Fiction-Writing Schizophrenia

The Relationship Between Author, Narrator, and Reader

by Mike Klaassen

To be an effective fiction writer, it helps to be a little schizophrenic. Well, maybe not with the actual psychosis, but it certainly helps to be adept at shifting in and out of four different mindsets. The mindsets I’m referring to are that of the author, the narrator, the point-of-view character, and the reader. This may seem self-evident, but failure to understand and respect these relationships can lead to unwitting, and possibly unfortunate, decisions regarding choices for:

  • Narrator of the story,
  • Person and tense of the narration, and
  • Viewpoint character.  

Fundamentally, the concepts are pretty simple.

  • The author is the creator, doing the brainwork, making decisions, writing.
  • The narrator is the teller of the story, the orator, doing the mouth work, or its in-print equivalent.
  • The point-of-view character is from whose consciousness the reader hears, sees, and feels the story.
  • The reader is not merely the intended audience; he or she is a critical participant, reacting to the presentation.  

This four-headed relationship dates back to the earliest storytellers. Cavemen have been getting a bad rap in TV commercials recently, but fiction writers owe them a lot. Imagine cave dwellers around a campfire recalling their adventures. A caveman’s first story may have been about success at hunting or an escape from disaster. The first time the story was told, it might have been quite factual. But as do most stories in the retelling, it probably entered the realm of fiction as the wooly mammoth got bigger or the saber-tooth tiger got faster.  

Even in this purest form of storytelling, the author was schizophrenic:

  • The caveman was acting as author by deciding which parts of the tale to emphasize and which parts to downplay, or even leave out.
  • Since the story was being communicated orally, the caveman was also the narrator.
  • The caveman’s first stories may have been about himself, from his own perspective, using himself as the point-of-view character.
  • If that first storyteller had any sensitivity at all, he was conscious of his audience, his readers, and how they reacted, not only to the story, but to how he told the story.  

Throughout generations, as the author developed his craft, storytelling became more sophisticated and more complicated. Initially, since the storyteller was obvious (literally onstage at fireside), making no attempt to disguise himself or his voice, he was an obtrusive author. As the caveman aged, he may very well have taken a seat and let a younger person retell the story. At that point, the author became an unobtrusive author. Likewise, since the caveman narrated the story himself at fireside, he was an obtrusive narrator. He was also a self-narrator, not pretending to be anyone but himself. Eventually, he also may have taken on the role of an actor, pretending to be someone else as he told a story, a fictitious narrator. For other stories, the narrator might have attempted to downplay his role as narrator by telling the story through the consciousness of one or more of the characters, thus becoming an unobtrusive narrator.

Initially, the storyteller may have used the first-person point of view to tell stories, either about himself or about others. Over the ages as his language allowed for it, he may have used either past tense or present tense. He could also tell stories about others, using them as characters, maybe even viewpoint characters, using third-person point of view, with either a distant perspective or up close and personal.  

Eventually, the caveman grew tired of telling the same old hunting and survival tales, so he began to make up stories, maybe to explain the wonders around him. Why the sun rose and set daily. The origin and functions of the moon and the stars. Explanations for the weather and the seasons. He may very well have used third-person omniscient to tell those tales: “A long time ago, before the earth existed . . .”  

No doubt, some storytellers worked audience participation into the stories. They may have learned that the audience could be counted on to fill in some of the blanks in the story with certain assumptions and cues. Who knows, maybe cavemen were the first to say: “Resist the urge to explain,” “Show, don’t tell,”  “Avoid repetition,” and “Leave out the boring stuff.”  

Even with the invention of writing, the printing press, and the novel, the basic relationship between author, narrator, character, and reader has remained largely as it did around the caveman’s campfire. The addition of new media with which to tell stories, however, has endowed the author with a greater range of choices, pushing author schizophrenia to new levels. For example, the author may choose to:

  • Be an obtrusive author, an unobtrusive author, or anywhere on a continuum in between:
  • Be an obtrusive narrator, an unobtrusive narrator, or anywhere on a continuum in between;
  • Be a self-narrator, or to create a fictitious narrator;
  • Have the narrator utilize first-person point of view, to tell his own story or someone else’s, or to utilize third-person point of view, for one character or more, on a continuum ranging from the all-seeing omniscient to intimately close to one or more characters; and
  • Present the story in a style that encourages the reader to be actively involved in the story or, alternatively, presenting the story in a manner that keeps the reader at a distance, more observer than participant.  

The fundamentals of author schizophrenia are relatively simple to apply. Let’s face it, even a caveman could do it. But when multiple choices are available in multiple categories, the number of potential combinations skyrockets. Think Rubik’s Cube, where the puzzle pieces can be rearranged in three dimensions.  

Fortunately, novelists don’t have to face all of the variables at one time, at least not for very long. In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass notes that since the invention of the novel, it has been transformed by a progressive narrowing of point of view: from the once-essential author’s voice, to omniscient narration, to objective narration, to first- and third-person narration, and most recently to close third-person narration.

As Maass observes, today’s reader is in search of authentic experience. In the context of the four mindsets, this substantially reduces the obtrusiveness of both the author and the narrator while raising the role of the viewpoint character and participation by the reader. So unless, for whatever reason, the author wishes to push the reader away and reduce his participation, the choices are substantially reduced.   The schizophrenic novelist can approach the four mindsets like tumblers on a multi-wheel combination lock by setting:

  • the author wheel at unobtrusive,
  • the narrator wheel at unobtrusive, self-narration,
  • the point-of-view-character wheel to close third person, and
  • the reader wheel to very involved.  

It’s a winning combination for the reader as well as the author.

For me, this is the default starting combination, only to be strayed from for clear reasons.   That doesn’t mean the author and narrator roles are eliminated, or that the author needs to be less adept at leaping from mind to mind. On the contrary, it means that the author’s discipline and craft are directed toward the challenge of making the author and narrator so unobtrusive that the reader can ignore them and experience the story through the consciousness of the viewpoint character. That’s the equivalent of standing fireside in front of an audience and making yourself disappear. And that’s something a caveman couldn’t do.  

Copyright 2007

Michael John Klaassen

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