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Memoir Monday: Author, Narrator, Character

When I was in my MFA program taking my first creative nonfiction writing workshop, my professor commented on the difference between the author, the narrator, and the character of a book and then rattled off the difference between the three. “Huh?” I said. And she rattled it off again. “Huh?” I don’t know if she was talking too fast or the concept was just too foreign to me, but because most of us were writing memoirs, I couldn’t get my head around the difference between the three.

In fiction, the difference is much more obvious, but still not always clear. The author, of course, is the person who wrote the book. The narrator is the voice telling the story. Narration is usually told in first or third person, and on occasion, like in Laura Fraser’s An Italian Affair, in second. Third person omniscient narration, like in the books of Jane Austen, is the most reliable. First person narration, like that of Humbert Humbert in one of my all-time favorite books, Lolita, is the least reliable. (This isn’t to say that first person can’t be reliable and third person can’t be unreliable.) Close third narration tells the story from the third-person point of view, but colored by the characters’ personalities. I recently reviewed a book, for example (the review isn’t out yet, so I won’t quote the book here), in which each chapter is told from the point of view—in close third—of a different character. The contrast is stunning. The chapters told from the POV of a young boy are told in his voice, as though he narrated it himself, and they are very very funny. In How Fiction Works, James Wood calls this “free indirect style” in which parts of the narration are “owned” by both the narrator and the character. This is largely achieved by taking the character’s thoughts out of quotations and putting them directly into the narration. Eg: “Joe wondered why he’d worn such a ridiculous shirt. The first time he’d seen Mary in six years, and he had to screw it up.” The narrator is stating that Joe wore a shirt. It’s Joe’s character, coloring the narration, who is qualifying the phrase by telling the reader that the shirt is ridiculous.

In memoir, the distinction between author, narrator, and character is especially tricky. In my case, I’m a 40-year-old woman telling the story of myself at 18. The author is me, at 40. The character is me at 18. And the narrator is whatever I choose it to be. I can tell the story from the voice of a 40 year old, the voice of an 18 year old, or anywhere between. I can tell it from the POV of myself at 30 if I want. Or I can allow the narrative voice to grow with my character. The narrator can start out as an 18 year old and end as a 25 year old. All that matters is that I make that conscious decision ahead of time and stick with it throughout the book. Traditionally, memoirs are told from an older person’s point of view in order to give depth to the story through reflection on past events. This prevents the story from simply being a series of actions. In my case, however, that didn’t work. So I’m telling the story from the POV of an 18-year-old narrator who grows with my character. This makes it a little trickier to comment on the character’s actions, but not impossible.

What about you? Which type of narration are you using in your WIP? Which type of narration do you prefer to read?

18 comments to Memoir Monday: Author, Narrator, Character

  • "In my case, I’m a 40-year-old woman telling the story of myself at 18. The author is me, at 40. The character is me at 18. And the narrator is whatever I choose it to be."

    Actually, that's very clear!

    Great breakdown of the 3. I tend to do either close 3rd or 1st person, and either past or present tense. I don't necessarily have a preference, although I USED to hate first person on principle. (The principle being that I had grown up thinking 3rd person past tense was the best and most common and thus everything else sucked, haha.) Now as a reader I'm open to pretty much anything — as long as it's done well! — and as a writer I like to experiment.

  • my students get the A-N-C roles mixed up. they really think the author is the character is the narrator. ALL the time. memoir or no. I love this whole structure. It comes out of an essay written in the AWP Writer's Chronicle magazine in 2004 (or was it 2005?). i forget who wrote it. it was a good craft lesson.

  • aha! yes Feb 2005 the article's entitled "The Author-Narrator-Character Merge: Why Many First-time Novelists Wind up with Flat, Uninteresting Protagonists" by Frederick Reiken. Perpetual Folly mentions it:

  • and even if you're writing memoir–the author is still not exactly the narrator and character on the page. the character is some rendition of you, the author, in time and condensation…and the narrator is a role that the character is playing, channeling parts of you, the author.

  • […] Writerland » Memoir Monday: Author, Narrator, Character […]

  • Christine, thanks for reminding me about that article. I know I have a copy of it somewhere, but it may take me a while (as in months) to dig up. I'll post a followup when I do, though!

  • Great post, as always! I really like writing in the first person, using my protagonist as the narrator, partially because it really forces me to think about her voice as I write (I can't afford to get lazy and just write "in my own voice" or it starts sounding inauthentic) and partially because I'm striving to have her voice mature over the five books in the series so that you feel like you're growing along with her. It's a great challenge, and I think it's working out well.

  • Out of habit, I write in first person, present tense. I do have a pseudonym, Teresa, that I use sometimes. When I do, I find a freedom even when writing personal essay that I don't allow myself with first person.

  • Jackie – I still haven't read Merger! Looking forward to seeing how your protagonist's voice changes as she grows.

    Linda – great idea to try writing under a pseudonym. I'm so used to writing in first person that the idea of writing in third person is so foreign to me. I should try it sometime!

  • It took me a while to understand the distinctions when I first started writing nonfiction, but they're crucial to helping a writer sort out where she stands in her chronology of events as she tells the story! In the memoir I'm wrestling with, the narrator is speaking from a point not too long in the author's past (about a year?) but narrating events that happened two decades ago (if not more). The really tricky part for me is how to transition between those flashbacks and the narrator in the present (there are two timelines at work, in a way).

  • Hi Meghan, Thanks for dropping by my blog. My current wip is a standalone suspense novel with multiple points of view. Each character's scenes or chapters are in third person limited. It's a fun way to write a novel, especially if the writer successfully gets into each character's head as she moves through the story.

  • Patricia, so great to see you here! I've never written in third person limited, but it's a lot of fun to read. I just started reading Anna Karenina, which is in omniscient third, a style that seems so dated nowadays.

  • Joy

    I write in third person, but I try to stay in the perspective of the character I'm writing, without letting my voice intrude. Haven't gone down the memoir road yet, but it's good to have the information you shared above.

  • Joy – I love your blog! Thanks for stopping by!

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