Try to See it My Way*

The choice of narrator for a story has a real impact on the story’s pace, perspective, and sometimes outcome. After all, we all have different points of view, and the way a story is told often depends quite a bit on who is telling it. The narrator determines what’s included in a story, and what’s stressed or not. That’s certainly true in crime fiction, where the unreliable narrator can be a very effective tool for misdirecting the reader. Choice of narrator determines what information the reader gets, too, as no character knows everything. So, it’s a very important choice for the author to make.

Agatha Christie used different narrators in different stories. In some, Captain Hastings is the narrator. Hastings is smart and educated, but he isn’t omniscient. He sees the world (and Hercule Poirot makes note of this in Lord Edgware Dies) as an everyman:

‘In you I find the normal mind almost perfectly illustrated.’

Poirot considers this a compliment, as it’s important to him to understand what the murderer wants others to think. And that’s part of why Christie’s use of Hastings can be so effective. His thinking makes sense, and it’s easy for readers to follow along with it, even if it leads them up the proverbial garden path.

Many authors choose to have their protagonists narrate the story. Cat Connor does this in her Ellie Conway Iverson series. Ellie is a Special Agent in Charge (SAC) with the FBI.  With Ellie as narrator, readers learn what she learns when she learns it. Readers follow along as Ellie gets information, acts on it, communicates with others, and so on. So it invites us to really get to know her. It’s also a very effective way to communicate things like physical setting and the personalities of other characters. The way a character’s words and actions impact the protagonist tells readers about that character, so readers learn about characters from the way they are perceived by the protagonist. What’s more, readers can get a sense of a sleuth’s approach to solving a puzzle.

One very popular use of the protagonist-as-narrator is that the author can create an unreliable narrator. We don’t always know if the narrator is telling the truth, lying or simply unable to perceive the truth. So the reader is invited to work out whether the narrator can or cannot be believed. Paul Cleave uses this in The Quiet People. In that novel, successful crime writers Cameron and Lisa Murdodch face every loving parent’s worst nightmare when their son Zach goes missing. Of course, they search everywhere, ask everyone they know, and then call the police. The police want to find Zach almost as much as his parents do, so they put a massive search into motion. As happens in these cases, they also consider whether Cameron and Lisa might have had something to do with Zach’s disappearance. After all, that sort of thing does happen. And the Murdochs are talented crime writers; they would find it easier than most to disguise a crime. The story is mostly narrated  (first person) by Cameron, and that invites the reader to wonder whether he is telling the truth, whether he is lying and has covered up a horrible crime, or whether something else is going on that he doesn’t know is happening. It’s an effective way to challenge readers and keep interest.

Some authors tell their stories from a variety of different perspectives. Karin Fossum’s Inspector Konrad Sejer novels are like that. Sejer is an Oslo-based homicide detective; and, since parts of the stories are told from his point of view, we learn about him. We learn about his past, his way of thinking, and so on. Other parts of these novels are told from the points of view of other characters. In this way, we learn who the major players are in the different novels. We also learn things that Sejer wouldn’t necessarily know, so it allows for a broader understanding of what’s going on in the novel.

Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn is like that, too. One of the central events in the story is an accident in which one car hits another. The two drivers get out of their cars and argue, and one attacks the other with a bat. This sets in motion all sorts of things, including the unlikely intervention of an introspective crime writer who witnessed what happened. As the novel plays out, we learn about each of the characters who are linked to the accident. We see the same event from each different perspective, and we see how the incident impacts everyone, including private investigator Jackson Brodie, who’s one of the main characters. The reader has the chance to see an event from a variety of different points of view, because there are different narrators at different points in the novel.

Sometimes the story is narrated in first person; sometimes it’s third person. Once in a great while, it’s second person. Whichever the author uses, the choice of narrator is key to the way a story is told, and the impact it has. Still wonder about this? Imagine if Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories had been told from Holmes’ point of view. Or Lestrade’s…

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ We Can Work it Out.


8 thoughts on “Try to See it My Way*

  1. Very interesting post, Margot. I just read two Hercule Poirot stories last night, told by Hastings, and that is a big part of my enjoyment of the stories. I also recently read The Maid by Nita Prose, narrated by Molly the maid, and I enjoyed that story told in first person.

    I also enjoy stories where there are a variety of points of view. The most recent one I read that used that style was Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty, and the reader gets the points of view of at least 10 characters in that one. In that one I had a hard time figuring out whether the story was a mystery or how it would be categorized, but I really enjoyed how the story was told.

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    1. Thanks, Tracy. I like Liane Moriarty’s work, so I’m glad you enjoyed that one. It is interesting when an author can use different narrations and points of view to tell a story; I think it can be a really effective way to give the reader a sense of the characters and of the events of a story. And I agree; Hastings’ viewpoint is a really effective way to tell the Poirot story. I like his personality, and I like the way Christie shows us Poirot through Hastings’ eyes.

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  2. You do think of such interesting topics for your posts, Margot, you always make me think very hard. For this one, Agatha Christie’s The Sittaford Mystery sprang to mind. One of my favourites by her, set on Dartmoor here in Devon, which I know quite well, and where the culprit was quite a surprise. Your term ‘led up the garden path’ is quite applicable. I recommend it if you haven’t already read it. I like the sound of The Quiet People. And I’ve read one Jackson Brodie book but must read more as the one you mention sounds intriguing.

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    1. Thanks very much, Cath. I’m glad you enjoy what you find here. And you’re quite right about The Sittaford Mystery. Christie was so good, wasn’t she, at misdirection. And using those different narratives was one way she did it. The Quiet People has a really interesting use of narrator, I think. You really get to feel what the characters must feel. And as for Jackson Brodie, he’s a solid character, I think. I should get back to reading those stories, myself.

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  3. Interesting post, Margot, and you’re so right about the importance of that narrative voice – the story, and indeed the success of a book, can depend on how well we accept the viewpoint of the person telling us the tale. Certainly, Christie was very good a switching narrators so that the reader was so often fooled, and many GA crime authors were great at unreliable ones!!

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    1. Thanks, KBR. And you put that very well: a story’s success really does often depend on the narrator and the way readers relate (or don’t) to that character. And that, of course, is the key to the unreliable narrator which, as you say, several GA authors did really well. As for Christie? She really was champion at using narration and points of view for misdirection!

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  4. I think my favourite narrator is the sidekick – close enough to give insight into the ‘tec’s mind but not right inside it. Watson was my first favourite narrator, and Hastings, of course, and Archie Goodwin, among others. I’m only a fan of the multiple viewpoint if the author can really do it well – that is, create different voices for the various characters. Often I find they all sound the same, and the reader is reliant on carefully checking the head of each chapter to know who’s speaking.

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    1. I really like a good sidekick perspective, too, FictionFan. We learn so much about Poirot, Holmes, and Nero Wolfe from reading the perspectives of their sidekicks, and it gives us insights that I don’t think the sleuth would have. More than that, It allows the sleuth to surprise the reader. It is really hard to give characters truly distinct voices, and I have nothing but respect for authors who can do that. It can be interesting when it’s done well, but if it’s not, it is hard to tell the characters apart.

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