3 Ways to Write Better Narrators and Why You Should Care
Updated: Jan 19
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Why you should be more focused on writing amazing narrators to improve your stories & 3 important ways to approach THEM.
Your readers will never forget a great narrator. They’re the ones who make the story come to life, and who can keep your readers engaged from start to finish. But what makes a great narrator? In this article, we’ll explore some tips and tricks to help you write better narrators for your stories.
Do You mean Narrative?
Did you know that one of the best ways to improve the quality of your manuscript is not to rewrite your characters, your plot, or add more tension (although those things may still be needed), but rather to strengthen your narrator?
And no, I am NOT talking about narrative (the story). I am talking about the style and precision in which the story is told. The literal voice that comes across to the reader. The personality of your prose. That is a narrator.
An even simpler definition would be POV, but I don't want to use the terms interchangeably because a narrator is actually so much more than that. It covers your choice of POV, your character's personality, your script (dialogue but better), your story's tone, your author's voice, how close you allow your reader to get, and more.
I might be giving this one specific aspect of writing a tad too much credit. It's possible, I do exaggerate. But all of my favorite books have strong narrators, so I know it's important even if you don't believe me yet.
Someday I might write a whole series on narrators alone, but for today I will break it down to the gritty basics so you can start improving yours right away.
What we will discuss:
Part 1: Narrator as POV character
Cut the filler
Removing barriers—dialogue tags, etc.
Diction—getting choosy about words
Part 2: Narrator as an Invisible Character
Who is telling the story if not you OR your character?
Characterizing your omniscient POV.
Part 3: Author Voice as Overview
Letting your personality in the door.
Your intrusion may matter more than you've been told.
By the end of this article, you will hopefully have a better understanding of how narrators can give your writing more depth.
Narrator as the POV character
In most books today, your narrator winds up being your POV character. The story you are writing now or maybe plan to write in the future is most likely going to be told in 1st or 3rd person from the perspective of one or a few characters. And I bet you will want to keep that POV as close to them as possible.
You have probably heard of deep POV. But what is it?
Basically, it is a way of writing that makes your readers feel as if they are experiencing the story firsthand. They are in the character's heads, feeling their emotions, and seeing everything through their eyes.
It can be tricky to write in a deep POV, but once you get the hang of it, it will become second nature. Here are a few tips to get us quickly on the same page:
1. Know your characters inside and out.
2. Write in first person or third person if you want to make your life easier.
3. Use plenty of dialogue.
4. Use sensory details.
5. Show don't tell. Feelings, actions, etc.
Another way to put it, is writing so that the author's voice does not interrupt the story and draw the reader out. You may feel like I am glossing over this a bit and...well...I am. Because we are talking about narrators today and In my never humble opinion, this is a better perspective to have to achieve the same ends. Just one where you know why you are making the decisions you make and the road to getting there is a little less formulaic and more instinctual.
Rather than seeing your main character as your POV, you telling the story about him from his eyes, he becomes your narrator. He is telling the story to you.
If you accept that they are the ones telling the story, then it removes the need for a lot of filler. Filler like dialogue tags, mood and emotion markers, etc. You also will be more diligent to only describe what your narrator can see and hear or knows. And this might all sound like 1st/3rd person POV 101 type stuff but I am talking deeper than that.
You cannot describe what your character sees, you must describe HOW your character sees.
In university, if you take any kind of gender studies or film course (which is where I learned it) you are going to be told about something called the "Male Gaze."
The Male Gaze is the way in which the majority of films, television, advertising, comics, etc. present women for the heterosexual male viewer rather than for everyone.
It is a form of objectification whereby women are shown as sexual objects to be gazed upon by men.
For example in film when a woman character is introduced and the camera pans up her body as if he is giving her a hungry once over.
Now in those same courses, they will tell you that this is a sexist byproduct of the patriarchy that must be put to an end, but here I am going to tell you that it is a key technique for good story telling and you should keep its legacy very much alive and apply it to your narrators.
Is this legitimately how your macho male POV character sees his love interest when she steps on the scene?
With an up-and-down glance of the whole package? How would the same character "gaze" upon her overly protective current boyfriend?
How does your witch POV gaze at the normies—non-magical people?
Maybe your side character is the nicest kid in the whole world, but is that how your jaded old war vet POV views them?
This is not something a narrator might tell us, but rather something they would convey through a change in tone, the order of details given, and the feelings projected with the telling of those details.
What I want you to take away from this is that there is always a gaze. And it colors everything we see and write.
When you are writing in deep POV and your character is the narrator, you need to be aware of their gaze and use it to inform your writing.
This brings us to the words your narrator chooses for you. His Diction.
Diction is another tool you can use to great effect in first and third (and beyond) person point of view. It is the vocabulary your narrator uses to describe the world around him.
Your character's diction should be unique to him. It should be indicative of his education, his socio-economic background, his region, his age, and most importantly his personality.
For example, a character who is uneducated is not going to have the same vocabulary as a character who is highly educated. A character who is from the south is going to have a different way of speaking than a character from the north. A character who is poor is not going to speak the same way as a character who is rich. And so on and so forth.
You get the idea.
The words your narrator chooses to use will give us clues about who he is and how he sees the world.
Glog awoke to the sun's luminescence streaming into his shanty. He stretched his weary muscles and hopped out of bed. "What a glorious day!" he sighed.
Glog woke with the sun's glare penetrating into his hovel. He stretched his achy muscles and slid off his slab. "What a wonderful day," he sighed.
In the first example, the narrator paints a lovely little fairytale picture, and in the second? It feels more sarcastic and grumpy. the only thing I changed from one to the other is the word I chose to use to describe the scene around Glog. And quite the difference it made.
But this is all considerably easier for 3rd and 1st person POVs, and some people will try and tell you that deep perspective is ONLY for those types. This is unless you think of your POV as a Narrator.
Narrator as an Invisible Character
Closeness IS possible with Omniscient POV.
The "Narrator," in my opinion, is the difference between successfully written omniscient storytelling and poorly written omniscient storytelling.
Sometimes the story requires you to step back and tell us from the perspective of god, or a nameless bystander at least. But this can feel cold, flavorless, "head hoppy," or like 3rd person riddled with inconsistencies.
Nearly all of these problems can be avoided by thinking of your omniscient narrator as a character of its own. This makes it nearly impossible (though I'm sure some of you will prove me wrong) to make these basic Omni-POV mistakes.
Just like in 3rd and 1st person, your narrator needs to be thought of as a singular person with a limited range of biases and outlooks. When you have a "Character" narrator, they are limited to what they know, and what they can articulate to the reader.
This means that they have opinions, which gives us a closer connection to them. It also means they might withhold information from us, or keep us at a distance - both of which are interesting things that can happen in stories.
It's all about voice. Now in Omni-POV this voice might be from someone invisible and unnamed to the reader, perhaps someone in your head only. The reader will be able to feel his/her hand but not be able to tell you why. Kind of like a real god.
What is their perspective of events? It can't be just objective either, that is boring. is telling the story. And then once you have that person in mind, keep it consistent throughout. Unlike the other POVs we discussed, you cannot have multiple voices telling the story. It will only feel disjointed and confusing to the reader.
Ask these questions about your invisible narrator:
What is their perspecitive of events? It can't be just objective either, that is boring.
Why are they telling the story? To warn the reader of something, to make us laugh?
What are their biases? Their passions?
What is their sense of humor? What personality do they have?
What are their speech patterns? How old are they? Gender? Education level, etc?
One of the best examples of an unforgettable invisible narrator is Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo (Amazon affiliate link).
The narrator is a large reason why it is my favorite story of all time. The narrator doesn't have a name, he isn't addressed (and yes, I can comfortably gender him), but he is funny, one of the strongest personalities in the story, he rambles, he forgets key parts of the story he is telling us and needs to go back even.
The reader can imagine him as an old man sitting in his rocking chair recounting to his great-grandkids the fantastical tale he was passed long ago.
Not that it matters, because his only purpose was to direct our journey through the plot, introduce us to the characters, and give us a laugh along the way (it was a long journey after all).
And just like in the last section, the choice you make of narrator will dictate the diction choices you make, affect the rhythm and pacing, and so on.
This is going to be a controversial section to some, but hold your breath. Writers hear a lot that they should never let their own voice intrude into the story. It is distracting and pulls the reader out of the immediate action.
Let's dive into this quickly.
Letting your voice intrude into the narrative
This is going to be a controversial section to some but hold your breath.
Writers hear a lot that they should never let their own voice intrude into the story. It is distracting and pulls the reader out of the immediate action.
That's true. I said it above. But this is NOT that.
I think sometimes authors get confused or afraid and try to remove their personality entirely from the story, and that is just going too far. You may disagree with me, but readers SHOULD be able to feel you in the story. Not as a rude interruption but as a guiding hand that they trust to lead them to something big.
It is about framing your story through your eyes. And that is ok. It is not necessarily detracting from the story unless by doing so you try to muzzle your own characters to fit that framing. But writing with your own flavor is not the same thing as telling rather than showing. And if you are doing that, no amount of silencing your narrator is going to save you. That is an entirely different problem.
(Wait did I just tell you that you should be biased in your writing? Keep with me here.)
It is about framing your story through your eyes.
And that is ok.
It is not necessarly detracting from the story unless by doing so you try to muzzle your own characters to fit that framing. But writing with your own flavor is not the same thing as telling rather than showing. And if you are doing that, no amount of silencing your narrator is going to save you. That is an entirely different problem.
That being said, there is a balance to be struck somewhere between your character's voice and your own.
Personally, I think that if you are in 3rd or 1st person, stick as close to the flavor of your character as you can—but you still want your writing to be unmistakably your own, and doing that only requires that you just be yourself and have fun with your own writing.
Omniscient has more room to play perhaps.
But also, this will be something that comes with time and practice. Author "Voices" are pretty abstract things and just like with finding an art style, sometimes the only way to get there is to forget that is it even a thing.
It's the end of this very long post. Get outta here.
Wait! Don't go yet. I wrote a short story "Todd." A sci-fi about an old man who is struggling with guilt of outliving his wife during a robot zombie apocalypse. It was my attempt at practicing what I preach about narrators. Check it out and let me know if you think I was successful.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tessa Barron is the Editor-in-Chief at Foul Fantasy Fiction and Bear Hill Publishing. She specializes in developmental editing and writes Fantasy and Science Fiction when she is able to find the time under the pen name Turi T. Armstrong.