Choosing the right style of narration is critical. We have a tendency to trust the narrator implicitly, usually on the basis of little or no evidence. Can you imagine the change in emphasis if Sauron had given the opening lines to Peter Jackson’s version of Fellowship of the Ring? We might have had a story about how all hobbits are thieving vandals intent only on killing his servants and kicking over his bins.
The style choice is also highly formative. It dictates whose thoughts the reader can hear, whose motivations are visible, and so on. I’ve recently started playing with first-person present-tense narration and it’s completely changed my style of story telling. There’s no foreshadowing permitted, no flash-backs, no external knowledge and the portrayal of other characters as they actually are – rather than as the narrator sees them – is very tricky. (More on that later.)
One of the strangest and most powerful narrators ever written is Helen of Troy in Homer’s Iliad. She doesn’t get much screentime (despite being a pivotal figure in the set-up) but what we do see is, in terms of narrative structure, frankly weird.
“Zeus gives us an evil fate, so we may be subjects for men’s songs in generations yet to come.” (Book VI)
Because she’s a demi-god (born of Zeus and Leda, according to Homer and Euripides), Helen actually has a much clearer view of what’s going on than any other character. She may be inside the story, but she can see beyond it. The divine reason behind the Trojan War was to kill off all the heroes because the world was too fragile for them (and also because Zeus was afraid of Achilles. No, really.), and Helen is the only one who can see that. She alone knows that Achilles’ prophesied fate of a short life with great glory was not just a personal thing, but the fate of all his generation. She can also see through the gods’ disguises when they visit and has a sense of the divine battle going on over the heroic one.
Can you imagine writing a narrator like that in a modern story? Talk about breaking the fourth wall. Off the top of my head, the closest equivalent would be a noir detective.
And now I have an image of Achilles in a mac and hat.