Stepping back from the character

A quick note for this page

The ideas on this page are subtle. If you get confused, hang in there and do your best.

Then, once you've completed the following page, come back and review this page and see if it clicks.

In the previous example, the narrator dived inside the character and more or less reported what they were saying to themselves, almost like a verbatim report.

But if the narrator takes a step back, we start to see an interesting effect.

Look at the highlighted evaluations in this snippet and ask yourself, whose opinion is this?

The crocodile passed him, but not another living thing, not a sound, not a movement; and yet he knew well that sudden death might be at the next tree, or stalking him from behind.

He swore this terrible oath: “Hook or me this time.”

Now he crawled forward like a snake; and again, erect, he darted across a space on which the moonlight played, one finger on his lip and his dagger at the ready. He was frightfully happy.

Peter Pan(1911)

Do you notice how, compared to the previous page, the narrator in this snippet seems a bit more 'stepped back' from Peter? The narrator can see inside him, but isn't necessarily planted inside his stream of consciousness.

Let's look at those phrases and figure out whose opinion is in each one.

"He knew well that sudden death might be at the next tree"

Who judged that death might be sudden? (And at the next tree?) 

Peter did. The narrator tells us that is what Peter thought: "He knew well that sudden death might be at the next tree."

"He swore this terrible oath"

Peter swears an oath: "Hook or me this time." But who decides the oath is terrible?

It's not Peter, it's the narrator. The word 'terrible' expresses the gravity of the oath, but it's the narrator's choice.

That said, would Peter be surprised or disagree with this choice? Probably not!

"He was frightfully happy"

Who decides that Peter is frightfully happy?

It's not Peter. He doesn't say that or think it.

Instead he's crouched in the darkness with his knife, and the narrator tells us that Peter is frightfully happy—a description which captures a particular combination of danger and joy.

We have no reason to believe the narrator is wrong about this; the narrator knows more about Peter than we do. But it's still the narrator's opinion.

In a nutshell, look for "thinking" or "feeling" verbs connected to the evaluation.

  • "He knew that sudden death..."

These indicate the narrator is describing the character's own thoughts and feelings.

Otherwise, "being" verbs or adjectives attached to noun groups indicate the evaluation is likely coming from the narrator's perspective:

  • "He swore this terrible oath..."
  • "He was frightfully happy..."

This rule isn't foolproof, but it's a good start.

In this example. Frederik speculates on the likely impact of his wife's new dress.

Which opinions are Frederick's own thoughts, and which are from the narrator's perspective?

Frederik gazed at his wife's beautiful dress and admired how obvious it would be to all observers just how expensive—how breathtakingly extravagant—was the entire confection.

Van den Hout's wife would beat him with their cook's bucket, and the stupid man would break down into hopeless sobs and admit once and for all that Frederik Jansen was the all-round superior man. He was embarrassingly pleased with himself.

Haha, no! It's sneaky!

The key here is the verb "would" at the start of the snippet: Frederik is speculating, and his thoughts carry over into the second paragraph.

So Frederik is the one judging Theo as stupid.

Which evaluations are Cody's and which are the narrator's?

From the black pool arose a tangled nightmarish thing, with splayed horns, greasy hair, and foglamp eyes, which it cast over the garden, searching.

Cody shrank behind the lawn chair, which offered scant cover.

As the monster climbed out of the pool, Cody crab-walked sideways, not taking her eyes off it, skateboard held in front of her like a shield, working her way towards the side gate. She was mildly terrified.  

No. Maybe because she's too scared!

  1. Imagine your character in the kind of situation they would have an emotional response to.
  2. Describe the scene, use your power as the narrator to judge what is happening. Use a couple of adjectives to evaluate the scene!
  3. Wrap up with a summary evaluation.

Extra credit: "Frightfully happy"

Fright and happiness shouldn't go together, but here they describe a joy at being in danger.

When you write your own varation, maybe you can look for a similar contrasting adjective + noun combo.

Describe a character in a situation, and use your authority as a narrator to describe which aspects are good or bad.

How are you going? Hanging in there?

What we've seen is that it's possible—actually inevitable—for the narrator to have their own opinions about elements of the story.

The snippets on this page have been subtle because the narrator's opinions have lined up well with what we'd expect the characters to think.

But what happens when they disagree?