Narrators & Characters – or Who’s Telling This Story, Anyway?

Dr. Tim is speaking today about the differing types of narration – primarily 1st and 3rd person.  Personally, I avoid books with a 1st person point of view (POV), largely because so many writers do it so poorly.  Edgar Allan Poe was a master at sucking the reader in to the insanity of his main characters through a 1st person perspective, but not many others manage it (for me, anyway.  I realize I’m in the minority.)

Third person narration is the he said, she said of writing.  We can inhabit multiple characters through a bit of a distance, and have that comfortable omniscient feeling, the bird’s eye view.  I prefer this style of writing because of the distance I get from the story (can you tell mysteries are my favorite?), and the almost assurance I get that the tale will be neatly tied up by the end.  First person characters almost never give you the whole picture.

Of course, there are other narrative tricks – 2nd person (remember Choose Your Own Adventure books?), and free indirect discourse (borrowing language from other characters), but they are not as common as the first two mentioned.

When it comes to characters, Tim asks, “Why do we have to read about these terrible people with their terrible lives?”  Well, the simple answer is that good people are boring.  When we get a nice guy or a decent lady that has a little bump in the road before everything is righted in the end, we have a warm, fuzzy feeling…but we tire of it quickly.  Read three serial romances in a row and you’ll see what I mean.  You see the pattern, recognize the formula, predict the ending – and you’re only on page four.

We get a little insight into Mrs. Tim, too, this time.  She’s a librarian (I love her already), and maintains that different rules apply to different books.  What works for the hero of a Western, doesn’t work for the hero of a Mystery.

  Character Conclusions

1)  A character doesn’t have to be likable or admirable to be interesting.

2)  An unlikable character can change and grow (even if we don’t like them at the beginning, remember that they may not be around by the end of the story…physically or essentially).

3)  Change and growth do not necessarily ensure a character’s happiness.

Also, some of the best writing involves us growing right along with the characters.  Neither of us should be the same by the end of the book.

Reader Tip:  Get in the habit of monitoring your responses to characters.  What is your first impression?  Do your feelings about them change, and what contributes to that change?  When and how does the story ask us to change our views?

Enjoy this and other educational series from Great Courses.

Read examples of interesting narrations and characterization from Edgar Allan Poe, Anton Chekhov, and E.M. Forster.

References: Aspects of the Novel, by E. M. Forster

Related Articles:

The Art of Reading

A Word About Authors

Narrators & Characters, or Who’s Telling This Story, Anyway?

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