There are many ways to tell a story, and each one comes with a benefit or a downside. Still, I figured it’s worth going over the different ways each can be effective.
- Reliable Narrator: A story with a reliable First Person narrator is one of the most common narrative styles. What this means is that the reader can trust what the narrator is telling them is the truth as it actually happened. Think Percy Jackson in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series.The reliable narrator is far more common than the unreliable variety. The benefit of this narrative style is that it mirrors how we tell stories verbally. If something happened to me, and I tell my friend what happened, I am going to use First Person narration to explain the events that transpired. Thus, this can feel like the most organic option. It also allows for total access to the POV character’s thoughts, allowing readers to see how they reached a conclusion, or why they’re acting a certain way. However, this can come with the problem of not being able to get inside the head of anyone except for the narrator. Now, while it’s standard for the First Person narrator to be the main character, it isn’t always the case. If the narrator is some sort of omniscient, bystander, or divine presence, whether they interact with the characters or not, it technically falls under First Person if they voice their opinion using I statements. The figure of Death in The Book Thief is a good example of this, as Death uses I and me in the narrative of the story. Because the story is set in Germany during World War II, the narrator of Death sees the protagonist, Liesel, frequently, and thus we’re able to get a narrator who is observing a protagonist from outside of her immediate story.
- Unreliable Narrator: An Unreliable narrator is going to be the exact opposite. They tell the story, but take their story with a grain of salt. Whether their perception of reality is distorted, they’re using metaphors and symbolic imagery to tell the story, or they’re telling the story from a very narrow viewpoint, the unreliable narrator can be a good choice to get the reader to engage with the story and think critically about the work. Rugrats is a good example of this type of storytelling, as the main characters are babies, and therefore often mistake things for something else, making them unreliable narrators. This type works well if you want to tell a more abstract story. For instance, an entire story is about a boy chasing after a red balloon, but that red balloon itself represents accepting his mother’s death. Suddenly everything experienced becomes unreliable, leaving the reader wondering if the foes he defeated or the desert he crossed was literal, and he went on an actual journey to come to terms with his mother’s death, or was everything figurative, and the journey was more symbolic and allegorical? An unreliable narrator can play with these questions, blur the lines between reality and fiction, and leave their readers asking questions.
- Omniscient: Lemony Snicket is a perfect example of a great omniscient narrator. Mr. Snicket knows everything about every character, knows what’s going to happen before it happens, and comments on everything. Lemony Snicket himself is not a character in the story. Rather he recounts the story much like the First Person style, but from an outside perspective. Instead of being part of the story, Lemony Snicket is telling us about the Baudelaire children through the lens of the all-knowing and opinionated narrator. It’s not entirely uncommon for this type of narrator to be some supernatural force, a wise old sage, or someone who lived through an experience recounting the tale many years later. In fact it could be rather fun to play with this last one, having the story almost be told like a myth or legend, but having the narrator constantly side track to discuss how historians know and gathered the information for this story, only to reveal the narrator isn’t some omniscient being, but just a docent in a museum giving a tour and explaining an old myth to the patrons.
- Limited: With a Limited POV, the reader learns things as the narrator does. Even though the narrator is the one telling the story, their information is only up to date with whatever is currently happening on the page. This and First Person are the two POV types most likely to appear in a mystery novel, or any novel where a mystery or unanswered questions drives the plot. Harry Potter is a series written in Limited Third Person. The story follows Harry, and the reader only learns information as Harry does. And every year, Harry is faced with the recurring mystery element of figuring out what’s going on, and stopping whatever their plan was. However, because the narrator only knows what the protagonist knows, this can allow you to play around with giving the narrator a personality, and having them comment or react to things as they happen, perhaps even mirroring the way you hope the readers are responding.
- Objective: Think of Objective Point of View as watching a tv show. Anyone who’s into shipping has to read into objective romantic coding. Two characters held eye contact for five seconds? You the reader have to interpret that as you will. Objective is strangely both the most human and the most robotic point of view. At its most human, Objective treats the narration like a normal person. They can’t read the thoughts of other characters, they don’t know more than the hero or reader, and you’re effectively just a bystander in the crowd watching things happen with no context clues about what’s happening inside a character’s head. On the opposite end, it can also be the most robotic because it is the most lacking in human connection, as it leaves the reader detached from the characters themselves. However, a liberating or perhaps crippling aspect of this POV style is that it frees the author of show don’t tell because this type of POV can’t enter anyone’s minds or go on a rant about a character’s feelings about someone else. You just have to take what you get at face value and all information has to be conveyed through your characters and story, whether directly through dialogue, or subtly through background details.
Most stories tend to stick with a single narrator. Stories can be complicated when one person is giving an opinion, but when multiple people are talking, it can be hard to find a voice and plot for each of them. And if you’re planning on writing a series, you may run into the problem of some characters having meatier plots than others. It’s for this reason that when it comes to watching Game of Thrones, I always groan internally whenver the story cuts back to Bran or Jon at the Wall. It’s a scene or two of people standing around being cold or talking about being cold and something something three-eyed raven and then we finally get back to the part I’m more interested in: the political games of manipulation and intrigue. But that’s also a strength of changing POVs. With something like Game of Thrones, you might not necessarily like every storyline happening, but you’re more likely to enjoy one. In a sense, Game of Thrones is like 11 novels stitched together, and because each is so different, you’re more likely to find something in the series that speaks to you. Conversely, when there’s multiple POVs experiencing the same thing, such as with the Heroes of Olympus series, having shifting POVs can be a good way of exploring each character. In The Lost Hero, Piper knows more about the giant waiting to fight them than either Jason or Leo, and because we have shifting POVs, we the reader get access to this otherwise Limited Third Person information from the character who already knows it, thus building dramatic tension of when the others will find out. Another benefit to this is giving unique encounters to the characters. Percy has already met Aphrodite in the past, but through Piper, Aphrodite’s daughter, we’re able to see a different side of this goddess, the goddess as a mother to someone else. This could also manifest in differing opinions of the same things. This is also part of why it works so well in Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones is a civil war story with multiple sides all vying for the same end goal. Because there are so many sides and players in the game, having so many different points of view is valueable to the story being told. If Eddard Stark was the sole protagonist, the only thing that we would know is whatever he knows. Everything Danny is doing across the narrow sea would need to be told to Ned for it to matter. And the same with Jon at the Wall. And if Jon or Danny was the sole narrator, the reader would miss out on everything happening in King’s Landing because neither Danny nor Jon are connected to that part of the plot. An entire element to the story is lost when a major POV character is dropped, which goes to show how strong George RR Martin’s writing really is. Something I like doing with multiple POVs is describing the same character in two different ways from two characters who would see them in a drastically different way. One description might paint a character as dark, alluring, and attractive, while another person might describe them as a rat-faced shifty-eyed snake that stinks of booze and dead fish. It’s the same character, but two different people see that character in entirely different ways. However, this also comes with a major backlash. It can be an absolute nightmare juggling not only so many plots, but trying to make them fit together nicely. You’ll notice this a lot with shows that emphasize drama and interconnecting storylines. They’ll be really strong in their earlier seasons, then peter out once they’ve hit the creative brick wall. It happened to Once Upon a Time and to a lesser extent, Glee. Both shows had tightly knit and compelling drama in season 1, but by season 4, both shows felt like they were just going through the motions and had lost the edge that made them interesting. Even with something as well-written as Game of Thrones, it’s still possible to have someone’s story be weaker than everyone else’s. Arya Stark for instance spent the first couple of seasons focused on learning to sword fighting, then once the Hound died, she went to Braavos, but it always kind of felt more like a detour than really what Arya’s story was supposed to be about. She was a little girl out for vengeance, she went to Braavos for a season or two, didn’t really learn much, and then she came back to Westeros and pretty much went right back to exactly who she was before going to Braavos. Now granted, I’m going by the TV show, but it always felt to me at least that Arya’s vacation in Braavos was just kind of George not knowing what to do with her as he built up to the big climactic battle. So if you’re going to use shifting POVs, it’s important to weigh the pros and the cons carefully.