The Role of the Narrator

One of the most far-reaching decisions an author must make is how to narrate the story. Or: Who is telling the story to whom under which circumstances?

To be fair, this question is a relatively new one for authors to ponder. In the pre-modern age, authors just grabbed their quills and started writing. But as novels became more sophisticated, technical questions became more explicit and relevant. Narrative voice – the matter of who is talking here, or what is this text we’re reading purporting to be – is a factor at the latest since James Joyce’ Ulysses and all the self-aware post-modern novels that followed. Previously, there had already been a difference between author and narrator. When in a novel by Charles Dickens you, dear reader, are directly addressed, then already there is some sort of discrepancy between the person saying “dear reader” to you and Charley Dickens the man. But this discrepancy didn’t become a popular topic to construct stories around until the twentieth century.

Anyway, while not a traditional archetype, and in many cases not even a participating character, the narrator is never really quite the same entity as the author either.

To begin with the basics, the standard narrator types are:

  • first-person, where usually the protagonist tells his or her own story
  • third-person limited, where a narrator tells a story from one character’s point of view only, meaning that the audience/reader is not told of any events that this character is unaware of
  • third-person omniscient, where the narrator can relate what any of the characters are doing and thinking, and is not limited in what to present to the audience/reader

In film, first person and third-person limited effectively amount to the same thing: the audience gets one person’s perspective on the story per shot or scene (there is also the first-person “point of view” camera angle, but rarely is an entire film presented that way). In prose, first and third person is the difference between “I did this” and “she (or he) did that”. This is a stylistic choice. In the sense of what the narrator knows and tells, there is not necessarily much difference.

Close or Distant

But potentially there is big difference between narrative stance. A narrator who is limited to reporting in third person on only one character can do so “close” or “from a distance”. In the former, the narrator tends to remain neutral, reporting without explicit commentary. The reader is immersed in the mind and experience of the character.

“From a distance” narration is a sort of birds-eye view of the goings on in both space and time, and it may bestow upon the narrator a greater awareness, allowing him or her to comment on or display an attitude towards the character who is trapped in level of plot and interaction with other characters. This style was common in novels of the nineteenth century, and still today most voice-overs by narrators in movies work like this.

The difference between close and from a distance holds for an omniscient narrator too. A close all-seeing and all-knowing narrator can jump to any character at will. If the author decides to allow the narrator to comment, then that narrator takes on a personality of his or her own, and may even be a character in his or her own right, perhaps to the extent of taking part in the action at some point. A famous example of this technique is John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

So, the type of narrator determines the degree of discrepancy of awareness between the narrator and the characters. Furthermore, if the narrator has a personality, then it follows that she has an agenda, her own motivations, and perhaps the desire to manipulate the way the reader feels about the characters or the story. This manipulation may become part of the fiction, so that the author’s intention is that the ideal reader sees through the attempts of the narrator-character to skew the understanding of the audience. Or perhaps the narrator’s memory may simply be faulty. Either way, one speaks of “unreliable narrators” if they are not to be trusted.

The Act of Telling as Fiction

Instead of just writing, many authors picture the situation of the story being told. In the case of a novel, what kind of a text is this supposed to be? Why were these words set onto paper? If there is a definite answer, then there is a narrator figure with some kind of personality and the text becomes part of the fiction. So the author may choose whether to reveal what sort of text it is that the narrator is ostensibly fabricating, i.e. what the reader is reading (or the viewer is watching). A first-person novel may take the form of a certain text type, for example of a journal, which determines the tense the narrator uses and the narrator’s awareness. The text type may be clearly named, as in William Boyd’s Any Human Heart (diary), or it may only be revealed later, as in Nabokov’s Lolita (defence plea).

In a first-person story, the narrator can know more than the character (i.e. him or herself) if the narrator is relating a story with the benefit of hindsight, for example as an old person talking about his or her own youth.

Coding and Decoding

It can be satisfying for the audience, though possibly more because of the thrill of solving a puzzle than through the effects of the story, when an author forces the audience to decode what the narrator tells. For instance by restricting the narrator to reporting only a character’s particular point of view. If the character doesn’t understand what’s going on, and the narrator does not explain it, the audience might get it anyway.

Benjy in The Sound And The Fury watches them hitting, hitting, and it takes the reader a while to figure out that Benjy is watching men play a game of golf, but does not have the words to describe it. Similarly in William Goldings The Inheritors, prehistoric Lok for the first time in his life meets a person from another tribe, who holds out a stick to him that shrinks at both ends. Suddenly the tree next to Lok sprouts a branch. Lok has never seen bow and arrow before, and therefore does not understand that he was just shot at, let alone have the words to describe it. The reader, after a bit of decoding, understands more than the protagonist.

Implicit in all this are the following “people” involved in the act of producing and consuming a story:

  • Author
  • Narrator
  • Ideal Reader/Viewer (who understands everything the author is trying to achieve)
  • Real Reader/Viewer (who may not be paying that much attention …)

Now hear this!

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