Narrator as Hero

by limebirdkate

I am in the midst of copyediting and critiquing a memoir about a middle-aged man who decided to move in with his twenty-seven-year-old son. This author has a background in education and writes a fantastic observational tale of the ordeal of moving from his large, sprawling house in Georgia to his son’s two-bedroom ranch home in New England. He has a strong command of vocabulary, and he is careful to keep his narrative objective as he describes the setting, his new job, his son’s friends.

Despite the interesting factual plot, I have been feeling like something deeper is missing from his narrative. About twenty pages in, I realized what it was. I’m having trouble connecting to the narrator. I don’t know who this man is, or why I should care about his mid-life crisis at all.

The author is our hero in this memoir. The role of the hero is such that the reader is privy to all his thoughts, ideas, dreams. This helps us to relate to the hero much quicker, more easily.

What do we, as the reader, anticipate when a hero invites us to tag alongside him in his crisis? Don’t we want to see him clearly? Hear his rants? Feel his pain or sorrow? Commiserate with his loneliness, financial burdens, bad luck? Understand his motivations? Root him on to his dreams and goals?

When I bring up comments about the lack of inner story throughout the manuscript, the author gets squeamish. He admittedly is resistant to digging down deep and giving more of his outlook on life, or even, his reasons for moving in with his son and writing about it. He is a teacher first and foremost, and for him to write about himself in his narrative is like visiting a foreign country unable to speak the language.

Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree, but I’m afraid that without incorporating himself he is missing a beautiful chance to write a book that will stand out from the stacks. When I read a book, I want to connect with the POV character, and in non-fiction such as his the POV character is the author. I want not only toΒ walk alongside the author as he goes on his daily jaunts, pointing out the various sights of interest, but I want to know what pulls this author forward. I want to know why he’s bothering to share his experience with me, and why should I care?

Outer story might motivate a reader to pick up a book. Inner story is what connects readers to the story and makes them care about what happens from beginning to end. If I want to read his book, it isn’t only because I want to read about a father and son trying to reconnect. It is because I want to read a story that makes a difference to my life in one way or another.


25 Comments to “Narrator as Hero”

  1. Well said! Everything in this post could be said of any book, I suppose, but I think you are right about the genre. Memoirs can easily be put into the category of “boring” because a lot of the time authors think their life is interesting enough without that extra piece of pizzazz, that connection to the author that can only be brought about by digging deep into their inner person, the part of a person that truly defines them, that ultimately makes them truly interesting.

    Perhaps you could suggest writing about his reluctance to write about himself. In a twisted way, that could break the ice.

    • Hi Masquerade!

      Yes, every genre needs this component. And memoirists need to be especially careful that they connect the reader to the protagonist. The weakness of a memoir (to my way of thinking) is that everyone has a story to tell. Everyone has a crisis to write about. Why should I care about the crisis if I don’t care about the hero involved?

      That’s a good idea–to have him write about why he doesn’t like to write about himself. Hmmm. You may be onto something!

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Well I don’t know. I think POV is just one way to raise the stakes. If it’s written in the first person, I can go along with you a bit more. But what about Humbert Humbert in Lolita? I’m not really reading the book because I identify or sympathise with him in any way! A friend of mine’s book The Treachery At Nether Stowey is written almost exclusively in ‘documents’. Some from an imagined government archive, some from reports by agents of the government. It’s about Coleridge and Wordsworth. I think we care about what happens in that particular book because we’re interested in these two talented people and because it is about how government impacts on individuals (something we all confront daily) – and much more. But there is no narrator at all (only the implied author – what we can gather about Matthew Greenwood from how he has arranged his story). It’s still a compelling read. If your friend doesn’t want to reveal much about himself, then confessional memoir/autobiography (that’s what it sounds like he’s doing) may not be the right mode for his story. Perhaps he needs to switch to the third person, up the drama and use a compelling page-turner to comment on the timeless strains and joys of the father-son relationship. Unless he’s DH Lawrence. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound critical. I understand that you find something lacking in the ms but the author has to be comfortable with his content. If he won’t alter that, then there are other options. Or, maybe I’m wrong. Cathy x

    • Hi Cathy,

      Yes, I think the author needs to feel comfortable with his content–to an extent. If he’s too comfortable though, I don’t think the story would be as compelling. As a reader, I’m not as interested in a tale that only skims the surface of conflict. I want to get in deep and get a real sense of what is happening to these people.

      I can certainly imagine what it must be like for a parent to move in with his child, but he’s not writing a guide to better parenting. He’s writing a memoir. And I guess that’s where I stumble in the ms. I expect more out of a memoir than a bland overview of events.

      You bring up an interesting idea–to switch to third-person POV and make it less a memoir and more a drama. Then maybe he’d be more likely to dive into the nitty-gritty of inner story. Because he’s out of the picture.

      Thanks for commenting.

  3. “It is because I want to read a story that makes a difference to my life in one way or another.” I love this line, very well put! The stories that stick to your mind almost like they are a part of you forever are the ultimate best.
    I’ve not read a whole lot of non-fiction, honestly. When I do though there really needs to be an underlying connection with the author, that makes you hurt for them, or laugh with them…whatever they are going through.

    • Hi Laura!

      Absolutely. I will re-read books only if they mean something to me on some level. If it’s just a take-and-bake book, then I won’t enjoy reading it, it won’t resonate with me, and I’ll never think about it again. I guess for some authors that’s okay, but I don’t want to read that stuff.

      I’m not a big non-fiction reader, either. And I have real difficulty connecting to memoir (for reasons listed above as well as other, more opinionated ones). But in general, like you said, if I’m not laughing with the characters or feeling their pain, then I’m not connecting to them. So, what’s the point of reading the tale?

      Thanks for chiming in!

  4. In my opinion; the best non-fiction that I have read is written in the same way as fiction, the adventure story, the kitchen sink drama etc. etc. In relation to this memoir; I don’t see how the author can not address his outlook on life (and how that affects his relations with his son and his son’s friends) or even his reasons for moving in! What is going to make me want to read this? Perhaps if he was writing about his ascent of Everest or the making of his first millions, but, in this book, the whole story is about relationships (I would think).

    The only way to avoid it would be to write it as a sort of treatise on the manners of 27 year old blokes, but even then, his reactions to these things are what would make it live.

    I think that you need to practice tough love πŸ™‚ No more individual comments about particular issues; tell him “this book doesn’t work!” and why.

    Good luck!

    • Hey Dennis,

      I agree. You can’t really write a story about relationships without digging into your own emotional stuff. And while the subject matter is intriguing, there are tons of books out there about this very thing–mid-life crises. What about his book would make me pick it out of a stack? That’s where the hero comes in. If I feel a strong connection to him (positive or negative, mind you. It doesn’t have to be a positive connection), then I am more likely wanting to read his story.

      Ah, tough love. I can do that. I am a mother, after all! πŸ™‚

      Thanks for commenting.

  5. This is so true, and it applies to all forms of narrative, including non-literary ones.

    I got to know someone whose work as a musician I much admired, and it turns out he has gone into making films. I sat down to watch one. The title (“16 Years of Alcohol”) didn’t appeal to me much, but I decided to watch it anyway, because I wanted to support his work. Was I ever glad I did.

    It is absolutely true that a compelling protagonist can make the audience keep reading (or watching) even if the subject or setting of the work is not otherwise interesting to them. When I began watching, I was skeptical – alcoholism runs in my family, and although I myself have managed to avoid it, I had a pretty intolerant view towards alcoholics caused by a lifetime of the damage they’ve done me. You might even call it self-righteous.

    The film’s protagonist is an alcoholic man whose life has been scarred by addiction and violence. I’m a female who has never been addicted to anything and has little patience with self-destructive male antics. So how could I possibly relate to this guy?

    But the story is so well presented that I was drawn in, in spite of myself. Beginning with childhood, it traces a pattern of parental cruelty, violence from peers, the pressure of working-class life, a society built on male dominance and it also shows how he pain and damage caused by these things interfere with the protagonist’s ability to relate to other people and establish loving relationships. He tries and he tries, but every time he seems to establish a foothold, things slide out from under him again. Every time his life falls apart, he is further damaged, but gains a little insight.

    At the end, the viewer is left to wonder whether he will achieve enough insight to straighten himself out before he runs out of time.

    I didn’t realize until it was over how thoroughly I had been absorbed into the experience. I felt the character’s hope, pain and love as if they were my own. That’s what we must do as storytellers, get people to feel with our characters, and to do it we must go deep into the places that hurt.

    I felt bigger inside after watching that. That’s what you want to give your readers: an authentic human experience that expands their awareness and their empathy. You want to leave them feeling bigger inside.

    • Exiled Star: I see that Richard Jobson’s “16 Years of Alcohol” is available on DVD. I think I’m going to have to invest! Oh and I agree with you on admiring his work as a musician too. His years with The Skids coincided with me gaining independence and growing up…

    • Hi Exiled,

      Wow, that sounds absolutely astonishing. That’s the best–when you can connect to a protagonist you have no affinity for initially. There was something there, on a basic human level, that connected you to the protag. That’s what all authors must strive for. This is a perfect example of unappealing content, but engaging, compelling inner story.

      Thanks for bringing this example into the discussion, Exiled!

  6. Yikes, if he’s resistant to digging down deep in his life, writing a compelling memoir is going to be HARD. At least in fiction, we don’t necessarily have to drudge up our own secrets. πŸ˜‰ But I think your argument about narrators and books needing to connect with readers transcends genre. Even if we’re writing about an alien warship just outside of Jupiter’s orbit, readers need to connect with the characters at some level.

  7. Hi Annie,

    Absolutely. Across the board, readers must connect to the hero so that we can be a part of the journey (both outward and inward). Otherwise, they read with a lack of depth and I am not quite so invested in the outcome. I don’t care as much about what happens.

    Thank you so much for chiming in!

  8. Kate, Dennis, and anyone else interested in the film: I’m sure he would be delighted if you got the DVD, and if you like it, he would be pleased to hear so. His Twitter is @richardjobson. He’s a man of few words on Twitter, but does post many interesting pictures. He’s just released a new film called The Somnambulists, about the Iraq war.

    Dennis, I am ashamed to admit that I had never heard of the Skids – I’m a little young for that – but I loved the band he was in after that, The Armoury Show. So sad they only put out a single album. A few months ago I was researching the actual Armory Show – it’s an art fair in New York, for those of you not familiar with the art world – and that reminded me of the band, and that led me to look the band up, and that led me to him. Go see all his movies.

    Oops, I left a “t” off of “the” in my previous post. Thought I proofread it, really I did.

    This was a great post, Kate.

    • Thank you Exiled. I’m glad you enjoyed it! Thank you also for the additional info regarding the DVD. I will also look him up via Twitter.

  9. I feel for this author, as I do for anyone brave enough to write a memoir. That is one reason I have not tried it. It is scary enough putting ourselves out there in a fiction piece where we can disguise ourselves in other characters. However, for the whole story to be told he must find a way to tell the reader at least some of what he really felt. Otherwise the reader, as you stated, will feel like something is missing and will lose interest.

    • Hi Dennis,

      Yes, it is a scary place to be. And he is a wonderful, old soul who is quite unused to putting himself out there. I wish he would see the difference between a review and an exploration of his difficult journey.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  10. Oo, this is such an interesting one. If I was going to give this some tough love, my first response on reading your post was where’s the hook for this story? I don’t mean in a jazzed-up marketing way (although that would need to come at some stage), but I’m not sure why I would want to read this memoir. For me it isn’t enough to for him to say that he did something a little bit unusual and he’s very good at writing about it, because that just isn’t enough to pull me in. I really want to know why he’s sharing this story.

    It’s obviously not working at the moment and sounds as if he’s trying to describe what happened without putting enough of himself into it. So is that the problem – this being a memoir and him wanting to stick with the confines of truth and what actually happened? Should he actually be writing a work of fiction using his experiences as inspiration rather than set plan? Even if he keeps to the memoir would it help to write a short story changing himself to a fictional character so he has the detachment to really draw out what he needs from his ‘character.’

    I would guess there are also elements of trying to protect the other people in his story and maintain their privacy, which he’ll need to find a way of dealing with.

    I guess you’re in a very difficult position with this because it sounds as if he isn’t happy with putting enough of himself into his memoir to offer a rounded protagonist; and if he wanted to be writing a work of fiction he wouldn’t have come to you with a memoir! Good luck and let us know how it goes!

    • Hey Sally,

      I know, I’ve gone round and round with this also. I understand it’s important for him to relate his experience, but why does he want to publish it? What about his story does he think will matter to someone else? Because, from where I stand, that is the only reason to publish anything. How will this be meaningful to someone else?

      It’s funny. I have asked him his thoughts about writing fiction, but he has no interest in “making things up.”

      Ah well, we shall see how it goes. The saving grace is that it is a well-written narrative, so it’s a pleasure to read from that perspective. πŸ™‚

  11. Very interesting post (and comments) to me as I put my memoir together. You’ve all given me something to think about as I formulate my manuscript out of the many stories I’ve shared on my blog. I reveal a great deal about myself in terms of what happened, but have I shared enough about my thoughts, feelings, and motivations along the way?

    Sometimes I think that when I share the story, the reader will be able to understand how I must have felt–if I tell the story just right. I might be making too big of an assumption.

    Thanks so much for sharing your concerns about the memoir you’re reading.

    • Hi Lorna,

      Congratulations on writing a memoir!

      I strongly believe that inner story is a huge part of any story because it is the only way the author can connect the readers to the POV character(s). While you don’t want to shove your feelings/emotions/thoughts down the reader’s throat, a good question to ask yourself is this: Is it possible that someone might feel differently under the same circumstances?

      That might help narrow it down for you when you come to a scene that you’re questioning whether there is enough layering going on to help the reader “get” what you’re thinking or feeling.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  12. I have to keep this advice in mind if/when I ever write my own memoir. It’s far easier to critique others’ work than see your own with a clear eye.

    Just one more thing about the films and I promise to shut up forever: I forgot to mention he has a website where you can buy them directly:
    Shutting up forever commencing now!

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