How to Write a Compelling Narrator

The more interesting the story, the better we enjoy the person telling it to us, but an irresistible narrator is a big part of what we like in a story. Here are some key things that contribute to the creation of an unforgettable voice:

1. The compelling narrator is as complicated as any person you know. He or she comes to the scene with the traumas and bright-penny memories that define him, and as this history seeps into the story, it adds richness and depth.

2. The narrator has a particular attitude that makes him both human and interesting. Is he a timid guy? A romantic? An addict? A fool?  A well-articulated persona is a hard to ignore.

3. The narrator has a point of view that remains consistent throughout the story. A consistent voice is easy to follow.

4.  The reader has to relate to the narrator—hate him or love him—for the narrator to be compelling. The narrator can be likeable, or not, and if not, has to arouse some compassion in the reader for hiswarts and flaws.

5.  Finally, a reader must trust his experience with the narrator. The narrator may not know everything about the tale—indeed, the narrator may be quite unreliable—but the reader has been drawn in by the force of his personality, or his charming quirks, or his most-human vulnerabilities . . . Whatever he says, we want to hear it.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo of Bert and Ernie by See-ming Lee 李思明 SML. Photo of women by Tayrawr Fortune.

The Problem with the Spotlight

Some people find the writing life faintly glamorous, which can spark well-meaning curiosity.

But for me, the attention can be crippling.

Steve Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics—which spawned a sequel, movie, radio show, and a full calendar of speaking engagements—also sees a downside. According to an interview with Dubner in

“‘It’s not like I’m even remotely famous compared to ‘real’ fame, [but] I get recognized in public pretty regularly, which has become a little uncomfortably weird. The price of fame is interesting to me. Most everybody seems to think being famous would be cool. It would be cool to have the things fame can bring – power, wealth, access. But the actual being-famous part is a nightmare. Right now I have this teeny sliver of recognizability. It will fade soon, and that’s good.’”

I’m with Dubner. Let me disappear into the wallpaper. It’s where I do my best work.

When I’m the focus of attention, I have to give instead of absorb and observe.  And if I can’t absorb and observe, I won’t have anything to say when it comes time to write.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo by Pak Han Foto and cited by Lucas Krech.


A Thing for Nostalgia

Why did you call your book “Those Days,” I once asked writer Richard Critchfield, known for his narrative description of village life and disappearing times. He shrugged and said that “in those days” was the phrase he heard most in his interviews. It was what people wanted to talk about—the past, who they were, where they were from, and how that time and place was the standard by which all else would be measured.

Many of us feel a connection with past times and even hold a bittersweet longing for what’s gone by. Wander through an antique store and whammo there it is, the thing that speaks to who you once were and where you came from. Milk bottles. A certain fur stole. White leather gloves over the elbow. Oh look, honey. The juice glasses we grew up with, the ones that came from the gas station, or from S&H green stamps, or the washed-out jelly jars.

So what are we writers to take from this near-gravitational pull that some feel toward the yesteryear? How could we use this element to best advantage?

First, we have to make sure that the stuff of the story—the objects, style, mood and mannerisms, turns of phrase and other detail—fits the time period.

Next, we have to make sure that these charming things, carefully researched and lovingly written, serve as setting and are not substituted in all their beautiful glory for the tale. It’s a question of resisting seduction—the poodle skirts, the silver cocktail shakers—and keeping your eye on the story.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo by A Slice of

Prayer—or Plan?

There are those who will dispute this, and they have a point, but mostly I am a proponent of planning your story.

Is it the only way to go?

No. But ambitious projects—if they are to go smoothly from start to “the end”—benefit from planning. The better the plan, the better the project will go.

You can go at it “on a wing and a prayer,” to quote the old World War II idiom, and it can work beautifully, though possibly not efficiently, and there are no guarantees in the open sky.

Why do it?

Efficiency! A good plan will promote better writing and less rewriting.

Doesn’t a plan make things too comfortable?

With all your start-up work—the idea evolved, the plotting, the thinking through themes and characters, the narrative structure, the voices, the research—you’ve resolved your major challenges and have something solid to serve as a guide.

You feel in control. And when you feel in control, you’re probably more willing to take risks, which can lead to more interesting writing. A plan can set you free.

Does the planned approach create a better work?

The plotted story, if all goes well in the writing, has a better chance of being concise and clear—and of being finished in a timely manner.  This is a lot better than being two hundred pages into it and finding that everything you thought you understood about your story has dissolved into a cloud of confusion.

Doesn’t planning stifle creativity?

Of course not. You still have to write the thing, not to mention the plan itself.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo of angel gull by Harald Hoyer.

7 Questions on Memoir

Where should I start?

You could start at the beginning, if you can find it. You could also take a more fool-proof approach and list your significant moments—forks in the road, times of change, the great highs and terrible lows—and start with any of these. Just write the scene. And then write another, and another. You can worry about structure to your life’s story when you get enough pieces in front you.

What should I say?

Say the important things. Leave out the boring bits. Include only enough detail to make your reader understand who you are, where you are, and what’s going on in the scene. And write it in a way that makes him care. Focus on the action: what happened? Tell that, and any repercussions, including how you, The Main Character, felt about it. Call upon your five senses and filter these things in to dress the scene to ignite your reader’s sensibilities.

How do I get started?

Begin to study your subject—you, your environment, family, time in history, culture, key events—and make notes.  Everything that touches this story is worthy of your interest. A story is a shaped thing—shaped from an exquisite culling from your notes.  Powerful stories don’t usually emerge whole, like some fish pulled from a stream.  They are built from pieces.

What’s makes a good memoir?

We readers tend to regard something as “good” when it touches us, or teaches us, or confirms for us what it means to be human. A good memoir is complicated, beautiful, tragic, and messy just like life. A good memoir makes sense of a life and leaves us with something that lingers.

How do I know my story will be interesting to someone else?

If it’s interesting to you, that’s good enough. Your own interest (and hard work) is what will make the story catch fire.

How do I find my structure?

Through your data gathering, note taking, and sketches of scenes (no pressure, just get it down), you will have some pieces that you know you want to tell. Spread them out before you and contemplate the shape of your story. Stories start, build, peak, and fall.  The story of your life works the same. The beginning is critical, so choose it carefully—something riveting and that makes a reader want to know more—and then go from there. If a scene doesn’t move the narrative forward, cut it and keep going.

What do I do about my family?

I believe that there are some things you shouldn’t tell.  After that, just stick to the facts and be as clear and straight as you can manage. Let the facts speak, while you concentrate on the art. Will your family like it? How should I know? But I wouldn’t bet on it. Ernest Hemingway’s family implored him not to send them anything else until he was ready to write something good. Susan Minot’s family took such issue with her version of things, several wrote their own. It’s your story. Tell it as you see it. Be nice. Be fair. Be straight. And you’ll sleep well.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photos by cybertoad.