you’re new to the series on effective narration, I would recommend starting at the beginning:

  1. First-Person Narration
  2. Second-Person Narration
  3. Third-Person Narration, Part One
  4. Third-Person Narration, Part Two

When fleshing out your narrator, there are really two choices when it comes to characterization. Either your narrator participates in the story or they don’t. This is one of those narrative considerations that is so closely tied to narrative perspective and narrative omniscience that it doesn’t get a lot of independent focus. Generally, first-person narrators are going to be a character in the story, and third-person narrators are not going to be participating. The thing that’s important here, then, is to consider the assumptions that come along with either choice.

Characterization in First-Person Narration

If you have a first-person narrator, your narration and the scope of your story is limited to the character that is participating in the story. If you have a main character narrating the story, they can’t pull in some obscure knowledge to solve a problem unless that character has a good reason to know that information. If your twelve-year-old narrator pulls in some highly technical info on the San Andreas fault line, you’d better put in a little bit about how the kid was a Geography Bee State Champ or something. Otherwise, you’re going to kick your reader out of the flow of the story.

Your characterized first-person narrator also can’t have any knowledge of the story outside of their lived experience. If your twelve-year-old narrator is standing in a room and about to open the door, he can’t know that the guy that he’s looking for is behind that door unless he has a bevy of information leading him in that direction. When narrating from the first person, your narrative omniscience is very limited.

Also with first-person narrative, you have to allow your narrator to react to the events that unfold in character. If your main character/narrator is really laid-back, you can’t let them have an over-the-top internal reaction to an event. You also have to keep the narration within the lines of something that character would notice. Your twelve-year-old male narrator can’t spend a lot of time remarking on the brand name fashion apparel of the women around him…again, unless you have a really good reason for that kid being interested in that kind of stuff.

The biggest hiccup I see with the characterization of first-person narrators is age-appropriate reactions to events. If you have a twelve-year-old narrator, your narrator has to react and think about things like they’re twelve. If you’re going to be writing a narrator out of your age and gender, you need to do your research. It’s true that some kids are super astute and super insightful, but just like all fiction, you have to accommodate the general perception and experience of children.

It’s okay to push this age-appropriate reaction in one direction or another, but again, you have to be really good about giving us a why–and then you have to be really consistent about it. Your kid narrator can’t have this blazing insight about the human race and then cry for twenty minutes because they didn’t get the pencil that they wanted in math class. While it’s true that this kind of stuff happens in real life, I will remind you until I am blue in the face: in fiction, everything has to make senseReal life doesn’t make sense.

Characterization in Third-Person Narration

This is crucial: your third-person narrator still has to have style. Just because your narrator isn’t directly participating doesn’t mean that there’s no voice. Third-person narrators transcend the limitations of a single character, but they are still telling a story. You will find that the best narrators have a consistent voice of their own–one that is separate from “your” voice as an author and is specific to the narration of the particular book. Don’t slice all the life out of your narrative presentation. It will make your book dull.

This third-person narrative voice is one of the most difficult things to passively understand through reading. Still, think about Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy and J.K. Rowling. Each of these authors writes in third-person, but their narrative styles are vastly different, even among their individual works. While it might seem that your narrative style is your “voice” as an author, if you look at Harry Potter vs. The Casual Vacancy, you can see that the narration, even from the same author, is not the same.

Another roadblock with third-person narration is blocking (or staging–the way the narrative perspective shifts within a scene or between scenes). With first person, the reader always knows what direction they’re viewing the story from–the character’s. With third person, it may help to consider the narrator’s physical presence in the scene. Whenever the narrator moves in a big way (from person to person, to a different location, etc.) you need to reorient the reader to the scene or you risk losing the reader. If your reader doesn’t know what is happening to whom, how are they going to integrate this information into the bigger picture?

One of the big advantages of the third person narrator is that the information that is transmitted to the reader can be outside of the immediate scope of the story. If you want to include some information about a character’s past, the current state of the world, or another character, the artful third-person narrator can accomplish this quite readily–and you don’t need to explain why the narrator knows this information, which is a huge plus. Be careful, though, too much of this kind of narration creates distance between the reader and the action and can make the reader over-aware of the narrator.

One word of warning, however: you have to make sure that you don’t get confused about what the character knows and what the narrator knows. With third-person narration, there is a tendency for these paths to become crossed. Don’t allow the characters to react and make decisions based on what the narrator knows but the characters have not been demonstrated as knowing. If you’re providing information outside of the scope of the story, you have to either show your character becoming informed or prevent them from making decisions with the advantage of that information. (This is actually a really great strategy to increase tension–have your characters make a logical decision that your reader knows is a bad idea.)

Another advantage of the third-person narrator is that their distance gives you an avenue for perspective. As a first-person narrator, you’re stuck narrating the events that matter to the person. (Hopefully, you’ve constructed your narrative well enough that these important events are also important to the story, but that’s not always the case.) With third-person narration, you may have an easier time getting clear about what’s really important to the main conflict and the scope of the book and find yourself less likely to get caught up in narrating exactly how your main character ties their shoes.

Making the Decision

Essentially, when trying to figure out whether or not you want your narrator to be characterized, the question you have to ask yourself is this: does my narrator’s character influence the scope of the story? If yes, then you have a narrator-as-character and first person is probably the best choice for you. If no, then third-person is the way to go. (Editorial Note: Yes, I realize that this is not always the case 100% of the time. There are occasionally third-person narrators that influence the story–Grapes of Wrath is a good example–but I would expect that if you can effectively pull off a third-person narrator-character, your writing acumen is far beyond the scope of this article.)

If you’ve already decided about the narrative perspective you want to adopt, your next step is to make sure that your narration fits within the bounds of its characterization. If you have a narrator-character, make sure they’re involved and react appropriately. If you have a narrator that’s not a character, make sure you track perspective and character knowledge vs. narrative knowledge.

Either way you decide to go, the key is having a well-thought out and mentally established narrator. It’s really easy to blur the line between you speaking as an author and you, as an author, writing the narrator. While books can be written without this mental pre-work, you’re leaving the effectiveness of your storytelling up to chance. With a well-conceived narrator, you have a lot higher chance of hitting it out of the park on the first go round. Plus, narrative rewrites suck. Do the work first. :)

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