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I'm Kate Risheill. Welcome to my blog on writing.

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story: Narrative Point of View

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The narrative point of view that an author chooses shapes how the story is told and how the readers understand it. Donald Maass, in his book Writing the Breakout Novel, discusses how your choice of narrator impacts the telling of your story. In particular, that your decision should be "... a pairing not of narrator and protagonist, but of narrator and theme. Who is in a position to learn the most from the events of the story?" 

Maass gives the example of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, which is an example I would like to examine further. What benefit do we get from filtering the story through Nick Carraway instead of telling it directly from Gatsby's point of view? To my mind, Gatsby is the performance of a constructed persona and we the readers view this performance through the eyes of another outsider, Carraway. Carraway is from the Midwest, an outsider to the heightened, and often superficial, world of New York. Using Carraway as his narrator allows Fitzgerald to comment on Gatsby, New York society, and the American Dream without having to force it into some sermonizing monologue. 

There are plenty of other examples to be found, but the takeaway is that writers should think about what point of view (or multiple points of view) they would like to utilize in the telling of their story. The most obvious choice, that of the protagonist, may not actually be the best choice for your story. That said, not all stories need a single defined narrator. Multiple points of view can enrich a story, as they do in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, but they also can be distracting. 

If you have listened to Hamilton at any point, the phrase "Who lives, who dies, who tells your story," will be familiar to you. It is something that I find myself coming back to as I contemplate how viewpoints affect story. We've all heard that history is written by the victors, but I think it is more accurate to say that history is written by the socially dominant group. Marginalized voices throughout history, such as women and people of color, are largely excluded from much of our telling of history. It isn't just that we didn't care about their stories, it is that many of their stories have been lost. Our view of history is shaped by the records that have been left behind: letters, court documents, business documents, and published work, most of which was authored by white men. To bring this back around to Hamilton, the vision we have of him is the result of his business documents, his published works, his letters, and the efforts his wife Eliza made to preserve Hamilton's legacy. Eliza consciously shaped our view of Hamilton, burning many of his letters to her, affecting what has passed into the historical record.

Even when a story is fictional and not historical, it is important to consider who is telling your story. What are their motives? How do they interact with the events of the story? What perspective do they bring to the themes of your work? In life, it is true that "You have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story." However, as writers, we do get to decide who tells our story and how they tell it.  

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