Eight Points of View -- The Observer-Narrator13 Jul 2018
If you remember my first post in this series, there are two factors that define point of view.
- Where the story is being told from (inside or outside it)
- How close to the plot that position is
The POVs we discussed last time – first person and limited third – require the writer to take on a role within the story. They write either as the character themselves or as someone close to the character. Same with observer-narrators. On a technical level, third person observer-narrator is virtually identical to limited third, and first person observer-narrator is virtually identical to regular first person.
So why is observer-narrator considered a different POV? The answer rests on that second factor – the character’s position to the plot.
“The narrator is one of the characters, but not the principal character – present, but not a major actor in the events. The difference from first-person [or limited third] narration is that the story is not about the narrator. It’s a story the narrator witnessed and wants to tell us.” – Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft
In other words, the story doesn’t happen to the observer-narrator. The story happens around them.
First Person Observer-Narrator – Garrett Morton
We reached the center of the warehouse, and there we saw the strangest room I’d ever seen. It was dim but I could make out skulls – hundreds of them – lining the walls.
I knew it. I knew Vasco was evil. These skulls must have belonged to his earlier victims. This proves that Vasco is a monster.
I noticed that Dora was frozen. She had her arms crossed tightly. Her eyes were wide. She was seeing what I was seeing, right? But then I remembered what she said about scaring easily, which wasn’t a good thing. “Dora?” I asked.
“Are you alright, Ms. Marcel?” the professor asked. He sounded concerned too.
Dora shook her head and said, “We have to find Dr. Allen. We have to get her out of here now.” It sounded like she didn’t want help. The professor left her alone, so I assumed I should too.
I wanted to get a closer look at those skulls. As I walked along the stacks, I saw that each one had a number carved into its forehead. 331. 573. 646. How many were there?
“Don’t touch those,” I heard a familiar voice say. “Old bones are awfully fragile.”
I turned and saw him – Niles Vasco – the criminal. He was wearing a shirt that was too big for him. It was splattered all over with dark stains. Dried blood was my guess.
He walked into the room and unrolled his sleeves. “Professor Ellar,” he said, “I’m not surprised you’re here. Unfortunately, you’re too late.”
“Where’s Dr. Allen?” Dora shouted. “What did you do to her, you monster?!”
The professor and I stood between her and Vasco. We weren’t going to let him touch her. “I know you are behind the kidnappings, Mr. Vasco,” the professor said. “What I don’t understand is why. What is this place? Why did you bring your victims here?”
I added my own questions. “Why are we too late? And what about these?” The skulls piled up against the walls. “Are they your victims too? Do you keep their bones as some kind of sick trophy?”
Vasco chuckled. Did he think we were funny? “Those people are long dead, kid. I simply gathered them here to witness tonight’s ritual. My victims, as you call them, have an important role to play.”
“What kind of ritual?” Anything that involved skulls had to be bad.
“You’ve seen how divided this town is. How it hides its rotten soul.”
I admit, Vasco did have a point. The people in town were saying really awful things about me and the professor, all because we were strangers. I don’t care what the professor says; I’m glad I set the record straight.
“That ends tonight.”
How? I thought. I started to wonder if Vasco was crazy as well as evil.
Suddenly, the door behind us slammed shut. Metal bars appeared, blocking the door. How it happened, I don’t know. The professor doesn’t believe in magic, and most days, I agree with him. But that night, I wasn’t too sure.
Dora screamed and ran to the door. Two bolts of electricity zapped her so hard that she fell backwards. She didn’t get up.
I called her name. I shook her. She was breathing, but she wasn’t waking up. I heard the professor and Vasco arguing. “Dora, wake up,” I kept saying, but it was no use.
I heard someone walking away. I finally looked up and saw the professor at the far end of the room. Vasco was gone. “Professor?” I asked. I wanted to know what he was doing.
He told me, “Stay with Ms. Marcel. I’ll come back.”
He must have seen where Vasco went and wanted to follow him. Even with Dora out cold, we still had a mystery to solve. “Be careful,” I said.
The professor nodded and left through a door I couldn’t see.
Why would a writer use an observer-narrator? If the protagonist is fated to die, then using an observer-narrator can provide the reader with a constant thread to follow and the opportunity to see how the death effects those left behind. Perhaps the distance the observer-narrator keeps from the plot allows them to see the truth or at least give the reader a wider view of what’s happening.
But the best reason to use an observer-narrator is when you need or want what Christopher Vogler calls an “audience character.”
“Dr. Watson illustrates a useful function for Allies of introducing us to an unfamiliar world. Like Watson, they can ask the questions we would be asking. When the hero is tight-lipped or where it would be awkward and unrealistic for him or her to explain things that are second nature to the hero but very exotic to us, an Ally can do the work of explaining everything as needed. The Ally is sometimes an ‘audience character,’ someone who sees the Special World of the story with fresh eyes as we would do if we were there.” – Vogler, The Writer’s Journey
In short, the observer-narrator (or Ally as Vogler calls them) is free to complement the protagonist’s perspective – to be conveniently ignorant of certain things and see things that the protagonist doesn’t.
In Watson’s case, his role as narrator allows Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to keep Sherlock’s methods and deductions a secret until after the mystery is solved, often in response to the perennial question of “But Holmes, how did you do it?” The fun of reading mysteries is to try and solve it before the characters do. Imagine how much Conan Doyle would have spoil if he wrote these stories from Sherlock’s perspective.
Third Person Observer-Narrator – Garrett Morton
Garrett, the professor, and Dora reached the center of the warehouse. Garrett’s eyes were immediately drawn to the skulls stacked up against the walls. At last, he had found proof that Vasco was a murderer and a monster.
He noticed Dora staring wide-eyed into space, shivering, her arms crossed tightly. He remembered what she said about scaring easily and how it wasn’t a good thing. “Dora?” Garrett asked.
“Are you alright, Ms. Marcel?” the professor asked, concerned.
Dora shook her head. “We have to find Dr. Allen,” she said. “We have to get her out of here now.” The professor left her alone, so Garrett assumed he should too.
Garrett walked along the stacks of skulls and saw numbers carved into each of their foreheads – 331, 573, 646. How many are there? he wondered.
“Don’t touch those,” a familiar voice said. “Old bones are awfully fragile.”
Garrett turned and saw the criminal – Niles Vasco. He was wearing an oversized shirt that was splattered with dark stains. Dried blood was Garrett’s guess.
Vasco walked into the room and unrolled his sleeves as he said, “Professor Ellar, I’m not surprised you’re here. Unfortunately, you’re too late.”
Dora shouted, “Where’s Dr. Allen? What have you done to her, you monster?!”
Garrett and the professor stood between her and the criminal, protecting her. “I know you are behind the kidnappings, Mr. Vasco,” the professor said. “What I don’t understand is why. What is this place? Why did you bring your victims here?”
Garrett added, “Why are we too late? And what about these?” He pointed to the skulls stacked against the walls. “Are they your victims too? Do you keep their bones as some kind of sick trophy?”
Vasco chuckled. He thought this was funny? “Those people are long dead, kid. I simply gathered them here to witness tonight’s ritual. My victims, as you call them, have an important role to play.”
“What kind of ritual?” Garrett knew that anything which involved skulls was bad.
“You’ve seen how divided this town is. How it hides its rotten soul.”
Garrett had to admit that Vasco had a point. The people in town spread some awful rumors about him and the professor, all because they were strangers. Garrett was glad he set the record straight despite what the professor said.
“That ends tonight.”
Garrett wondered how Vasco planned to do that. He also wondered if Vasco was crazy as well as evil.
The door behind them slammed shut. Metal bars appeared, blocking the door. Garrett couldn’t figure out how it happened. The professor doesn’t believe in magic, and most days, neither did Garrett, but that night, he wasn’t so sure.
Dora screamed and ran to the door. Two bolts of electricity zapped her so hard that she fell backwards, unconscious.
Garrett ran to her side. He shook her and called her name. She was breathing, but she didn’t respond. Garrett heard the professor and Vasco arguing. “Dora, wake up,” he kept saying, but it wasn’t helping.
Someone was walking away. Garrett looked up and saw the professor at the far end of the room. Vasco was gone. “Professor?” Garrett asked, curious about what he was doing.
He instructed, “Stay with Ms. Marcel. I’ll come back.”
He must have seen where Vasco went and wanted to follow him. Even though Dora was unconscious, there was still a case to solve. “Be careful,” Garrett said.
The professor nodded and left through a door Garrett couldn’t see.
When writing from an observer-narrator POV, the most important thing to remember is that observer-narrators are people too. Make them interesting, just like your protagonist and antagonist. They are primarily witnesses, but they shouldn’t be inactive. Let them act and speak and influence the plot in minor ways. Leave room in your story for them to have a presence, to show the reader who they are and what they can do.
Now it’s your turn. Remember that scene I asked you to write two versions of last time? I challenge you to write a third version of that same scene from the perspective of an observer-narrator. If your current scene doesn’t have a character that fits this role, write one in. Choose either first or third person. For bonus internet points, write a fourth version using the other grammatical person.
Share your scene, or a link to it, in the comments below. Have you ever used an observer-narrator in your stories? Have you used it without realizing it? Do you think you’ll use it again after trying it out for the writing challenge? Stay tuned for our next post on omniscient third.