The Maybe-Reliable Narrator

In fiction the narrator is the person or persons who tells the story. This could be a character in the story, or the narrative could come from somebody who is not in the story — a voice that the author chooses to write in. The Fiction Dictionary defines narrator as “the consciousness that tells the story.” Choosing this consciousness is almost always a difficult job for the writer. Often a very, very difficult job.

When a character within the story is the narrator and tells the story from his/her point of view, the reader almost immediately feels great interest in both the story and in the narrator, mainly because the point of view seems so personal. Classic examples of novels with first-person narrators are Great Expectations (Pip is the narrator) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Huck is the narrator). A more modern example is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, whose narrator is 15-year-old Christopher, who is autistic.

Multiple first-person narrators are represented by Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, some of whose chapters are told by Benjy, some by Quentin, and some by Jason, all of them in their own first-person point of view. Thus the reader gets to know three different narrators.  

There is also the first-person plural narrator, as employed by David Levithan in Two Boys Kissing. In this book the narrators are a collective group (thus they speak as “we”) of dead gay men who were victims of AIDS.

Some first-person narrators fall into the category known as “unreliable narrator,” others into the category of “naive” narrator. The naive narrator is usually too young to understand the story she or he is telling, or too inexperienced or perhaps not intelligent enough. 

The unreliable narrator is one who can’t be trusted to tell the story objectively, or perhaps even truthfully. Examples abound in Poe’s short stories (you do not want to trust some of his narrators, such as the one in “The Tell-Tale Heart”). And while the narrator of Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” seems objective, he is not (as the reader eventually learns) a reliable narrator.

A first-person narrator is most often the book’s protagonist, but there are also minor character narrators. Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance is narrated by a minor character, as is Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The Sherlock Holmes stories are narrated by Watson, who is not the main character. 

What a writer might gain by having a minor first-person narrator is the ability to present things about the major characters that they couldn’t present if they themselves were the narrators. Among other things, this includes physical descriptions, as well as any deeds that might seem like bragging if mentioned by the major character. And brilliance: Sherlock Holmes seen by Watson is brilliant beyond belief. Seen from his own point of view, he might not appear so supreme because he would have to share his reasoning with us as he told the story, rather than spring it upon us at the end.

What a writer might lose by having a minor first-person narrator is reader interest. When reading first-person narrator, minor character, I often question why the person telling the story isn’t  more immediately involved in it, isn’t the person who drives the action forward. A minor character narrator puts a certain distance between the reader and the protagonist. 

When a story is told from the third-person point of view, the narrator is a consciousness outside the story, not a character inside the story. Third-person point of view can be omniscient, meaning that the consciousness telling the story knows everything about everybody. Or it can be limited, meaning that the consciousness looks into the mind of only one character, or only a few characters.

Dickens’ Bleak House is an excellent example of the third-person omniscient,  as is Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The omniscient narrator was popular in the 19th century but is much less popular today. Although this narrator technique might feel easy to handle, it’s difficult to master. Bad handling of the omniscient narrator results in what’s called “head-hopping” — the consciousness jumps from the head of one person into the head of another, sometimes in the same paragraph or even the same sentence. 

Modern-day novels that employ third-person limited narrators are the Harry Potter stories and the Harry Bosch novels.

And then there’s the intrusive narrator, which is an omniscient narrator who suddenly — from way out in the universe where he or she is hovering  —  speaks to the reader! As in, “Dear Reader, what do you think of this situation?” 

In previous centuries such addressing of the reader was, if not common, at least not exotic. But I was quite surprised (startled, even) when I began to read Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux and, lo and behold, the omniscient narrator spoke to me. I soon adjusted to this aspect of Despereaux, and I thought DiCamillo handled it very well. Her technique helped give the story a far-away, old-time, fairy-tale kind of atmosphere.

Sometimes the idea for a story comes to a writer without the narrator. That is, the writer sees the characters and events that will become the story, but doesn’t see who is telling the story. When the idea for a story arrives this way, the writer may have great difficulty deciding how to tell the story. First Person? If so, major or minor? reliable or unreliable?  Third person? If so, omniscient or limited? If limited, then limited to how many characters?

Sometimes the decision is so difficult that a writer makes a guess and writes the story, or part of it, with the selected narrator — but then feels that’s not right, so changes to a different narrator. This means rewriting EVERYTHING, because narrators do not experience, see, or feel the same things. So the whole story has to be rewritten, presenting it to the reader through a new consciousness.

In fiction the depth and pervasiveness of the narrator is of great importance to a reader’s enjoyment of and understanding of the story. And that is why choosing a story’s point of view (and thus choosing the narrator) is such a difficult part of writing.

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She’s on First is told in third person limited, from the points of view of four different characters.

4 thoughts on “The Maybe-Reliable Narrator

    • This is a common assumption, Lou, that nonfiction such as my blog is written in third-person. But that’s not the case. The blog is written in first-person, as evidenced by the ninth paragraph, in which I use “I” to refer to me, the writer. So: first person. And first person is never omniscient . . . although I like to think I am.

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