How to Read Fiction Step 5: Narrators and Point of View
Wading into a new fiction, it’s natural to size up the characters and get a bead on the story line. Who’s the central character? What is her problem or goal? Then off we go, following the storyline up and down until we find out how it all comes out in the end.
But before launching out into the plotline, there’s one big question we need to ask first, and keep asking all the way through: who is telling this story, anyway?
Is it someone who is in the story with a limited view of events, or someone outside looking omnisciently down? Is it someone we can trust or someone we must question?
A work of fiction is not just a description of a series of incidents; it is a description of a series of incidents as told by a particular teller. Sometimes a fiction is more about the teller than it is about the events in the storyline itself. Whatever the narrator choice or mode of telling, this important aspect of great fiction is something we don’t want to miss.
In this post I’m going to talk about the many different types of narrators an author could choose when constructing a fiction, and how that artistic choice influences the story that we experience as readers.
Playing with Narrator Perspectives: TV and Film
Narrator perspective is hardly an unfamiliar concept these days because so many television and film scripts are built around it. Often the whole point of a tale is to show how individuals seldom describe events without bias but rather filter events through their own perspectives, often to present themselves in the most favorable light.
Most folks have heard of the awarding-winning 1950 Japanese film Rashomon, famous for doing exactly that. This great film tells the story of a bandit who murders a travelling samurai and rapes his wife. The story is re-told by four narrators, the bandit, the wife, the ghost of the samurai, and finally by a woodcutter who witnessed the incidents. Each tells the story differently as each narrator tries to make him or herself look good while the other characters look bad. The film is a serious look at the difficulty of arriving at justice given that witnesses are unreliable to one degree or another.
In a lighter mode: back in the 90s I enjoyed watching the television show X-Files. I’ve always remembered the “Bad Blood” episode (12th episode of season 5) because of its comic use of narrator perspective. In the episode, Agents Mulder and Scully have to track down an apparent vampire who is killing people in a small town.
In the course of the episode, the tale is told two different ways, once from Agent Mulder’s perspective and once from Agent Scully’s. Their descriptions of events, and especially of the small-town sheriff who figures in the tale, differ quite a lot based on the prejudices and opinions of each. Result? Both comedy and complexity.
Types of Narrators and Point of View in Great Fiction
What film and TV are doing now, great fiction writers did first: to create narrators who filter and shape the story we read or experience. A writer’s choice of narrator controls everything about how a story is told, starting with the POINT OF VIEW from which we can view the story. What are the types of narrators and points of view that writers can choose from?
Most often, fiction writers choose either first person narrators or third person narrators:
A first person narrator speaks from the “I” or “we” perspective. Most often, a first person narrator is a character within the story, usually but not necessarily the central character (protagonist). First person narrators offer only a limited POINT OF VIEW—that is, the writer can portray only events and thoughts accessible to that narrator character. Note that there are some ways around this limitation, though, discussed below.
A third person narrator is not usually a character in the story but merely a voice relating events, describing characters from a “they” perspective. Third person narrators can be neutral, anonymous, and unnoticeable. They can also be very much the opposite, personable and discursive, as if seeking a relationship directly with “dear readers.”
Third person narrators can offer an OMNISCIENT POINT OF VIEW, which means that they know everything about all the characters, both their actions and their thoughts. But third person narrators can also have a LIMITED POINT OF VIEW, relating the story as if showing it like a movie camera would if it were positioned behind or inside the head of a particular character.
The second person narrator, who speaks directly to readers as “you” while making the reader a character within the story, is a rare narrator type. This narrator also has a limited POINT OF VIEW, able to report only the events that can be experienced personally by both narrator and readers as they have become characters within the story.
Questions to Ask About Narrators
Once you know about the different types of narrators writers can choose, it’s fun to do a little analysis of how they used these options to structure their particular tale. When you first wade into a new fictional tale, you can ask yourself what type of narrator it has and how that choice shapes the story.
If the narrator is first person, why would an author want to limit point of view to one or two characters? Why choose that particular character? How would the story be different if told from a different character’s point of view?
If the narrator is third person, is the point of view Omniscient or Limited? If Limited, in what way? Why might an author choose to limit the point of view?
What are characteristics the narrative voice itself? Does the narrator seem to disappear into the tale, or does the writer fashion a prominent, talkative voice for the narrator? If the narrative is in second person, what are the impacts of including the reader into the story as an actual character? Why might a writer choose this narrative method?
How much does this narrator try to directly control readers? Does the narrative voice instruct readers on all aspects of the tale, including how to interpret each character’s thoughts and actions, or does the narrator just report and describe without offering an interpretation, leaving readers to analyze for themselves?
Read on for more discussion and examples of each type of narrator.
First Person Narrators
In many famous works, the whole personality of the fiction derives from the personality of the narrator, so it’s easy to call to mind many famous ones: Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Dickens’s David Copperfield, or Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. These first person narrators are the people we care most about within their own stories. We see their whole story from their perspective and are therefore naturally sympathetic with their aims and struggles.
As savvy reader, it’s interesting to consider why an author might have chosen a particular character rather than another as the first person narrator who would tell the tale. Why Jane instead of Rochester or Helen? Why David instead of Aunt Betsy or Agnes? Why Huck instead of Tom or Jim? How might the story be entirely different if told by another? Often later writers play with the original writer’s choice by re-telling a famous story from a different character’s perspective, as Jean Rhys did when she re-told Jane Eyre’s story through Bertha’s eyes in Wide Sargasso Sea.
Sometimes the first person narrator is not the central character, or protagonist, in the story. Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby is a famous example. Gatsby, and possibly Daisy, are the central figures in the story Nick is telling. It’s especially interesting to think about why Fitzgerald fashioned Nick to be narrator rather than let Gatsby, the central figure, narrate the tale. If Gatsby had told his own story, we might hear the tale of a self-made man who was proud of cutting corners to rise to the top, because he did it all for love, to win Daisy. Nick only partially holds that view, seeing the story as a whole from more complex and shifting perspectives.
Early Novelists and First Person Narrators
First person narrators were uncommon in fiction before the development of realism. For early Realist novelists of the 18th century, First Person probably seemed like the obvious choice to make a fiction seem more real to readers. First person narrators make a fiction seem like a real memoir of actual events–not “once upon a time in a kingdom far away,” but “I, this person, was there and did these things.” Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders are both famous early examples of first person narrators who tell their fictional tales as if they were real people.
Other famous 18th century writers made use of the “epistolary fiction” device. Epistolary Fictions are works told in the form of letters (“epistles”) written by different characters. Famous fictions using this technique include Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, and Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker.
In his Clarissa, Richardson was able to achieve subtle and extensive character portraits of four very different people, Clarissa, a beautiful persecuted lady, Lovelace, her would-be seducer, Anna, Clarissa’s friend, and Belford, Lovelace’s friend, by writing numerous letters from each character’s perspective.
In Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, four characters go on a pleasure journey around Britain and Scotland led by Welsh squire Matthew Bramble. Accompanying him are his unmarried older sister Tabitha, their niece Liddy, their nephew Jemmy, and Tabitha’s maid Winifred.
All four characters write letters to their friends, revealing very different perspectives on the different events in the narrative. For instance, when they visit the big London pleasure garden at Vauxhall, Squire Matthew writes his friend how tacky and frightful the place is, full of kitschy art and annoying, yammering people. His young niece Liddy, on the other hand, writes to her girlfriend about what a magical fairyland the place is, with lanterns, statuary, and beautifully dressed elegant people everywhere.
Clinker was one of Dickens’s favorite works, probably because of the comedy Smollett achieved by juxtaposing the different characters’ views of each event which varied according to their personal preoccupations and capabilities.
Epistolary Fiction didn’t disappear after the 18th Century, though it became less common. Some famous later examples include The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and Dracula by Bram Stoker, both of which rely on letters and diary entries to convey portions of the story. In America, we find the famous short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in which the story of a depressed woman’s breakdown is conveyed by means of diary entries, which are very similar to letters. In the 20th century we find Possession by A. S. Byatt, in which the romance between two famous 19th century poets is revealed through their letters, uncovered by two 20th century scholars who read and interpret them a century later.
Second Person Narrators
A second person narrator uses the word “you” and speaks directly to the reader, therefore making the reader a direct part of the fictional interaction. It’s equivalent to “breaking the fourth wall” in drama or film, when the actors turn directly to the viewer and involve them directly into the action of the film.
Second person seems natural when giving directions or attempting to persuade a reader (“Next you crack the egg and put it in the batter,” or “Now you will experience the comfortable ride of this great automobile”). However, Second Person seems awkward and contrived within a fiction, so few writers in the Western tradition have made use of it.
There are a few exceptions, though, mostly in short fiction rather than in novels. I like Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation,” a short story in which the second person narrator is giving a new employee, who is “you” the reader, a tour of the office, while sharing all kinds of crazy and distorted gossip about the people who work there.
Another use of second person narrators is in video games or “choose your own adventure” books, wherein the reader becomes a character within the story and is allowed to make choices that can send the narrative in different directions.
Although second person narration has produced a few interesting fictions, to me it feels contrived and unnatural. When the reader becomes a character, the reader can influence the shape of the tale by making different choices, which leaves the resulting shape of the narrative somewhat out of the writer’s control.
The result, to me, is seldom a polished work of art but more of a fun imagination game or perhaps a thought experiment. If you know of an exceptional work of fiction employing a second person narrator, I would love to hear about it. Leave a note in the comments!
Third Person Narrators
Anonymous Third Person Narrators
Narrating a story in third person is a very old kind of storytelling indeed, going back to ancient tales older than “Once Upon a Time” itself. Third person narrative voices convey every element of a story for readers, providing details of setting, characters, conflict, plot events, reporting dialogue and any background details readers need to understand what is happening.
J. R. R. Tolkien provides us with a great example of this kind of narrator in The Lord of the Rings. With his charming descriptions and omniscient (all knowing) point of view, this narrator roves all over Middle Earth to stand behind one character after another at different times and places. He can tell readers the inner thoughts of most of them, reserving reports only when needed to produce suspense; he can also tell readers any needed background information, such as the general opinions of a character’s neighbors, as he does here in the opening chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring.
Notice that though the narrative voice is distinctive, Tolkien does not draw the reader’s attention to the narrator, but rather directs attention to the scenes and characters he wants them to imagine:
When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved, but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.
–Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 1.
Here, we can see how Tolkien focuses the reader’s attention less on the narrative voice and more on Mr. Baggins and what his neighbors thought of him.
“Dear Reader”: Non-Disappearing Third Person Narrators
Not all third person readers are so anonymous. Nineteenth century classic fiction is famous for narrators of the “Dear Reader” school—that is, narrators who have characteristics as prominent as any of the characters in the novel. These narrators use their third person privileges to speak directly to readers, offering their opinions not just on characters and events in the story, but also on what they think the readers will think of those characters, or indeed, on any topics that might seem related to the story at all.
These writers seem to be reaching out to readers in friendship, trying to make a direct connection from writer to reader. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that the “friendly” narrator is not the actual writer who speaks to readers in her own voice. The chatty third person narrator is still a fiction, as much of a character creation as any of the other fictional people in the novel. For instance, some of George Eliot’s fictions feature narrators who are male, even though she, the writer (whose real name is Mary Ann Evans), was not.
That said, it’s still true that narrators who speak directly to readers spawn a kind of closeness between reader and writer, a sense that we readers have connected with the actual author. And indeed, I personally get a sense of the writer’s actual character more from these types of narrators than from any other type, and really enjoy reading their works because of that.
George Eliot/Mary Ann Evans (mentioned above) and Anthony Trollope are both famous for using this kind of narrator. Eliot’s narrative voice is that of a wise and earnest friend, who often pauses in the midst of an event or conversation in the story to talk directly to readers about everything that’s going on. She might ask readers to pardon her for too much detail, or to take warning from characters, to gently call readers out for hypocrisy in their likely judgments, or even to consider what readers can learn from the fictional situation.
Eliot’s narrators also tell us all about how other people in fictional town or village feel about the characters and their doings, thus creating a complex picture of whole social networks involving people from all different social classes and walks of life. Trollope does much the same with his narrators, though usually in a lighter tone and more of a focus on making comic observations about characters and what is going on in the tale.
Both Eliot and Trollope assume omniscience as their point of view. To learn more about the work of each of these writers, take a look at these posts below. For yet another type of third person “direct-to-reader” narrator voice, read Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, in which the third person omniscient narrator isn’t just chatty; he can get positively snarky and sardonic.
Controlling Omniscient Narrators
Some writers fashion narrators who exert little noticeable control over readers. They just report on events, describing scenes and characters without explaining or urging readers to interpret or judge them a particular way. But other fictions have narrators that tell readers everything about what to think and feel about the story. In life we usually dislike people who are too controlling, but in art, including written art, control is not always bad.
D. H. Lawrence, for instance, often deploys a controlling and dominant narrative voice to create powerful effects in fiction. His brilliant and moody short story “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” is one good example of an extremely controlling narrator.
Lawrence’s Freudian-esque theory of human personality underlies this tale of two people who fall in love completely against their will. This theory that people are controlled by powerful unconscious forces renders them incapable of explaining any of their thoughts or motivations, because they don’t really understand themselves at all. Thus Lawrence’s all -knowing narrator steps in to do it for them.
His third person omniscient narrator describes the scene, creates the mood, and shares in-depth detail about each character, including their inner psyches, lacing the language with metaphor and poetic diction. The result, as in so much of Lawrence’s writing, is moody, moving, and perceptive, yet still leaving readers a lot to ponder about what love really is.
Third Person Narrators with Limited Point of View
Sometimes fiction writers use third person narration but choose to limit how much that narrator seems to know about characters or events. The narrator’s point of view is limited, perhaps just to one character’s mind, or to one setting or to a specific period of time.
By doing this, the author can more easily create suspense or mystery by keeping readers as much in the dark as most of the characters are. Sometimes limited point of view can draw readers deeper into the story as they struggle to figure out what is going on from the limited information they have. That causes them to think more deeply about characters and themes the author might want to discuss.
In Shirley Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery,” her dispassionate and restrained narrator is limited to a point of view that seems to hover above the town square, where people are ominously gathering on a beautiful June day in a small village to do. . . what? The narrator does not explain.
This narrative voice reports no one’s inner thoughts, no past history, and no subsequent results after the events. It merely reports characters’ actions and speeches when they occur, as if a camera is perched above the gathering, broadcasting to the ether while events proceed. As the story unfolds and actions become clearly more sinister, this calm unemotional narrative voice seems not just mysterious but positively chilling.
Another famous short story with limited point of view is “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway. Like Jackson’s narrator, Hemingway’s narrator reports only a few details of the setting, what the characters do, and what they say. Readers must figure out who the characters might be, and even the topic of conversation (which, though never explicitly mentioned, is the man’s desire for the woman to get and abortion and her resistance).
Austen’s Indirect Discourse
Brilliantly comedic author Jane Austen invented a particular kind of limited third person narration often called “indirect discourse.” Though her narrator speaks in third person, which might suggest to readers that the narrator is omniscient, she might be limiting the narrator to just one character’s thoughts and point of view.
She used indirect discourse to particularly brilliant effect in Emma. For almost the whole first half of the novel, she narrates in third person but restricts her point of view to Emma’s mind without letting the reader know that specifically. Thus first time readers can get fooled into thinking that Emma’s views on everything are correct; but when all her surmises start coming untrue, the little picture as summed up by Emma unravels, and readers must re-think their interpretations of all the events coming before.
Austen’s indirect discourse in Emma is a brilliant comedic device, but also a means of drawing attention to a serious theme: it is so easy for humans to think they have figured everything out, totally unaware that they formed their views filtered through their own prejudices and desires.
Writers might check out this blog post for interesting tips on creating their own third person narrators.
When picking up a new fiction, most readers are inclined to trust their narrators, to take their descriptions of characters, settings, and events as reliable. But what about when they can’t? Enter the Unreliable Narrator.
Except in experimental fiction, Unreliable Narrators are usually First Person narrators. Unreliable Narrators are storytellers whom we learn, as we read, not to trust. As the story unfolds, their judgment of characters proves unsound, or their “memory” of events is skewed, or their interpretation of what is really going on in the story is distorted. Through use of Unreliable Narrators, writers can introduce more complexity to a tale, drawing readers in to figure out the story and to consider the meaning of the narrator’s shifting perspectives.
Creating Suspense with Unreliable Narrators
The simplest function of Unreliable Narrators is to mislead readers or hide information, thus creating more suspense until the writer is ready to spring the surprise information on readers. Famous examples include Mrs. De Winter in Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, in which the first person narrator’s insecurities and naivete draw her to make a lot of incorrect assumptions about the past.
Shirley Jackson’s Merricat in We Have Always Lived in a Castle is another example. Merricat assumes a character of sweet, put-upon innocence, leading readers to believe that her older sister is a murderess. But is she? The Unreliable Narrator device helps Jackson pull off some good suspense.
Inspiring Deeper Thinking with Unreliable Narrators
Sometimes Unreliable Narrators are used thematically, as invitations to think more deeply about the issues being discussed in the tale. Mark Twain’s Huck Finn is used in this way. At first Huck naively repeats people’s racist speeches and beliefs. He tends to accept what people say about themselves along with their judgments about right and wrong, blaming only himself if he can’t quite agree with how others see things.
But even from the novel’s beginning, readers are enticed to see more deeply and judge more harshly than Huck does. As Huck becomes more educated about what is truly evil and what is good in the human heart, readers become educated as well.
Unreliable Narrators and Complex Perspectives
In her masterpiece Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte makes an even more complex statement about how human perspectives distort what they see and remember about the actions of their fellow beings. The strange tale of Catherine and Heathcliff and their progeny reaches readers only through the distorted perspectives of its tellers, as light penetrates wavy old glass.
Faithful family servant Nellie is the primary narrator, but parts of the tale also reach readers through Lockwood, the shallow and misapprehending city visitor, and through long pieces of dialogue from Heathcliff, Cathy, Cathy II, and Isabel.
Even from the first sentences in the novel, readers can pick up that Lockwood is mistaken about pretty much everything he sees. Thus readers have fair warning from Chapter 1 that they will have to assemble pieces of information for themselves as the story proceeds, to interpret the characters or even fully perceive what has happened in the story. Bronte depicts how points of view are always filtered and that truth is always partial, or at least multi-faceted. This idea becomes a major theme of the novel, conveyed primarily through its complex narrative structure.
For writers who want to use unreliable narrators in their work, this blog post might be helpful:
Modernist, Experimental, and Disappearing Narrators
Beginning in the late 19th century and continuing well into the 20th, many writers experimented with the design of their narrators. Some writers pushed the envelope by trying to make narrators disappear entirely, telling stories that didn’t seem to have narrators at all.
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is one example. Technically, her narrative voice seems to be third person omniscient, able to go inside the minds of one character after another or to describe a scene happening on the streets of London outside of anyone’s mind. But the narrator lodges itself so firmly inside the mind of one character at a time, rendering their mental speech each in their own words, that readers almost live the interior experience of each individual character, rather than hear a narrator talk about it.
Woolf’s narrator does not signal when she is jumping from one character’s perspective to another, which confuses some first-time Woolf readers who must catch the signals when the point of view has shifted from Clarissa to Peter to Sally to Septimus or yet another character, following the “stream of consciousness” of each separate thinker.
James Joyce does something similar in Ulysses. Sometimes his narrator is Third Person, expounding upon ideas and events that surround the two main characters of the novel, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. But mostly his narrator is positioned inside the minds of one or the other of these two characters. The narrative voice does play more than Woolf’s does with the style of language, changing styles in almost every chapter. But the overall effect is to give readers a journey inside the daily lives and minds of Leopold and Stephen.
William Faulkner is yet another Modernist writer who experiments with stream of consciousness and disappearing third person narrators. Like Emily Bronte, he was fascinated with the human difficulty of understanding how other people feel and think, given that people’s interior beings are quite different.
Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Absalom Absalom, and As I Lay Dying—indeed, most of his work altogether—employ disappearing Third Person narrators to render the interior speech of successive characters. He takes each character back over the very few events that occur in each of the tales to explore how each character experiences and regards each event, and to uncover how little each character truly understands the other characters.
So Many Kinds of Narrators to Tell a Story!
From First Person narrators who relate their own personal histories, to Third Person narrators who want to be your friend, to narrators who seem to disappear into their stories even while they tell them, the voices who tell amazing stories run the gamut from simple to complex.
What kind of narrators are in your favorite fictions? How does the author’s choice of narrator influence the story you read? How would it be different if told from an alternate point of view, by a different voice entirely? More often than not, every element of a fiction would change if it were told by a different kind of narrator.
The next time you pick up a great classic novel, give some thought to who is telling that story, and why the author might have made that choice. Appreciate the author who artistically chose exactly the right character, the right voice, the right point of view to bring that particular tale most powerfully to you.
Sometimes the whole story boils down to one main factor: who is telling it.
Samuel Richardson and Family painting. Francis Hayman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
George Eliot. 1819 – 22 December 1880), aged 30, by the Swiss artist Alexandre-Louis-François d’Albert-Durade (1804-86). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
D. H. Lawrence . Passport Photo. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Jane Austen. James Andrews / Public Domain.
Daphne Du Maurier. Author unknown, Copyrighted free use, via Wikimedia Commons.
Virginia Woolf, 1927. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.