Who tells the story

Guest author and blogger Fay Sampson is the author of numerous books for both adults and children. She has been shortlisted three times for the Guardian Children’s Book award, and is winner of the Barco de Vapor award for The Watch on Patterick Fell. More recently she has been writing Crime Novels, like the Suzie Fezwings series, with a genealogical or historical interest. She also writes non-fiction books on historical themes.

One of the most important decisions a novelist has to make is whose eyes the story will be seen through.

If it’s a first-person narrative there is unlikely to be a problem. You probably had a clear vision of this character narrating when you first had the idea for the book. With a third-person narrative you have more options open to you. We rarely use the God-like overview of Victorian novelists now. The viewpoint usually narrows down to one specific character, with only a partial view of what is going on. Should it be the chief protagonist? A lesser character who can bear witness to these events, as in Wuthering Heights? Another option is to alternate between two protagonists. This can allow us to know more of the plot than would otherwise be the case.

It is important to get inside the mindset of this focal character. Use only synonyms that would occur naturally to him or her. You wouldn’t use “blue as cigarette smoke” in a novel set in the Dark Ages. I groan when I read “manicured lawns” from a character who has not the slightest interest in hand care. Even if you’re writing for children, these things matter – Why make that analogy, even subconsciously?

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The best way to get inside this character is to share some of their experience. I read Mary Gentle’s Ash and was struck by the detail of her protagonist tucking her sword-hand under her armpit on a frosty morning before battle, so that it wouldn’t be stiff with cold when she needed it. Mary is a member of a re-enactment society. Yes, I thought, she’s been there, done that. These little details work especially well for children, who often understand the specific more than the general, the physical and immediate, more than the theoretical and indefinite.

You can have fun, too, with the unreliable narrator. I wrote Blacksmith’s Telling in the Morgan le Fay sequence from the point of view of a Dark Age pagan Cumbrian smith. He is antagonistic to the central character, Morgan, but the reader is invited, subtly, I hope, not to trust everything he says.

There is postscript to that. This was a first-person telling. Before sending off the manuscript, I had spent two days sitting in front of my computer, reading the text and trying to hear his voice in my head for authenticity. Since he lived too early to be speaking English, there was no point in making him use modern Northern dialect. Instead, I tried to put some of the northern abruptness and shortened sentence construction into the pattern of his speech. (The script came back from the copy-editor with the entire book rewritten in the literary style of an Oxbridge essay.)

Whichever, the person through whose eyes we see the action is not synonymous with you, the author. They are a real character in the story. They have a personality and history different from yours. The way they tell the story can be a valuable way of letting us in on the kind of person they are, without telling us in so many words.

Suppose you are seeing the story through the eyes of a photographer. It’s not just a matter of dropping convincing-sounding details of his photographic equipment. Most of the time, he is not taking pictures, yet his eyes will be framing everything he sees in terms of an image he might photograph.

Your protagonist, similarly, will not be consciously thinking like this: they have just developed a certain way of looking at the world.