• Is a Novel “Written By” Its Narrator?

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 32 comments


    Discussion questions: My writer friend operates under the premise that any novel he reads is a book written and published by its (fictitious) narrator. What he wants to know is: “Am I really the only one who thinks this shit?” So, is he? What’s your take on novels or stories as being the written product of their narrators?



    As a writing coach I always urge my writers to think hard about their narrator: Who is telling this story; why is he/she telling this story; why is he/she telling this story now.

    One thing I rarely think about, as a writer or as a reader, is how the narrator is telling the story. What the medium is.

    I have a writer friend who operates under the premise that every novel he reads is a book the narrator wrote and published. 

    Just to be clear: He’s not insane. He knows that narrators in fiction are fictitious, and that he’s really reading a book written by an author who has invented a story-telling narrator.

    But his approach is that any novel he reads is a book, a story, written out by the narrator. That Nick Carraway, for example, wrote a book about his friend Gatsby and titled it The Great Gatsby, and now that book is for sale in bookstores all over the world.

    When he first told me about this, I balked at the idea. He asked me why I found it crazy. I couldn’t answer. I still can’t.


    I’ve been working on a novel on and off for five years. Never in that time have I considered that novel to be a book being written by my narrator, or that I’ve wanted it to be considered as such.

    But when I ask myself what the medium is, I have no response.

    And as a reader, it’s not something I ever think about.

    How about you? As a reader, do you approach a novel as if it’s a book written by the narrator? If not, do you think about how the narrator is telling this story? What the circumstances are?

    As a writer, do you approach your fiction as if the final product is meant to be interpreted as a book or story written by your narrator? And if not, do you devote any thought to how your narrator is telling the story?


    My writer friend usually talks about this in relation to first-person narrators. That the first line Nick Carraway wrote in his book begins, “In my younger and more vulnerable years.”

    Last week I asked some follow-up questions about other varieties of narrators. Here are parts of our exchange:

    DD: “I’ve always been curious about your ideas of narrative in fiction. You’ve said that when you’re reading a novel narrated in first-person present tense, you see your narrator as having written a book, and you’re reading that book. What about when the novel is in first-person present tense, what are you reading then? Is it like the narrator is telling a story in real time and someone else is writing it down? Or is it still the narrator writing the book, but he/she is telling the story in present tense for artistic effect? (I can’t imagine you think the narrator is writing the book with one hand while firing a gun with the other.”


    WF: “When a book is written first person present tense, it’s still being written by someone in the same way some people habitually relay anecdotes in the present tense. … So, yeah, as you said, for artistic effect.”


    DD: “And when it’s third-person narration, what are you reading? Is it the narrator writing a book about the characters?”


    WF: “When it’s third person narration, yeah, someone is writing either a made-up story or they’re writing down a story they heard once, or something they witnessed. Am I really the only one who thinks this shit?”


    So that’s my question for y’all this week: Is he the only one who thinks this shit? Let’s talk about it in the comments.


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    WriteByNight writing coach and co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives


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    Hans De Léo

    It’s one thing to “operate under the premise” and another to believe something is real-life fact. (I have noticed a marked increase in the latter in recent years. But that’s a different discussion). As a reader, I don’t look at the novel as having been written and published so much as listening to someone tell me a story. That being said, I find that reading a first-person narration makes the story more real because it is telling the story from the POV of the character, rather than some unnamed third party. The omniscient narration style is more informative in many… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Good to hear from you, Hans. That “different discussion”? I’m afraid I must know more. You mean you’ve noticed that people are reading fiction as if it’s nonfiction? Like they’re confusing a novel for a memoir? For your question about things the narrator doesn’t know at the time: Seems like a mix might be a good approach, right? For anything not meant to be a big reveal, an “Unbeknownst to me at the time” kind of thing should work. And then save the total surprises for when you want the reader to get as walloped by an event as the… Read more »

    Hans De Léo

    By “different discussion” I was referring to how some people have elevated their beliefs, opinions, and suspicions to the level of hard, indisputable facts (nothing related to writing). But back to the subject matter at hand, when reading fiction, I’m not suggesting that the reader does not realize that a first-person narrator is the creation of the author. I am referring to “suspension of disbelief,” which is something a science fiction reader must posses to be fully immersed in the story. When reading fiction, the reader knows the characters, plot, etc., are the creations of the writers imagination. Even so,… Read more »

    David Duhr

    It feels like what Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief” can be applied to both discussions. For some, it may be more like an unwitting suspension of disbelief.

    But yeah, when I really connect with a fictional character, that person almost becomes real. I don’t pick up a phone and think about trying to call them, but I do often think about them as if they exist in our reality. And that’s a cool experience.

    T.W. Day

    I think it depends on the voice. I absolutely believe that Jim Harrison, for example, intended for the reader to imagine the story was being told by the fictional narrator. Elmore Leonard, probably not so much, with some exceptions.

    David Duhr

    Hi T.W. Welcome back! So for Harrison, you think he means for the reader to imagine the story is being *written by* the character, even if it’s not explicitly presented that way? With some fiction it’s obvious — the narrator will specifically say that he/she is writing a book and that you, the reader, are reading that book. I’m interested in how people approach it when the narration is hazier. Seems a mix, so far.

    John Liebling

    Interesting question…

    Early on in my writing process I broke the fourth wall – speaking directly to the reader – I’ve left very little of that – most of that was deleted long ago. My voice, the narrator as David knows is a nine-million-year-old characters describing his adventures when he was a teen. The main character’s name is David Sagacious – and my middle name is David. And Malevolent Time disrupts his time-line…creating alternate scenarios.

    David Duhr

    So the question is, *how* is David telling his story? Is he speaking directly to the reader through the book he’s writing about his experiences? Or is it more vague than that? (Of course, being familiar with the book, I know the answer.)

    Jerry Schwartz

    What a strange and interesting question this is. I never thought about it. To some degree, I think that everything (fiction) I read is written by me. I immerse myself in the story, and I’m a cocreator. If something is told from the first person, then I feel like I’m in the narrator’s head. The line between us dissolves. There are exceptions, of course: sometimes there’s an element of “I can guess something you don’t know.” I suppose that might be a lapse, but it isn’t necessarily a flaw. Consider it a two-heads-are-better-than-one kind of thing. With third person narration,… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Yeah, cheese a tea don’t go well together. Can I hear more about you being co-creator of any fiction you read? Is it because the writer presents the story but you, as reader, fill in the blanks and provide (to yourself) the images?

    Jerry Schwartz

    It’s more like I’m looking over the narrator’s shoulder.

    David Duhr

    “cheese a tea”? Did I make “cheese” a verb there? “Hey, don’t cheese my tea, man.”

    david lemke

    Damn, he’s found us out. Whenever we writers start a new novel we have to call up the narrator and have him, her or it dictate the story to us. We copy it down verbatim. This saves us so much work trying to be creative and having to think and do research. Umm, actually, My first novel was written by the narrator. It is in line to be finished behind at least one other. At the time I was writing the science fiction novel “The Cult Of Devay” I took a writing course with Writer’s Digest and the instructor made me… Read more »

    David Duhr

    I’m glad to hear you’re back at it, my friend. I am too. It’s clicking for the Daves!


    I guess I never really thought about it? but no, not really. Only if they’re written in such a way that it’s implicitly certain the narrator wrote the story. How would you explain a multithreaded multiple character story that follows people’s unspoken feelings and thoughts? A separate narrator couldn’t possibly know those things. Yeah, the more I think about it: that’s weird. :D

    David Duhr

    Haha, yeah. There does seem something off about it, but I’m still curious. I mean, my friend would say, “The narrator is simply retelling (via the written word) this story he/she heard from multiple involved people who related not only the events but also their internal workings.” How would you respond to that?


    No. Just…no. ROFL!! I mean if you can justify that to yourself, go ahead, but thats too meta for me. I’d rather just enjoy the story. :D

    David Duhr

    Yeah, me too. I mean, I can’t imagine my friend sits there repeating to himself “The narrator wrote this book, the narrator wrote this book” while he’s reading. But still, it strikes me as an odd presumption. Doesn’t seem common, but also not unheard of.

    Elissa Malcohn

    Unless I’m reading something in the second person (and sometimes not even then), I as the reader disappear because I am submerged in the story. Exceptions occur when something in the writing (like errors, or something I want to look up) throws me temporarily out of that submersion. I’ve been reading and highly enjoying Martha Wells’s Murderbot Diaries series, which is written mainly in the first person with dips into second (“Yeah, I had a bad feeling about that, too”). The whole conceit of the series is that it’s a diary, written by its narrator, so it fits WF’s premise to a… Read more »

    David Duhr

    I just read a review of that So book in NYRB. Are you digging it?

    I feel like I’m unable to achieve that state of channeling; I always (even if I don’t want to) am aware of myself as writer when I’m working on a character. And so too often I write from a place of “How would I react?” or “What would I say here?” rather than “How would he/she react,” “What would he/she say here?” Naturally, most of my characters end up being even lamer versions of myself.

    Elissa Malcohn

    I finished reading Afterparties yesterday. I think you’d enjoy it. I enjoyed it in a way that is bittersweet, because overlaid on the reading is the fact that So had died so young. His stories (and the way in which they’re connected) grow on me after the fact. Their themes are such that for me, So becomes woven in them posthumously as an overarching spirit. I had learned of him via a piece on NPR, which adds that more of his works will be published. I’ll keep an eye out for them.

    David Duhr
    david lemke

    You need to people watch more, also think what was uncle Harvey thinking when was cutting his fingers off on the table saw. (actual event that happened at least 60 years ago.)Use people to conglomerate or twist for your stories.

    Steve Glick

    Good evening right teenagers. On this weeks discussion I have I have found myself living through the main protagonist of the two novels that I have hang in there has been spots in the novels where the protagonist has made reference is if he is also the writer

    David Duhr

    Aren’t all of your protagonists writers? At least the ones I’ve read, so far. And I recall a lot of book-within-the-book activity.

    (By the way, I’m drinking coffee out of your mug as I write this.)

    Barbara Mealer

    I see the book as being told by the narrator. If the writer has done their job well, you are standing there in the story, in their POV. I knot that it’s written by the author, but the author became that person to tell the story so you can be there with them in the story.

    Not sure that made sense. but If a story doesn’t pull me in until I believe I’m there, they didn’t do their job well.

    David Duhr

    So you see it as specifically being *told*, as in recounted verbally?

    Barbara Mealer

    It ls like a storyteller, telling you a story. They put you in the story with the characters. The narrator is the the storyteller, telling you the story in a what you can can experience it from their POV.


     “A creative person has little power over his own life. He is not free. He is captive and driven by his daimon.” (Jung) So, Matt Daimon would be a good pen name for someone. Maybe that is one thing that could happen, and then if your daimon became too powerful he gets his own name as author of his own books, like Kilgore Trout. I think your friend is correct, and I agree with Barb. Someone other than the author, or a part of the author, or the author’s persona is telling the story; or you might say they’re living… Read more »

    David Duhr

    That’s a good point, that probably all of my friends are insane. But is this one particularly insane? If assuming that what he’s reading is the book written by the (fictitious) narrator increases his enjoyment, I’m all for it. I just thought it was unusual. Which, judging by the responses, it seems to be.


    by the way, is this friend “real” or one of your characters? That might explain it.

    Sid Kemp

    That the narrator is telling the story is one of the ways I look at a work of fiction, but not the only one. I am aware of the frame (or lack of a frame) and I try to get a sense of what the author is doing with that, and how the narrator fits into it. I also pay attention to how the story reaches the reader. I’ll share my thinking using examples. The explicit narrator’s frame: The original Sherlock Holmes stories, narrated, written down, and published by Dr. Watson, sometime to the irritation of the protagonist. I start… Read more »

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