Says who?

As a teenager, I saw it as a rule that any story told may be exaggerated by no more than 400%, i.e. 4 times as impressive as the thing actually was. This meant that if I, as a teenager, wanted to show off the impressive amount of alcohol I had consumed the night before, I would have said I had 12 beers, and no one was allowed to refute that. If, however, I would have said that I had made a move on 5 girls that evening, my friends would have been perfectly within their rights to call me a liar (especially since no matter what you do, 0 X 4 still comes out 0).

Now those stories I told my friends were not that important to their daily lives nor to their existence in society, but imagine living solely through what others telling you of the world, which should be easy, since that is what you do every time you open a book. You take someone’s word for what has, will, or is happening in the world you read about.

There are various ways to talk about narrators, but usually you can narrow it down to their place on two separate spectra, a sort of matrix of narrators, if you will. One spectrum refers to the narrator’s reliability.

Most people are already familiar with the terms “reliable” or “unreliable” narrator, but there is a lot more to narrators than this simple, binary distinction. Most people understand unreliable narrators as narrators with a tendency to lie, a perceptual problem (blind, deaf, mental disorder), or a clear and explicit bias. More recent narratives (basically, since the start of modernist writing) have tried to draw our attention to the fact that no narrator is actually reliable, and that truth is always subjective. Just as any first-semester learns and has his/her mind blown by the fact that our perception of the world is conveyed to us through our senses, and our minds need to interpret those signals and thus create our reality (or our perception of it) and senses can be tricked, readers need to rely on a mediator to perceive the reality of the narrative, and even if the narrator is a so-called “reliable” narrator their use of language and choice of what to describe undermine their objective reliability.

The second spectrum refers to the narrator’s closeness to events. A narrator can be either in or out of the story, which might be a dichotomy rather than a spectrum, but even when they are in the story, they might be more of an observer rather than the main character, which makes them a bit more distant, hence I will still say that there is a spectrum, but one that concerns their actual relation to the main storyline.

To give an example: Nick Carraway, is an intradiegetic narrator (a narrator who is present in the story), he participates in events, but those events do not revolve around him. He is a simple observer there to report bout events that are happening to Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. He is relatively objective, reporting what happens to Jay and Daisy, but he does not spare judgment. He has a lot of reservation about the excessive lifestyle of his new friends. This puts him somewhere in the middle of the “closeness” spectrum.

On the other hand, A Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfield is intradiegetic narrator, so he should know what is going on, but he is so full of (annoying) teenage angst that his judgment is keeping the reader from seeing anything beyond Holden’s anger at the world.

So what narrator should you choose? Intra- or extradiegetic, reliable or unreliable? Invested in the story or objective? Omniscient or of limited knowledge of events?

There is no answer to that. Of course, you can choose according to some meaningful design, but the easiest thing to do is to go with your guts and write the narrator you are comfortable with. He or she is the most important part of the story; it is only through them that the reader will get to experience anything in your world, so make sure not to force anything you think might please the scholars in fifty years, leave that for later, when you are an old, experienced writer who can afford to indulge his or her desire for intellectualism.

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