Definitions of Narrative Personas
- According to Ernest Hemingway, the writer’s job is “to sit in front of the page and bleed”. But it’s not the person in flesh-and-blood who is there in the page, but a persona called the narrator, who steps in for him or her. I’m the one who signs the book for you when it’s published.
- The narrator lives on the page, within and between the words, the images, and the dialogue, and directs the characters, as if they were marionnettes, performing at the end of strings. Although they may share lots of qualities, the narrator is not exactly the writer, even in a memoir. This fact, once the writer acknowledges it, may result in a sense of freedom, benefiting the writing as a result.
- The Character: A main character is called the protagonist. The character’s job is to enthrall the reader and s/he is always integral to the plot. Dialogue spoken by a character will advance the plot and, at its best, utilise or suggest a certain voice that is basic to the meaning and rationale of the text.
The Writer is not the Narrator and the Narrator is not the Writer
So where is the narraTor in this? Concealed behind the writer and the characters, and linked to voice.
A mistake I made for a long time—just up until a few minutes ago, in fact—even though I’d learnt this lesson at university decades ago (Funny that, eh?) is to confuse the Writer (me) with the Narrator (Not exactly me). It’s easy to forget this fact, especially when you change from “Reader” (Perhaps studying books at uni or in a book club) to “Writer”.
This was driven home to me once, long ago, when an author gave a talk and had the listeners eating out of her hand (Sorry for the cliché), laughing our butts off, (another one!) but when I read the book, it was disappointingly dull. (Oh oh, a boring adverb (!), it just crept in, sorry…). I decided, then and there, that she was more of a Speaker than a Writer. I learnt afterwards that she had, indeed, joined the International Speakers’ Circuit. Oh well, good luck to her! I thought… But I, for some unknown reason, wanted to learn how to write well.
“I know I know”, I hear you saying, “but I want to write a memoir. Aren’t I, as the Writer and the Narrator, one and the same thing?” Uh uh, not exactly. That Speaker, I’ll call her “Janie”, was in fact talking about a memoir, telling about her travels as a young woman, while exploring exotic and dangerous countries overseas. She had had these amazing adventures, nothing short of super…how does it go? … supercalifragillisticexpiallidocious? Sorry again, I borrowed that one…. Anyway, she could write correctly, but she failed to get the excitement, the terror, the humour and the colour onto the pages of the book, so evident when she spoke.
So, that’s another thing I’ve learnt: some of us are good at oral/aural (talking and listening), but not so happy about putting written words together to make into a text: a short story, a memoir, or a novel, that engages the Reader.
The Character is not always the Narrator and the Narrator is not always the Character
Yes, OK, some of you might just have the knack from birth or childhood onwards. You wake up one day and you find that you have a Voice that attracts the first publisher or editor, an agent even. But most of us, like me, need to learn the skills, and to go on learning them over a long period of time. It’s like learning any skill and PPP: practice, practice, practice makes perfect. Luck also comes into it, of course.
Once you decide on whether you are writing memoir or fiction, and once you have a certain narrator, character, or plot line in mind, the next thing is to decide on point of view. Of course, whether you are choosing to write a short story or a longer work—such as a novel—will be important, too. And remember: Voice is important too.
Lastly, once you have learnt the rules, then you can throw caution to the wind and experiment with structure.
But of course, if you’re a born writer, you may not need any of this, and you can disregard all of it.