The Great Depression. A mysterious recluse. A drawn-out trial. A murder. These are just some of the plot points associated with one very respected literary classic, and absolutely none of them would lead a reader to believe that children have any place near it.
And yet, the sole narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird was none other than Scout Finch, a girl who grew from six to nine during the events of the book.
As a writer, the idea of spotlighting racism and the Civil Rights Movement from the narrowed and naive viewpoint of a child sounds risky. A plot can fall apart even under normal circumstances, but throw in a voice that isn’t strong enough to bridge the smallest gaps, and you’ll never get that story off the ground.
But that didn’t stop Harper Lee from choosing the perfect narrator to successfully tell her story for the last fifty-six years, and it shouldn’t stop you, either.
It’s no secret that there are multiple points of view (POV) to choose from. We’re guessing you’re already familiar with the standard three that your English teacher is obligated to introduce you to:
- First Person: The story is shared through the eyes of a character (usually your protagonist).
- Second Person: The narrator is speaking directly to the reader (like I’m addressing you right now).
- Third Person: The narrator is not a part of the story, and is generally all-knowing (an outsider looking in).
But we aren’t here to argue POV and give tips on the right way that your narrator should deliver your story. Rather, we’re after something much more important: choosing the right narrator.
Point of Who?
It’s not uncommon to think that Point of View and Narrator are one in the same. After all, we’re even lumping them together in a single blog post. And yet they are two very, very different beasts.
To help properly differentiate the two, some call the narrator “Voice,” or “Perspective.” As author Sandra Miller wrote, “Simply put, perspective is who tells the story, and point of view is how they tell it.”
This “Perspective” you’ve got to choose isn’t limited to the point of views like those listed above, but instead the characters that you as the author have created to play a part of your story. Need a character who can pull off an omniscient, all-knowing voice? Use the mentor figure who has been watching your protagonist through a crystal ball and knows everything about everything. Want the perspective of an Alice in Wonderland character who will allow the reader to follow along? Sounds like your starry-eyed protagonist is the way to go.
If you’re struggling with the choice — it’s a big one — Study Guides and Strategies has some helpful questions you can ask yourself to pinpoint the answer:
- How much does the narrator know?
Does he or she know everything, including the thoughts, feelings, motivations, etc. or present just limited information?
Do events take place “now?” Or in the past? Are past recollections fresh, or distant, and maybe hazy?
- Is the narrator a participant in, or a witness to, the action?
Is the story second-hand, related “as told to” the narrator? How much of the event do you know, and how does that affect the story?
- Why is the story being told, and why now?
What is the motivation?
And don’t be afraid to experiment, especially if you think you’ve got the perfect fit. As The Portable MFA in Creative Writing reminds us, “The practice of writing virtually demands it.”
Best of luck, and happy writing!