I. What is a Narrator?
A narrator is the person telling the story, and it determines the point of view that the audience will experience. Every work of fiction has one! The narrator can take many forms—it may be a character inside the story (like the protagonist) telling it from his own point of view. It may be a completely neutral observer or witness sharing what he sees and experiences. It may be someone who is outside the story but has access to a character’s or characters’ thoughts and feelings. Or, it may be an all-knowing presence who knows everything about the whole story, its setting, its characters, and even all of its history.
Though technically any type of written work has a narrator (since all information must be told from some point of view), its most important role is in fiction, where the style of narration determines everything about how the story is told, experienced, and understood by readers. This article will focus on that role.
II. Example of a Narrator
Here’s an example of a narrator who is telling the story from his point of view:
I’m going to share a story with you. It’s not an easy one to witness, for it’s about one of the worst things that ever happened to me. Others may tell it differently, but only in my version will you hear the entire truth, because only I know the real devastation of the events that unfolded on the day that changed my life forever.
My name is George, and I’m a professional speed eater. This is about the time I lost the most important hotdog eating contest of my life.
III. Types of Narrators
Authors use several types of narrators, or narrative styles (see Related Terms). Third person and first person are the most common types of narration that authors employ in their writing, but the lesser known second-person narrator also exists!
a. First Person
A first person narrator is a character inside the story. He/she tells the reader what is happening from his/her own point of view, using “I,” “me” and “myself” to tell the story. Often, that means the reader learns the story alongside the narrator as it unfolds, hearing the narrator’s thoughts and feelings and understanding experiences in the way the narrator himself experiences them. One of the most interesting things about a first person narrator is that he or she can actually be someone unreliable—since the audience is experiencing the story as the narrator personally understands it, the point of view is very subjective and opinionated in ways that may not reveal the whole truth or the “full story.”
In addition to fiction, autobiographies use first-person narrative structure because the book is about the author himself.
b. Second person
A second person narrator is fairly unusual. In a second person narrative, the person telling the story uses “you” to describe the main character or narrator. In some cases, that also implies that perhaps the narrator or main character could even be you, the reader. Second person narration is used for “choose your own adventure” books, where you, the reader, have to decide what happens next in the story (i.e. “jump to page 50 if you turn left on the road, or jump to page 70 if you turn right”).
c. Third Person
A third person narrator is not a part of the story, and refers to all of the characters (including the protagonist) using “he” and “she.” Using a third-person narrator gives an author the most options and flexibility in terms of how the story is told. The author may choose to share the thoughts, feelings, and points of view of several characters, instead of just one. As such, the third person is probably the most popular and widely-used style of narration, and there are three main types:
d. Third Person Objective
A third person objective narrator is just a witness to a story. They don’t have knowledge of any of the character’s thoughts or feelings, but are simply reporting on what is happening. It lets the audience form their own opinions based on objective observation.
e. Third Person Subjective
A third person subjective narrator is usually telling the story in a way that reflects at least one, but sometimes multiple characters’ thoughts, feelings and experiences. These things usually influence how the audience feels about the characters and what is going on in the story. It is probably the most popular narrative style.
f. Third Person Omniscient
A third person omniscient character is all-seeing and all-knowing. They are aware of all of the events that have ever happened and all of the people that they ever happened to. This means that they have full knowledge of all events, places, times, and people—this also includes the thoughts and memories of any character. In simple terms, a third person omniscient narrator is “God-like.”
IV. Importance of Narrators
The importance of having a narrator is obvious—without one, we simply couldn’t tell stories! But, more specifically, when it comes to storytelling, point of view is everything, and the narrator provides it to us. As such, narrative style is one of the most crucial elements of writing. An author chooses his narrator based on how he wants the story told, and how the audience is meant to experience it. Thus, everything we understand about a piece of writing is based on the style of narration, so its significance is huge.
V. Examples of Narrators in Pop Culture
Example 1: First Person
Sometimes films and TV shows tell their stories through the point of view of a main character. This usually means that the protagonist is speaking to the audience as they themselves go through the events that are happening on screen. An excellent example of this style is the current series Mr. Robot, where most of the story is told from the point of view of Elliot, a young computer programmer and hacker. Throughout the series, we hear his thoughts and experience things from his point of view. Here’s a clip:
Mr. Robot is particularly unique because Elliot suffers from mental illness and experiences delusions and hallucinations. Since the story is from his perspective, the audience sometimes doesn’t know what is real, and what is only being imagined by Elliot.
Example 2: Third Person
Most movies and television shows are told from a third-person point of view. Most of that time that means having no obvious narrator at all, where the audience is the only outside witness. But sometimes, there’s a third-person narrator who is also watching the story and reports on it, like in this clip from Moonrise Kingdom:
Here, the man reporting appears on screen, but he isn’t actually part of the story. He is just there to fill the audience in on some important information, and provide commentary and extra details as the story unfolds.
Example 3: Mixed Narration
Many television shows will use multiple narrators to tell their stories. This is especially popular in documentaries, reality TV, and mockumentary shows. A popular style is to have an objective, third-person narrator (the person behind the camera), but uses first-person narration by showing the characters’ points of view through onscreen interviews. In this way, it reveals things about the characters and lets you get to know them from two perspectives. Here’s a clip from Parks and Recreation:
Here, we first see Ron Swanson and his toothache from a third person point of view. Then, there’s an interview with him, which reveals the joke he performed and shares his own perspective of what just happened. Many other shows like Modern Family and the The Office work in this style, as does nearly every reality TV show that’s ever been made!
VI. Examples of Narrators in Literature
Example 1: First Person
There have been many great novels and short stories with a first-person narrator. Scott F. Fditzergerald’s classic American novel The Great Gatsby is told from the perspective of Nick Carraway, a man who moves nearby Jay Gatsby. In the novel, we see everything from his point of view and understand it as he understands it. It opens like this:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me[.]
Here, the narrator is referring to something that was told to him, and his opinion about it. This is the function of a first person narrator—we know he will provide his thoughts and observations throughout the story.
Example 2: Second Person
A popular example of modern fiction with a second-person narrator is Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. The author begins right away by letting you know that the book is simultaneously written to and about you. This is a little hard to understand, so here are a few short excerpts:
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.
Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up, or lying flat. Flat on your back, on your side, on your stomach. In an easy chair, on the sofa, in the rocker, the deck chair, on the hassock.
It’s not that you expect anything in particular from this particular book. You’re the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything.
So, then, you noticed in a newspaper that If on a winter’s night a traveler had appeared, the new book by Italo Calvino, who hadn’t published for several years. You went to the bookshop and bought the volume. Good for you.
The book is written as if the author knows you are there and what you are doing, and knows things about you. It is a difficult, unique style to use successfully, and is thus very rare in literature, but Calvino is famous for it.
Example 3: Third Person
As mentioned, the third person is probably the most widely-used form of narration because it gives authors so much stylistic freedom. In the classic novel A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens uses a third-person narrator who many often consider to be Dickens himself. The story is told from a third-person subjective point of view, where the narrator has access to the thoughts of several characters. Here’s the novel’s famous opening:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
As you can see, the narrator is describing the “times” of a certain period in history; the setting in which the story will unfold. He also makes it known that he is a witness to the period and the story by using the words “we,” which tells us that the narrator has personal experience when it comes to what he is telling us about.
VII. Related Terms
There are several related terms that we use to discuss a story’s narrator. They all focus on essentially the same thing but are used in different ways.
A narrative is another name for a story, which needs a narrator to tell it. You would say “the narrative is about so and so and is told in the third person.”
Narration is the method of storytelling and the way in which it is told. You would say “the story uses first-person narration,” for example.
Narrative style is another way to talk about who the narrator is—it’s the style in which the story is told. You would say “the narrative style of this story is the third person.”
In conclusion, the narrator has a defining role in every story. Readers see and understand the story from the point of view of whoever is telling it, and who that is can change everything, from the amount of details we learn, to the level of truth behind the story, to which character we empathize with. Thus, the narrator is a key element of storytelling.