A narrator (or the extremely rarely used female equivalent, narratress) is, within any story (literary work, movie, play, verbal account, etc.), an entity that tells the story to the audience. It is one of three entities responsible for story-telling of any kind. The others are the author and the audience (ususally called the "reader," when referring specifically to literature). The author and the audience both inhabit the real world. It is the author's function to create the universe, people, and events within the story. It is the audience's function to understand and interpret the story. The narrator exists within the world of the story (and only there—although in non-fiction the narrator and the author can share the same persona, since the real world and the world of the story may be the same) and present it in a way the audience can comprehend.
A narrator may tell the story from his own point of view (as a fictive entity) or from the point of view of one of the characters in the story. The act or process of telling the particulars of a story is referred to as narration. Along with exposition, argumentation, and description, narration (broadly defined) is one of four rhetorical modes of discourse. More narrowly defined, narration is the fiction-writing mode whereby the narrator communicates directly to the reader.
The concept of the unreliable narrator (as opposed to "author") became more important with the rise of the novel in the 18th Century. Until the late 1800s, literary criticism as an academic exercise dealt solely with poetry (including epic poems like the Iliad and Paradise Lost, and poetic drama like Shakespeare). Most poems did not have a narrator distinct from the author. But novels, with their immersive fictional worlds, created a problem, especially when the narrator's views differed significantly from that of the author.
Types of narrators
A writer's choice of narrator is crucial for the way a work of fiction is perceived by the reader. All narrators present their story from one of the following perspectives (called narrative modes
): first-person, second-person, or third-person. Generally, a first-person narrator
brings greater focus on the feelings, opinions, and perceptions of a particular character in a story, and on how the character views the world and the views of other characters. If the writer's intention is to get inside the world of a character, then it is a good choice, although a third-person limited-omniscient narrator
is an alternative that doesn't require the writer to reveal all that a first-person character would know. By contrast, a third-person omniscient narrator
gives a panoramic view of the world of the story, looking into many characters and into the broader background of a story. A third-person omniscient narrator can tell feelings of every character. For stories in which the context and the views of many characters are important, a third-person narrator is a better choice. However, a third-person narrator does not need to be an omnipresent guide, but instead may merely be the protagonist referring to himself in the third person.
A writer may choose to let several narrators tell the story from different points of view. Then it is up to the reader to decide which narrator seems most reliable for each part of the story. See for instance the works of Louise Erdrich
. William Faulkner
's As I Lay Dying
is a prime example of the use of multiple narrators. Faulkner employs stream of consciousness by narrating the story from the first person view of multiple characters. Each chapter is devoted to the voice of a single character after whom it is titled.
An unreliable narrator is a force behind the power of first person narratives, and provides the only unbiased clues about the character of the narrator. To some extent all narrators are unreliable, varying in degree from trust-worthy Ishmael in Moby-Dick to the mentally disabled Benjy in The Sound and the Fury and the criminal Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Other notable examples of unreliable narrators include the butler Stevens in The Remains of the Day, Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Verbal Kint in the film The Usual Suspects. One of the most famous examples of an unreliable narrator in American literature is Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. All of Henry James's fiction is based on the narrator's point of view and the limitations of their narrations and the motivation behind what they reveal.
Unreliable narrators aren't limited to fiction. Memoirs, autobiographies and autobiographical fiction have the author as narrator and character. Sometimes the author purposely makes his narrator persona unreliable such as Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries.
Narration as a fiction-writing mode
As do so many words in the English language, narration
has more than one meaning. In its broadest context, narration encompasses all written fiction. More narrowly, narration is the fiction-writing mode whereby the narrator communicates directly to the reader.
Along with exposition
, and description
(broadly defined) is one of four rhetorical modes
of discourse. In the context of rhetorical modes, the purpose of narration is to tell a story or to narrate an event or series of events. Narrative may exist in a variety of forms: biographies, anecdotes, short stories, novels. In this context, all written fiction may be viewed as narration.
Narrowly defined, narration is the fiction-writing mode whereby the narrator is communicating directly to the reader. But if the broad definition of narration includes all written fiction, and the narrow definition is limited merely to that which is directly communicated to the reader, then what comprises the rest of written fiction? The remainder of written fiction would be in the form of any of the other fiction-writing modes. Narration, as a fiction-writing mode, is a matter for discussion among fiction writers and writing coaches.
- "Fiction-Writing Schizophrenia: Juggling the Relationship between Author, Narrator, Character, and Reader"
- Net Author - Reference site for writers
- The Narrator short film