The Pitfalls of the Non-Protagonist Narrator

I’ve mentioned in the past that I have this subconscious obsession with telling stories through the eyes of a character who isn’t the protagonist. The comment was based on past comments from a friend and realizing what I was doing with a project I was working on at the time of the comment.

But I’ve been reorganizing stories and timelines around New Glory, trying to get myself back on a regular writing schedule. In the time period I’m writing most of New Glory’s stories, there are three journalists and a photojournalist. That’s four characters trained in observing and reporting on what they observe, along with making contextual and editorial comments. Three of those characters are the point-of-view character for their respective stories. I laughed when I saw what I’d done (especially when I realized that I have plans for a story in a different time period that, by its very nature, would benefit from having at least one main character be in a journalism-related profession).

So…definitely a subconscious obsession.

But being compelled to tell stories from this distanced perspective is a challenge. The journalist characters have to wrestle with their responsibility to journalistic ethics and their own personal feelings on what’s going on. The teenager telling us the story of how her sister became a superhero is working through her feelings of loss as she drifts away from her sister, her hatred of her sister’s new status, and her own school and extracurricular issues.

In each case, we’re shown the personal filters through which each of these characters is experiencing the events changing the face of New Glory. Again, it’s a good, safe distance to experience this dangerous time, and the character has a perfectly solid reason for being there without it being bizarrely contrived. Instead, it’s just cliche, bordering on being tropish.

But none of them qualify to be the protagonist, for the most part. There is one set of stories where one of them is both the point-of-view character and the protagonist. The others are all reacting to the protagonist in some way, and that makes for a challenging frame. Readers expect to see a story through the protagonist’s eyes. Writers expect to write through the protagonist’s eyes. There’s a reason this character is the protagonist, and we’ve trained ourselves as storytellers and story consumers to understand and expect certain behaviors from a protagonist.

When we tell the story through someone else’s eyes, we remove readers from the protagonist’s head.Even omniscient narrators can’t really see inside the protagonist’s head when the point-of-view character is someone else. What we can see is the protagonist’s action, and how those actions are interpreted through this other set of eyes that come with their own set of biases, their own worldview. We’re taught this character is a reader stand-in, but this character is an opportunity to analyze the protagonist without resorting to inner monologues and lengthy moments of self-reflection.

So, these narrating non-protagonists have their use. I”m probably abusing the privilege at this point.

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