Who Tells Your Story?*

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.