A Good Narrator is Hard to Find

I maintain that the only thing more important to improving your writing ability than actually writing is reading. There’s something to learn from every novel or non-fiction work you pick up, even if it’s that infodumping is not a great way to handle exposition, or that starting too big makes it impossible to increase drama as you go. More importantly, good fiction, the kind that makes you envious that you didn’t write it, can teach you valuable lessons even when you’re not looking for them.

I recently read through Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief for the first time. It came out ages ago, but Z is last in the alphabet and I’ve been working my way through my bookshelf from start to finish for a couple of years. It’s the kind of book you want to savor, in part because it’s beautifully written and emotional, in part because it’s intense. I had nightmares reading it, and finished the book off with ill-contained, physically painful sobs.

There’s a lot to learn from it, too, not just from a human perspective, but from a writing one. I don’t want to diminish the importance of the emotional narrative, especially given our current climate, but I don’t think that to focus on The Book Thief‘s technical success is to detract from its emotional impact. In fact, I’d go so far as to say they’re inextricable.Narrators are an essential part of fiction. We know this; one of the first things you learn when you set out to tell a story is who is telling the story is as important as the story itself. Harry Potter from Ron’s perspective wouldn’t be nearly so wondrous, and The Lord of the Rings from Saruman’s perspective would be largely boring. First- and second-person stories encourage identification and empathy, while third-person moves the camera up and away, providing a more general, but not necessarily less intimate, vision of a story.

In The Book Thief, our narrator, at first, feels like a standard third-person omniscient observer, albeit with more character than most. But, when you discover who it is, it changes the story significantly. Because the narrator here is Death, and their presence casts a looming, tragic shadow over the novel.

Obviously, it’s a World War II setting. We know that people are going to die. But by telling the story through Death’s perspective rather than that of Liesl or Rudy or Max or any other figure, Zusak is able to zoom in and out, showing the horror of this personal experience as well as the larger atrocities of the war. This is crucial; in a narrative like this, we can’t lose sight of what’s happening outside of Molching, because this story is just one of many that could be told in the setting. Death, as a narrator, as a cultural figure, as a specter, reminds us that, no matter what we might want for these characters, there is little to hope for.

Zusak’s narrator is one of the things that’s most often criticized about The Book Thief–while Death as a narrator was a good chunk of the reason I picked up the novel, others found their presence to be grating, especially given their interruptions of the plot with observations and foreshadowing. That’s fine; it’s a bold move to make your narrator a character without actually being a character, but, without Death, you’d have a much less interesting novel.

Stepping away from The Book Thief, narrators are something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I recently rewrote two stories from first-person to third, because first-person was too intimate for the story I wanted to tell. Both stories needed a little distance or they’d go too far into introspection; I’d be telling, not showing, if they spent too much time navel-gazing. Instead, the distance of third-person lets some of the internal dialog remain a mystery, giving readers the opportunity to identify.

In the project I’m currently working on, the narrator, who isn’t named and isn’t really a character, still needs a personality and a backstory for the narration to work. I’m spending time developing a character who will never see screentime, because their voice needs to carry a narrative thread, even if the project itself doesn’t have a clear narrative.

I rarely consider things like this ahead of time. I write by the seat of my pants; I almost never have a clear plan, just an idea, and I oftentimes have to go back and edit out plot inconsistencies and entire storylines or characters because they don’t make any sense. I don’t sit down ahead of time and decide what narration style I’ll use or why; for me, that’s an editing task.

Instead, as I read back through what I’ve written, I ask myself why I made the choice I did. What felt right initially might feel off in the context of a whole novel. In the case of my current project, I found repeated phrases, word choice, and opinionated phrases, and am using those to craft the storyteller. Why do they take that particular stance? To whom are they speaking? How do they choose what information is most important? By asking these questions, I’m able to draft a persona for this narrator that I can then go back and revise for, creating a more cohesive story.

Your narrator is crucial, even if they aren’t a character. While I haven’t experimented with this myself, there are quite a few projects I’ve abandoned in various states of completion that might benefit from another pass with the narrator in mind. Perhaps first person is too close, or third person is too distant. While changing up your narrator is a substantial undertaking, the success of The Book Thief‘s unusual storyteller has inspired me to think more critically about my own narrators and whether they’re serving the story as best as they can.

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