narrator (fiction and nonfiction)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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The voice of a third-person narrator can be heard in this passage from the first chapter of C.S. Lewis's novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950). (Photo by E. Charbonneau/WireImage for Disney Pictures)

Definition

A narrator is a person or character who tells a story, or a voice fashioned by an author to recount a narrative

Professor Suzanne Keene points out that "the nonfiction narrator is strongly identified with the author, whether a first-person self-narrator in autobiography or a third-person historian or biographer" (Narrative Form, 2015).

An unreliable narrator (used far more often in fiction than in nonfiction) is a first-person narrator whose account of events can't be trusted by the reader.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations

  • "The term 'narrator' can be used in both a broad and a narrow sense. The broad sense is 'one who tells a story,' whether that person is real or imagined; this is the sense given in most dictionary definitions. Literary scholars, however, by 'narrator' often mean a purely imaginative person, a voice emerging from a text to tell a story. . . . Narrators of this kind include omniscient narrators, that is, narrators not only who are imaginary but who exceed normal human capabilities in their knowledge of events."
    (Elspeth Jajdelska, Silent Reading and the Birth of the Narrator. University of Toronto Press, 2007)
     
  • Narrators in Creative Nonfiction
    - "Nonfiction often achieves its momentum not just through narrative--telling the story--but also through the meditative intelligence behind the story, the author as narrator thinking through the implications of the story, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly.

    "This thinking narrator who can infuse a story with shades of ideas is what I miss most in much nonfiction that is otherwise quite compelling--we get only raw story and not the more essayistic, reflective narrator. . . . [I]n telling nonfiction stories we can't as writers know anybody's interior life but our own, so our interior life--our thought process, the connections we make, the questions and doubts raised by the story--must carry the whole intellectual and philosophical burden of the piece."
    (Philip Gerard, "Adventures in Celestial Navigation." In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction, ed. by Lee Gutkind. W.W. Norton, 2005)

    - "Readers of the nonfiction work expect to experience more directly the mind of the author, who will frame the meaning of things for herself and tell the readers. In fiction, the writer can become other people; in nonfiction, she becomes more of herself. In fiction, the reader must step into a believable fictional realm; in nonfiction, the writer speaks intimately, from the heart, directly addressing the reader's sympathies. In fiction, the narrator is generally not the author; in nonfiction--barring special one-off personas as encountered in Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal--the writer and narrator are essentially the same. In fiction, the narrator can lie; the expectation in nonfiction is that the writer won't. There's an assumption that the story is, to as great an extent as possible, true; that the tale and its narrator are reliable."
    (New York Writers Workshop, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. Writer's Digest Books, 2006)
     
  • First Person and Third Person Narrators
    "[S]imple, direct storytelling is so common and habitual that we do it without planning in advance. The narrator (or teller) of such a personal experience is the speaker, the one who was there. . . . The telling is usually subjective, with details and language chosen to express the writer's feelings. . . .

    "When a story isn't your own experience but a recital of someone else's, or of events that are public knowledge, then you proceed differently as narrator. Without expressing opinions, you step back and report, content to stay invisible. Instead of saying, 'I did this; I did that,' you use the third person, he, she, it, or they. . . . Generally, a nonparticipant is objective in setting forth events, unbiased, as accurate and dispassionate as possible."
    (X.J. Kennedy et al., The Bedford Reader. St. Martin's, 2000)

    - First-Person Narrator
    "Once there, beside the ocean, I felt a little frightened. The others didn't know I'd gone. I thought of the violence in the world. People get kidnapped on the beach. A sneaker wave could take me out, and no one would ever know what had happened to me."
    (Jane Kirkpatrick, Homestead: Modern Pioneers Pursuing the Edge of Possibility. WaterBrook Press, 2005)

    - Third-Person Narrator
    "Lucy felt a little frightened, but she felt very inquisitive and excited as well. She looked back over her shoulder and there, between the dark tree-trunks, she could still see the open doorway of the wardrobe and even catch a glimpse of the empty room from which she had set out."
    (C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 1950)
     
  • Narrators and Readers
    "It is well known that in linguistic communication I and you are absolutely presupposed one by the other; likewise, there can be no story without a narrator and without an audience (or reader)."
    (Roland Barthes, "An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative," 1966)

Pronunciation: nah-RAY-ter