What is the Narrator?

The novel I’ve been working on for five and a half years has gone through one major draft per year. The plot shifts, characters morph, and places gain greater texture. Yet the most drastic change proved to be the way the story is told.

Since this novel was my first large fiction project, a steep learning curve unfolded throughout the process of writing it. When I finished the first draft, I hadn’t considered who was telling the story and how. I wrote the novel from the hip, and the narrator was but an extension of me, the author.

While this may work for many writers when done intentionally, I look back now on that first draft and see how I lacked intention and thus control. The narrator’s voice varied per chapter; the voice—my voice—ranged from academic to lyrical to immature and crass. This is because I didn’t understand the key differences between the narrator and the author.

One way I’ve come to understand the distinctions between the narrator and the writer is to think of the narrator as a what, rather than a who. Even for people writing first person narratives, this conceptualization may help further delineate the narrator from the self, offering a greater sense of control over how the story is told.  

We’re given three basic points of view in choosing our narrative voices: first, second, and third. All three offer nuances.

First can be an “I” or a “we.” It can be a character directly involved in the story, or a character observing the story, also known as a detached narrator.

The “you” in second person could be the reader, a character, the narrator, or the author; the actual narrator, though, may be another character directly involved in the story, an omniscient presence, or the author.  

Third person, in my opinion, is the most complex of the three: the narrative options for third works as a scale, with omniscient being on one end, where the narrator is godlike in its ability to experience everything that happens in the story, regardless of space and time, as well as any thought or emotion the characters have. On the other end of the third person spectrum is a direct observer that experiences the story as it happens in “real” time and place; it can’t see into characters’ minds or hearts. Between these two ends is an array of choices for the degree in which in the narrator is limited, hence limited third person

Essentially, the narrator works as the filter for the story: it’s the set of circumstances, belief systems, knowledge, and lack of knowledge the story is told through. For first person and some second person narratives, the narrator is a who—that is, a character—and yet this character embodies the what—that is, the filter. In some ways, the third person narrative scale can be applied to all three narrative choices. How is the narrator limited, and why?

I don’t think it’s always necessary to answer this question at the beginning of writing a story. Looking back, that first draft I wrote of my book was vital to the novel as it currently stands. I needed to write the story down so I, the author, could understand the story in its entirety. This gave be better control over the ways I chose to limit my narrators.

What happened in future revisions was an elimination of knowledge. I slid the notch on the third person scale from omniscient to limited. The narrator became blended with the key character in each chapter: by and large, the narrative is first person told in third, also known as close or intimate third. I no longer wrote, So-and-so thought, but made thoughts and observations a single narrative thread. With each revision, I seek to remove myself more and more from the story.

The narrative filter paces the plot. What plot points does the narrator reveal to the reader, when, and why? We decide if the narrator tells the story from the present, past, or future. This further limits the knowledge the narrator will have of the story and how the plot is paced.

The filter also affects how the reader experiences the story’s world. What the narrator notices—and doesn’t notice—about his/her/its surroundings shapes the physical and emotional reality of the story’s container. The narrator also creates the tone and style of the story through diction, syntax, and overall attitude; the narrator’s language can be a powerful way to show his/her/its circumstances, knowledge, and belief systems.

Furthermore, and perhaps above all, the filter creates the thematic implications of the story. How the story is told, and why it is told that way, makes writing a form of art. This brings us back to intention. As authors, we control the narrator: we create the filter. Through better understanding our intentions for telling the story, we can use revision to further define the filter and consequentially give the story a more complex subtext.

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