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‘Establish where the narrator stands in relation to the events of your story’

Establish where the narrator stands in relation to the events of your story

from Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction by Emma Darwin



The basic choice you have to make, right at the beginning of your story, is whether it is being told by someone who takes part in at least some of the events of the story, or by some kind of entity outside those events. Often these are talked of as ‘first person’ versus ‘third person’ narratives, but what’s at issue isn’t pronouns, but where the narrator stands in relation to the events of the narrative. So thinking of your narrator as external or internal is much more accurate and useful.


External narrators

An external narrator is outside the events of the story. All the actors in the story are referred to as he and she, so these narrators are sometimes called ‘third person’ narrators, because there is no I present in the action of any scene. They may be a fairly neutral voice transmitting the story entirely through the thoughts and perceptions of the characters (Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel), or they may comment directly on things, or transmit information that no character inside the story can know (The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald).


Here are some openings:

  • Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic. (Susannah Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell)
  • Lilias Papagay was of imagination all compact. In her profession this was a suspect, if necessary, quality, and had to be watched, had to be curbed. (A. S. Byatt, The Conjugial Angel)
  • A young man, young but not very young, sits in an anteroom somewhere, some wing or other, in the Palace of Versailles. He is waiting. He has been waiting a long time. (Andrew Miller, Pure)
  • Sebastos Abdes Pantera was twelve years old and nearly a man on the night he discovered that his father was a traitor. It was spring, the time of bright flowers, and Passover, the time of celebration, sacrifice and riots. (M. C. Scott, The Emperor’s Spy)
  • At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake. (Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain)
  • ‘So now get up.’

Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned towards the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. (Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall)


Notice how each has a very different tone, language and historical feel. Some are ‘wide-angle’ and full of context; others are close in to the immediate moment and perceptions of the character. The order I’ve put them in is not accidental, but connects to this the idea, which writers call psychic distance.


In fact, the narrator of Jonathan Strange does say I, occasionally, but as a narrator, not as a character: I doubt if it will surprize anyone to know that, of the two, London preferred Mr Strange. Literary criticism sometimes talks of this kind of narrator as ‘the author’, but it isn’t really: this is not Susannah Clarke speaking, but a storyteller-narrator.


Internal narrators

An internal narrator participates in the events of the story. Maybe it was years ago; maybe it’s happening now, but they refer to themselves as I, with the other characters referred to as he and she.


Here are some openings:

  • You must and will suppose (fair or foul reader, but where’s the difference?) that I suppose a heap of happenings that I had no eye to eye knowledge of or concerning. What though a man supposes is oft (often if you will) of the right and very substance of his seeing. (Anthony Burgess, A Dead Man in Deptford)
  • My father, Giovanni da Cola, was a merchant, and for the last years of his life was occupied in the importation of luxury goods into England which, though an unsophisticated country, was nonetheless beginning to rouse itself from the effects of revolution. (Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost)
  • I am a witch for the modern age. I keep my spells small, and price them high. What they ask for is the same as always. The common spells deal in love, or what love is meant to make, or else hate, and what that might accomplish. (Sally O’Reilly, Dark Aemilia)
  • Q: Why is London like Budapest?

A: Because it is two cities divided by a river.

Good morning! Let me introduce myself. My name is Dora Chance. Welcome to the wrong side of the tracks. (Angela Carter, Wise Children)

  • Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints … the tracks led me to their maker, a white man, his trowzers & Pea-jacket rolled up, sporting a kempt beard & an outsized Beaver, shovelling & sifting the cinder sand with a tea-spoon so intently that he noticed me only after I had hailed him from ten yards away. (David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas)
  • Chip told us not to go out. Said, don’t you boys tempt the devil. But it been one brawl of a night, I tell you, all of us still reeling from the rot – rot was cheap, see, the drink of French peasants, but it stayed like nails in you gut. (Esie Edugyan, Half Blood Blues)


Again, notice how different the feel is, even though they all start with I, me, my, or myself. These are all characters who are in some way part of the story, but while some address the reader/listener directly, others don’t. What they narrate may be their story (Wise Children) or it may be someone else’s story (Dead Man in Deptford is about Christopher Marlowe). And it’s worth remembering that a character-narrator is still a narrator: this is the story they choose to tell, and if they want to evoke events at which they were not present at then there’s no reason they shouldn’t. However, since the narrowly conventional modern approach to point of view dictates that a character-narrator can’t write events at which they were not present, if you want your narrator to do that, you may decide that you need to ‘educate’ the reader early on about how this narrative works, as Burgess does here with such panache.