One of the decisions that authors have to make is which character(s) will tell the story – whose perspective will be shared. It’s an important decision, because it determines a lot about the way the story’s told. After all each character has a distinctive personality and voice, and that can’t help but impact the way readers think about the story and the other characters. So, authors sometimes spend quite a lot of time choosing who will tell a story. I’ve known more than one author, for instance, who re-wrote at least one story because the original perspective wasn’t serving the story well.
To get a sense of how important perspective can be, consider Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. As you’ll know, they’re written from the point of view of Dr. Watson, Holmes’ friend and chronicler. Watson is far from stupid, and not particularly gullible. But he doesn’t have Holmes’ deductive powers or detective skills. Telling the stories from his point of view allowed Conan Doyle to surprise the reader. It also allowed Conan Doyle to tell the stories from the point of view of someone very like many of his readers: a ‘normal,’ sane person who’s reasonably intelligent. And that choice has arguably helped many readers feel a connection with the stories.
You might make the same argument for using Captain Hastings as the narrator for several of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories. Christie fans can tell you that Hastings offers a very interesting and useful perspective on the mysteries at hand. He’s a person of reasonable intelligence, and sometimes he has flashes of insight. But, like most of us, he also sometimes misses important clues and other information. This is one of the reasons for which, in Lord Edgware Dies, Poirot says,
‘In you, Hastings, I find the normal mind almost perfectly illustrated.’
Poirot goes on to explain that by that, he means that,
As in a mirror I see reflected in your mind exactly what the criminal wishes me to believe. That is terrifically helpful and suggestive.’
And that may be an important reason why Christie told so many stories from Hastings’ perspective. He thinks the way many readers might think, and that makes it easier to use strategies such as misdirection.
Many of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories are told from the point of view of Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s employee/co-worker. Goodwin’s not the brilliant detective that Wolfe is. But he’s a skilled investigator and intelligent person. He does the ‘legwork’ for Wolfe, and he’s solved several cases. Although Goodwin respects Wolfe’s brilliance, he also knows that his boss has plenty of faults and foibles, as we all do. He has no hero-worship for Wolfe, so his narrations are quite forthcoming about what it’s like to work with the man. That point of view adds to the stories. So does the wit that’s also woven into the way Archie Goodwin thinks. It makes one wonder what the stories would have been like had Wolfe been the narrator.
There’s a very interesting and effective use of narrator in Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt. The story takes the form of a journal being kept by Edward Powell. Because it’s a journal, we get a first-person perspective – Powell’s perspective – on the other characters, especially his Aunt Mildred. Powell and his aunt live together in her house in a small Welsh town, but that’s definitely not the arrangement Powell wants. He’d much prefer a London life on his own. He despises the locals, and dislikes Aunt Matilda. However, she holds the proverbial purse strings, and she has determined he should live with her. Powell decides that the only way out of his situation is to kill his aunt, and he makes plans accordingly. Thus begins a battle of wits between Powell and his aunt. It’s not going to be easy, because she’s more than a match for him. As I see it (so do feel free to disagree with me if you see things differently), it’s a very clever way to tell a story, and it makes one wonder what the story would have been like if it had been written from the perspective of an omniscient narrator, or the point of view of, say, one of the villagers.
Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole and Joe Pike series is mostly told from the perspective of Cole, a Los Angeles-based private detective. He works with Pike on several of his cases, and there are a few stories that focus primarily on Pike. But many of the stories are told from Cole’s point of view. This gives readers an interesting insight into Cole’s personality. He can be snarky and sarcastic, but he’s bright, quick-thinking, and committed to doing his best for his clients. The really interesting aspect of this choice of perspective is that we don’t get much of a chance to see things the way Joe Pike sees them. This leaves Pike with what you might call an air of mystery about him. We do learn some things about him as the series goes on, and there are more layers to him that one might think. Pike doesn’t have much to say, but Cole knows him well enough to guess what he might be thinking. But even Cole doesn’t know everything about Pike, and Crais leaves enough unsaid that the reader is invited to wonder about him.
The choice of narrator can make a major difference in a story. If, for instance, Joe Pike told the Cole/Pike stories in first person, they would likely be very different in tone. We might say the same thing about many other crime novels and series, too. Because it’s such an important choice, the decision of who will narrate is often very intentional. Do you notice it? If you’re a writer, how do you choose who will narrate your stories?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.
10 thoughts on “Who Tells Your Story?*”
Now you’ve got me thinking! 🙂
What? Thinking? On the weekend? 😉 Seriously, Cat, I’ve been doing some thinking, too…
I always like when mysteries are told from the perspective of a sidekick, especially a likeable one like Hastings or Watson. When the author chooses a first person narrative from the perspective of the ‘tec, professional or amateur, I think it’s much harder to keep the reader in the dark without it feeling unfair. Also, it’s hard to show a first person ‘tec as brilliant without them seeming big-headed and boastful, whereas an admiring sidekick can keep the reader onside even when the ‘tec is at his or her most obnoxious. Obviously there are exceptions – Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan is always fun to spend time with, for example.
Oh, I like Maeve, too, FictionFan! I think part of the reason she works well as a ‘first-person’ character is that Casey doesn’t portray her as constantly brilliant (although she is bright and quick-thinking). So spending time with her doesn’t feel like an overdose of arrogant. She’s human enough that she’s good company, if that makes sense. I think you make a very well-taken point, too, about Watson and Hasting being likeable. That makes a big difference when it comes to seeing the world through their eyes. And it’s interesting that, although both of them are sympathetic, and really do admire their ‘bosses,’ they are also aware that Holmes and Poirot are not perfect, and can even be annoying. That gives the reader, I think, an interesting and more realistic perspective on the lead characters.
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The post made me reflect on Elvis and Joe. In the Elvis focused books Joe is a remote figure with the sense of mystery about him I associate with Hawk in the Spenser books by Robert B. Parker. I have read a couple of the books, The Watchman and The First Rule, where Joe is the lead character. There is certainly no sidekick for Joe. He may help Elvis but clearly prefers to handle matters on his own when he is in charge. His laconic nature makes it a challenge for Crais to provide a narrative through Joe. I wonder if that caused Crais to load up on action scenes in the books featuring Joe.
You make an interesting point about the action scenes, Bill. Joe is definitely not one for a lot of words, even in the novels where he’s the central character. So I can see how just doing (action) would be more his style. And you’re right about his not needing a sidekick or partner. As you say, he works with Elvis, but the plots really feature him. Crais just writes those novels differently to the way he writes the ones that ‘star’ Elvis. I give him credit for creating two different sorts of novels with characters who move back and forth in them, if that makes sense.
Such an interesting question, Margot! In my experience it is sometimes clear from the start what kind of a narrator is needed, other times there is a nagging feeling that something is not quite right and that because I’ve chosen the wrong one. One of the reasons I enjoy writing short stories is that you can write in a voice that you couldn’t sustain for a whole novel – I once had a lot of fun writing a short story from the POV of a fish!
Thank you, Christine! I’ve had a similar experience of simply feeling that something was wrong with a story – until I chose a better narrator. That choice makes all the difference in the world, doesn’t it? You make a good point, too, about short stories and even shorter pieces. They’re great contexts for experimenting with voices. I’ve never tried doing a fish, though! That takes skill!
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As a reader, I trust the author to make the best choice for telling the story. It’s helpful if the voice isn’t a character I find annoying! I’m rather partial to tales where the “narrator” or perspective changes between chapters.
Some of those stories with multiple voices really can work well, Col, even better than the story would work with just one voice. And you make a good point about annoying characters. It’s one thing to have an annoying character in a novel; it’s another entirely if that’s the person who’s telling the story!