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choosing a narrator, point of view

Who gets to tell the story?

This past week, I’ve had several conversations with teen writers about their current stories in progress. They all went something like this:

Me: “Who’s your POV character? Who’s telling the story?”

Teen: “Well, the main character. Who else would it be?”

Me: “Okay, but how would the main character know that X was happening? Or, would that character be able to create the fear/humor/awkwardness that you’re going for?”

Teen: “Oh, I didn’t think of that.” (Confused look on face)

And then we brainstormed ideas for who could tell the story to capture all of the action as well as the tone that they wanted. In every case, the writers chose a character other than the main character as their new POV character, and they were also excited about the possibilities this change opened up for their story.

Choosing the main character as the POV character is often the obvious choice, especially for a novel, where its almost necessary, but when you’re writing shorter pieces, having a minor character narrate can add depth and humor to your story.

Which character should be the POV character in your story?

1) Who would be able to share all of the action, especially if you’ve got events going on in more than one place?

2) If you have an unreliable main character such as a psychopath, chronic liar, or paranormal creature (zombie, angel, etc.), who might be a reliable character that could highlight your main character’s challenges? For example, you could write the story from the victim’s perspective.

3) Is there a character you could add that might add an interesting perspective to your main character’s story or could better narrate your character’s dilemma and growth?

Let me give you several examples.

The short story “Pampkin’s Lament” by Peter Orner is about a failing, frumpy politician. His campaign isn’t going well and halfway through, he decides that his wife is cheating on him. He tells all of this to his loyal campaign manager, but neither of these men are telling the story. Instead, its narrated by the thirteen year old campaign manager’s son. We get his refreshing commentary on the two men and their relationship. Ten years later, we also get the answers about the affair at the politician’s funeral. When his father and the politician’s wife share a glance, we learn that yes, she was having an affair…with the campaign manager the narrator’s father. Had either the politician or the campaign manager told the story, we wouldn’t have had the innocent perspective of a narrator who didn’t completely understand the implications of what was happening.

In another example, Markus Zusak makes a brilliant choice for a narrator in his novel The Book Thief. Death narrates this novel, and since the novel is set in WWII Germany, death is busy and understandably cynical. He follows the subject of the story, Liesel Meminger, through the war as she comes of age and provides the necessary commentary on the setting and the horrors of war.

Have you ever chosen a surprising POV character for a story and found that it worked? Or, do you like sticking with the main character? Share your thoughts in the comments below.