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.