Thursday, January 8, 2015

Perfecting The Narrator's Voice: When Your Narrator is Telling Their Story

There are many unhealthy behaviours in which I confess I indulge. These include over-eating sugary food, drinking chai lattes to excess, refusing to exercise and writing YA novels with complicated narrative voices.

My current work-in-progress is a contemporary YA novel set in a tiny Irish seaside town which I envision entirely in shades of blue-ish grey. Our narrator is Nina Kelleher - tall, skinny, over-fond of the bass guitar, Patti Smith and Michael from Sixth Year.

At the time of the crucial events of the story, Nina is almost 16. But by the time she is telling us the story, she is a nineteen-year-old undergraduate student who has returned to her small town home for a summer. The first and last chapters are told by Nina at 19, the remainder by Nina at almost 16.

Sounds simple, right? But if the Nina of the opening chapter is 19, surely the Nina narrating the rest of the novel is also 19? In which case, she should have all of the knowledge and perspective of her older self. So is it OK that my narrative, allegedly from the perspective of Younger Nina, is peppered with occasional references to her life as Older Nina ("I know now that BLAH is the case. . .")?

That sound you can hear is me tearing my hair out my its very roots, which is silly of me as I'm getting married soon and will be half-bald in the photos if I let this continue.

Luckily, I have beta readers who save me from myself. One of them suggested delineating Older Nina and Younger Nina more clearly, perhaps by bringing Older Nina's voice into the main narrative more often, but in a clearly structured way. Rather than making the voice more homogenous throughout the book, I think my friendly beta reader was absolutely right - the way to fix this is by making my two conflicting Ninas more different, rather than more similar.

And funnily enough, I recently read a great example of how to do this well - the novel Missing Ellen, by Natasha Mac a'Bhaird. The novel doesn't span a timeline as lengthly as mine does (months rather than years) but the technique is simple and effective. When the narrator is in the present day (post-missing Ellen), her story is in the form of letters written to her friend in a notebook. The appear in a different font, which makes the reading experience more pleasant but isn't really necessary - the shift in voice from addressing her missing friend directly to telling a general story is clear enough.


  1. This reminds me of To Kill A Mockingbird - sometimes the voice is very much young Scout and you see how things go over her head and how her perception is limited due to her age, but older Scout occasionally makes an interjection in a very adult way. The balance is very subtly handled, and it never confuses or jolts the reader out of the story.

  2. This is why I handle things in a third person omnipotent voice as a narrator!

  3. I loved playing with different stages of memory and knowledge while writing The Memory Wars. Though I write in 3rd-person limited most of the time, so it was easier for me to put Nathan's thoughts to one side in favour of his past selves, when needed.


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