Peripheral Narrators: Experimenting with the Narrative Perspective in YA Writing

Craft books and websites typically describe peripheral narration as writing from the point of view of a secondary character. The reasons for employing this technique might include: (a) the main character might die during the course of the story; (b) the character has a secret the author wants to keep from the audience; (c) the events of the story were more significant to the narrator than to the main character; and, (d) the character may be difficult for the reader to relate to as compared with the narrator (See TV Tropes. First Person Peripheral Narrator. )

One of the most famous and oft-cited examples of a peripheral narrator is Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. While Gatsby is clearly the tragic hero of the piece, it is through Nick’s eyes that the reader is invited to experience the tragedy. Nick arguably tells the story for at least three, if not all four, of the reasons identified above: (a) Gatsby dies during the course of the story; (b) Gatsby has a secret – his origins and past with Daisy – that Fitzgerald initially wants to keep from the reader; (c) the events of the story are arguably more significant to Nick than to Gatsby, although that point is debatable; and, (d) it may be much more difficult for readers to identify with Gatsby, the partying pretender, than to Nick, literally the “boy next door.”

Many of today’s young adult novels also play in interesting ways with ideas of a peripheral narrator. While a number of the young adult bestsellers written in this way are not necessarily in speculative fiction genres, there is no reason why writers of speculative fiction cannot also play with different perspectives for narrators for the same reasons as authors of contemporary young adult fiction. The following brief survey of unusual narrator choice in recent young adult fiction gives some ideas that writers of speculative fiction may like to consider for their own stories.

High profile examples of interesting narrator choices in young adult fiction can be found in: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, and The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak.

Thirteen Reasons Why is told in the first person by Clay Jensen. He is deeply affected by what happens to him, and is also ultimately changed by it. But is he the true protagonist, or is he at least in some ways a peripheral narrator recounting the tragedy of Hannah, a classmate who has committed suicide before the story opens?

Two Boys Kissing is narrated in the first person plural by a Greek chorus of deceased AIDS victims. They recount a series of stories about young gay men in the generation following theirs. Turning one of the peripheral narrator paradigms on its head, here the peripheral narrators themselves are dead and are speaking from the grave, while the main characters live.

The Book Thief, on the other hand, is narrated by Death, who does not participate in the story, but rather recounts it with a pretense of a detachment that appears to belie his (or her) true feelings.

In all of these examples, the peripheral narration serves at least one of the functions identified above. Thirteen Reasons Why gives Clay the chance to speak for a character who is not only dead by the end of the story, but at the beginning. Two Boys Kissing enables the narrators to address the multitude of secrets kept by the characters in the stories they tell. The Book Thief is harder to pin down in terms of the rationales for peripheral narration. Death here represents the risk to the main character (Liesel) rather than the fact of her death.

The success of each of these books illustrates the effectiveness of peripheral narration in teen fiction, although each novel plays with the concept in a different and unique way. They evidence that making an unexpected choice of narrator can lead to engaging results and may make your work stand out in the marketplace. Of course, choosing a narrator who works for the story being told is key. Writers of speculative fiction might like to think about which character can best serve the needs of the story as narrator. Playing around with different perspectives while drafting may lead to serendipitous results.