Just what should a narrator in fiction writing be doing?
Is it possible to both ignore and overuse your narrator at the same time?
As it turns out, it is!
In fiction, your narrator is one of the most important elements to your story. Yet I constantly see it being misused, overused, and abused.
So, let's start by covering what a narrator should be doing in your story: inviting the reader into the story, providing perspective, and filling in any gaps that your characters leave open. A narrator should not be telling the entire story or working harder than your characters.
The Role of your Narrator in Fiction Writing
Inviting the reader into the story.
Readers pick up a fiction novel for different reasons, but many of the most avid readers will tell you they read to experience a different reality than the one in which they live. If done correctly, the reader will experience everything the characters experience. The fear, anxiety, and love that blooms throughout the plot will affect the reader in profound ways. When your protagonist is betrayed, your reader will feel just as betrayed.
This experience is what a reader goes after when they pick up that novel. They want to feel the confusion, the anger, and the love that your characters are feeling — not just be told about them.
Many people don't realize just how important the narrator's point of view is. Whether they are describing events that happened to themselves or happened somewhere else in a galaxy far, far away, the narrator's point of view lets the reader know just how close to the story he or she is. Additionally, the narrator's point of view provides a boundary: whether they know all or know only pieces. Choosing your narrator's point of view and voice early in the writing process can make the difference of a painful editing process later. If the narrator knows something, the reader should know it, too. That's the promise the narrator makes to the reader — to divulge all information
Additionally, readers rely on the narrator to figure out how the world within your novel works: societal norms, right from wrong, ethical values, etc.
Filling in the gaps.
Let's face it, sometimes our characters are ripe little bastards. They keep secrets, fight, and react to things in ways that don't always make sense to us. Enter narrator to fill in the gaps. The narrator is there to make sure that your characters explain to the police why they were speeding, to repeat information when one character is coming onboard, and to let us know that Sally is deathly afraid of dogs.
Essentially, not every character is going to say “Bob, I can't believe you made such a joke about dogs when you know how scared I am of dogs. So I am going to punch you now” right before launching a fist through the air. And in those times when the character doesn't let us know their motivations, the narrator fills us in.
What your narrator should not be doing.
Your narrator should not be used to tell us how a character is feeling. For example, when a character is angry, your narrator is overstepping if he or she has to tell us: Angry over having been denied the win, Chad wanted to shake his fist and scream.
Rather than telling us Chad is angry and wants to shake his fist, have Chad shake his fist: Chad shook his fist in the air and screamed. Now the narrator has backed off enough to allow Chad to show us his anger, and we can feel it. This approach is easier to relate to as a reader.
Your narrator should also not be leaving out the details when they're needed. Sally shot one of her ‘I could kill you' looks back at Chad. Just what is a ‘I could kill you' look? What does that mean? As a reader, I'm not sure how to visualize that.
There are times when your narrator is going to be the sole voice talking to your reader, and there are times when your narrator will need to take a back seat and allow the readers to experience the story for themselves. After all, that's why the reader picked up the book for in the first place: the experience. Not reading about the narrator's experience.