Truth be told, narrators pretty much determine the success of any novel. Good narrators will leave you spellbound to the worlds they weave. Poorly realized narrators, on the other hand, are like bad dates…regret, regret, regret.
First person narrators have become the style of choice in the past twenty years or so. That’s because the first person point of view creates powerful opportunities for building memorable characters. When we look through the eyes of a first person narrator we see what they see, we experience the world the way they do. This is both the major strength of this technique – and its biggest challenge.
Thinking like the character as you write does not automatically convey that character’s point of view. Just because you touch upon that character’s perceptions does not craft an interesting or compelling narrator that will pull the reader along. Indeed, recording that character’s perceptions is only half the battle.
The other half is craftsmanship.
Think about the dilemma this way: like a fingerprint, everyone has a unique sense of personality and style, and the trick is how to “dress” your character so this shines through. Sometimes it helps to create a “character bible” to record your character’s likes and dislikes: the way he or she would respond in a certain situation, say, or what she would wear to her high school prom (Frilly dress? Or frilly dress with combat boots?).
Then you need to find a way to translate all those unique character traits into your prose.
Think about constructing the character on the level of language. How does your character talk? What are their verbal tics – do they say “OMG” when disgusted/surprised or do they use the longhand expression?: Uh. Ma. Gawd.
You also need to extend this care to the narrator’s perceptions of the world around them, and especially other characters. To illustrate my point, here’s an excerpt from True Born (available on Wattpad) where the narrator Lucy is first introduced to her love interest, Jared:
My gaze slides off the woman and gets stuck on the man standing sentry behind his boss. Looking at him is a punch to the gut. No one should be so handsome. A shag of sunlight blonde curls frames a pair of cat’s eyes, too blue, the colour of indigo. They sit in a face with high, chiseled cheekbones ending with a perfect, strong chin. He’s not overly tall but muscled and slim. Unlike the other man in his expensive suit, this man might have a sense of humour. I take in the faded blue jeans, the black t-shirt sporting a yellow-orange smiley face, complete with a bullet hole and a small trickle of blood. I clench my stomach against the sudden butterflies, nod to him and the woman, who at this point is just a bundle of details: long dark hair, pale skin, green eyes that laugh at me.
Through her initial perceptions Lucy doesn’t just describe Jared: she describes her evaluation of Jared and in the process, she reveals something more about herself, too. He’s too handsome (she’s put off by handsome men); she thinks he might have a sense of humour (something she values).
Better still, Lucy’s inability to describe the woman standing beside Jared conveys to the reader a deeper understanding of Jared’s impact on her. The narrator’s attention is riveted on Jared to the exclusion of all else.
In some ways, third person narrators are trickier than first person, because they can (but don’t have to) lack personality. Omniscient, God’s eye perspectives, which third person narrators often are, rely upon the strengths of the plot and characters in the novel. They also rely upon the skill of the writer in choosing just the right details that evoke characters for the reader. Dialogue becomes a very important tool, as does the style of language the narrator uses (ie. poetic, or terse) to strike a mood or tone.
A master of third person narration knows how to evoke character – hell, an entire society – even from a distance. Even third person narrators can take on personalities – like people – but the writer needs a very clear sense of that personality to let others shine through, too.