Narrative Theory: A Brief Introduction

Chapter 7: The Narrator


7.1 Is The Narrator Necessary?


The narrator appears to be necessary for all narratives that use language.  However, it can be argued that it may not be necessary in narratives which are not encoded in language, and which depend on the visual element. For example, film and drama may not have a narrator, at least as the term is understood in prose fiction (but see the section below for a counter-argument; see also sections 23-4 below).  It has also been argued by Chatman (1978: 152) that the narrator is an optional element of all narratives; he even regards the narrator as not existing in certain types of narratives which use language, such as written records and soliloquys.


7.2 The Narrator is Not the Author


The narrator is not the author. However, we may face a problem with autobiographies, as the author in an autobiography may very well be equivalent to the narrator.  But even for autobiographies, it can be argued that the author usually tries to project himself or herself as someone quite different from what he or she actually is, in which case the distinction between the author and narrator remains valid. In autobiographies, the narrator is the author's projection of himself in the work, and is not always equivalent to the real flesh-and-blood author.

In this regard, the underlying problem may of course not be directly connected with autobiography itself as a genre, but in the distinction between fiction and non-fiction; while it is easy to postulate -- with reference to third-person narratives -- a narrator which is merely a technical device used to tell the story, it is more difficult to postulate such a device for a non-fictional work, as everything or everyone in such a work must exist within the real world, or at least must at least have an appeal to existing beings within the real world.


7.3 First- and Third-Person Narrators


Traditionally, narrators in prose fiction are classified in terms of two broad divisions: first- and third-person narrators

Narrative person refers to whether the narrator is within or outside the world of the story:

The first-person narrator is within, whereas the third-person narrator is outside the world of the story.

The terms first- and third-person narrators in narrative analysis should not, strictly speaking, be viewed in relation to the first- and third-person pronouns in language.  The comparison of such terms in narrative analysis with corresponding features in language may create problems, although it may sometimes be helpful if one is not too rigid in one's comparison (see section 4 below).

The concept of narrative person is not a grammatical one, but refers to whether the narrator is within or outside the world of the story: the first-person narrator is within, whereas the third-person narrator is outside the world of the story.

Strictly speaking, one should use the pronoun ‘it’ for the third-person narrator, as the third-person narrator is not a personage within the world of the story, unlike the first-person narrator, in relation to whom ‘he’ or ‘she’ can be used.


7.4 Grammatical and Narrative Persons


The lack of correspondence between grammatical and narrative persons may result in the third-person narrator using the first person pronoun to refer to itself, and (less frequently) the first-person narrator using the third person pronoun to refer to himself or herself.  The use of the first-person pronoun by the third-person narrator is in fact quite common; in this regard, we may mention here that the complete suppression of the narratorial use of "I" is called figural narration by Stanzel (cited by Martin, 1986: 133).

Due to the lack of correspondence between narrative and pronominal persons, the second-person narrator is not frequently found, especially when one looks at prose narratives.  The use of the second person pronoun by the narrator to refer to the other person who is (usually a hypothetical) character in the story, does not necessarily entail that we have a second person narrative.  It may still be defined in terms of first-person and third-person narratives, as the question is really whether the narrator is within or outside the world of the story. Arguably however, some interactive narratives, where readers or players are involved in the world of the narrative while still not actually belonging to it, such as in some interactive electronic fiction, can be described as second-person narratives (for other possibilities, see Fludernik, 1994).


7.5 Narrators: The Traditional Scheme


According to one scheme in the traditional approach, there are five main types of narrators:


●  first person - actional participant (a): the main character tells his own story; eg. Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn

●  first person - observer (b): the story is told by an observer-participant (who may be a minor character); eg. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby


●  third person - objective (a): the observer is 'objective', in the sense that no direct account of what it thinks or perceives is given; instead of the objective third-person narrator, this type of narrator is sometimes called, quite simply, the objective narrator; a frequently cited example here is Ernest Hemingway's short story, ‘Hills Like White Elephants’

●  third person - omniscient (b): the omniscient or omniscient third-person narrator can move from place to place and backwards and forwards in time, and does not merely concentrate on the consciousness of one character; this type of narrator is usually associated with the novel, and can be found, among numerous other examples, in novels such as Jane Austen's Emma and George Eliot's Middlemarch.

●  third person - limited (c): the limited omniscient or limited third-person narrator has some of the abilities of an omniscient narrator, but limits its focus, in relation to external description and to the revelation of consciousness, to only one character; this type of narrator is commonly found in the short story, as there is less room to explore the consciousness of other characters in this genre, but is also associated with the novels of Henry James and other long narratives.


7.6 First-Person Narrators: Distinctive Features


There are some distinctive features of first-person narrators, some of which make them different from those associated with third-person narrators.

One difference from the third-person narrator, is the enhancement in the immediacy and in the sense of reality of the story when the first-person narrator is used.  Unlike a story told by the omniscient or limited third-person narrator, there does seem to be less opportunity for the direct interpretation by the author of the events in the story in a first-person narrative.  This may be viewed either as an advantage or disadvantage over the two other types of narrative.  One advantage is that this does not allow the author to present his/her ideological perspective too strongly, thus preventing the story from being too dogmatic.  The ideology presented is that of the narrator, and not directly the author's.  But the lack of a clear authorial viewpoint in this type of narrative may make the story lose its sense of coherence or purpose. The first-person narrator may also face the problem of the character going beyond the sensitivity, knowledge, or the powers of language which have already been ascribed to him or her by the author.

A first-person narrative, when compared to the third-person narrative, is usually better for the study of blunted human perceptivity, as the narrator does not know (or is incapable of knowing) the full import of the events reported, but which the reader has a better knowledge of.  As such, the first-person narrator usually views himself as good, or at least, as behaving correctly, and doing the best under the circumstances.  But this is how the first-person narrator usually likes to picture himself or herself to be, and not what he or she actually is.  The first-person narrator may be unreliable (see section 10): in fact s/he usually is, as he or she is supposed to be a human being (and hence fallible), and not, like the third-person narrator, merely a technical device.


7.7 The Omniscient Narrator


An omniscient narrative is the most flexible of all narrative viewpoints, as it has the widest scope. It is also widely used in the novel. However, this point of view can destroy the illusion of reality, as no one can go from one place to another, and to read people's minds whenever the story demands it.


7.8 The Limited Omniscient Narrator


The limited omniscient narrator places the focus on a single character, sometimes showing more knowledge of the character than the character himself or herself.  As noted earlier, this point of view is commonly found in short stories, for the simple technical reason that there is not much breadth in the short story to allow the author to explore other consciousnesses. It was also noted that it was associated with the novels of Henry James.

Although figural narration (see section 4) is clearly a feature of the objective third-person narration, it is is also associated, to some extent, with the limited third-person narrator, as it generally uses the pronoun ‘I’ to refer to itself less frequently than the omniscient third-person narrator .


7.9 The Objective Point of View


In the objective point of view (or dramatic point of view), the narrator is like a roving sound camera and reports only what is seen and heard.  It cannot comment, interpret or enter the characters' minds.  The reader here is like a spectator at a movie.  The objective point of view forces the reader to make an interpretation of the events of the story, as the author does not explain or interpret.  As a consequence, the story may lack coherence and becomes as inchoate as real life itself.

The objective point of view is heavily reliant on external action and dialogue. It may have the most speed and the most action when compared to the other points-of-view. However, one consequence of this is that the narrative may become superficial and may lack psychological depth.  The idea of scene, where story time is equal to discourse time (see chapter 3 section 4 and chapter 5 section 10), is commonly associated with the objective point of view.

The objective point of view has severe limitations, as no story is purely ‘objective’. The strife for objectivity may also be pointless, and may result in the story lacking in meaningfulness. This point of view is also difficult to sustain, and works best, if it works at all, in short stories. In this regard, it has been noted, in a response to Hemingway's ‘Hills Like White Elephants’, that it may be ‘great for a short story or play but lousy for a novel’.


7.10 Narrative Reliability


It has been claimed that the concept of reliability, which  gives rise to the concept of the unreliable narrator in literary criticism, may be applicable only to the first-person narrator, and not to the third- person narrator (see Martin 1986 141). This is arguable.  The third-person narrator of Washington Irving's ‘Rip van Winkle’, for example, is arguably unreliable. However, even if we disagree with this, or are not entirely sure about it, we can say that as far as the truth of observation statements is concerned, the omniscient narrator is, in relative terms, usually more reliable than the first-person.


7.11 Narrative Intrusiveness


The idea of the intrusiveness or obtrusiveness of the narrator is usually applied to the third-person narrator, unless one deals with what can be described as the extradiegetic first-person narrator (see section 15 below), or with a first-person narrator with supernatural powers.  However, there is a difference in the degree of intrusiveness between the three types of third-person narrators: the objective narrator of course, is the least intrusive, while the omniscient narrator the most.

Intrusiveness is not always negative nor is it always associated with traditional narratives. It may make the narrative more coherent by linking all the narrative strands together, or it may serve a comic/ironic function, especially when the narrator reveals certain enigmatic features of a character at strategic points in a story.  The intrusive narrator can be found, for example, in many eighteenth-century novels including the novels of Henry Fielding, as well as in more ‘experimental’ novels, such as in The French Lieutenant's Woman by the twentieth-century author John Fowles. In the words of Margaret Drabble, who uses the intrusive narrator herself in her novels, ‘the narrator is part of the story and can intervene whenever he or she wants’.

The supposed disadvantages of intrusiveness must be measured against the problems created when the narrator fails to comment or give a perspective of any kind.  The objective narrator's almost total lack of intrusiveness for example, must be measured against one of the weaknesses of objective narration itself: the tendency to leave us with no focus whatsoever, or with no guidelines at all on how to interpret certain events.  The argument for this lack of focus or interpretive guidelines is that a story will be more ‘subtle’ without them.  But the so-called ‘subtlety’ may be dependent on cultural factors, which means that people who do not belong to the same culture are incapable of appreciating it.


7.12 Suspense and Point of View


Suspense may be created by the narrator’s ignorance of certain ‘future’ events in a story or by the narrator's refusal to reveal these events in advance, even when he/she/it has prior knowledge of these events.  In both cases, the narrator's inability or refusal to reveal information prior to its occurrence in narrative discourse is tied to the consideration that a better story can be told by not revealing too much earlier.


7.13 Point of View and Focalization


It has been noted that the English term point of view is ambiguous.  In addition to the meaning of the term in non-specialised language, it does not, in its more specialised literary usage, strictly refer only to the narrator's perspective, but also to the perspective of the speaker, or teller of the story (i.e., that it includes both the elements of seeing and saying).  For these reasons, some scholars have preferred the term focalization introduced by Genette in relation to perspective.

Focalization is used instead of perspective because the latter word is more associated with the viewing of physical objects, whereas such an association is less evident in relation to the word focalization, which is more easily associated with the focus on non-perceptible entities (e.g. thoughts).  However, this term can be criticised for the same reason: for example, the use of the term focal length in photography, which refers to the viewing of the physical and not the psychological realm.

The subject of focalization (i.e. the one who focalises), is called the focalizer.

In Genette’s terms,

●  character-bound focalization is called internal focalization, whereas

●  non-character-bound focalization is called external focalization:

Another way to formulate this is to say

●  that the focalization of the first-person narrator is internal, whereas

●  that of the third-person narrator

♦  may be internal (in some stretches of an omniscient or limited third person narrative) or

♦  external (almost invariably the case in an objective third-person narrative).


Table 7.1: Internal and External Focalization

internal focalization

■     first-person narrative


■     some stretches of ominiscient and limited omniscient narratives

external focalization

■     objective third-person narrative


■     some stretches of ominiscient and limited omniscient narratives


Focalization not only concerns the distinction between internal and external, but is also a matter of degree. Genette uses the term zero focalisation for the God-like knowledge of the omniscient third-person narrator. What is seen and known by the omniscient narrator has the appearance of being completely transparent without the apparent intervention of a focaliser, whether it be the character or narrator.


7.14 Alternative Terms to First- and Third-Person Narrators: Bal


Some scholars have avoided the traditional terms first-person and third-person narrators.

Bal for example, prefers the terms

●   external narrator, for a narrator which never explicitly refers to itself as a character (instead of third-person narrator) and

●   character-bound narrator for a narrator who does (instead of first-person narrator).


Table 7.2: Bal’s Alternative Terms

Conventional Terms Bal's Terms Definitions of Bal's Terms
third-person narrator

external narrator

a narrator which never explicitly refers to itself as a character and

first-person narrator

character-bound narrator

a narrator who explicitly refers to himself or herself as a character


7.15 Alternative Terms to First- and Third-Person Narrators: Genette


The more famous alternatives to the terms first- and third-person narrators are those of Genette.

Genette uses the following terms:

●   homodiegetic for a story in which the narrator is present in the story he tells, and

●   heterodiegetic

Genette also uses the terms

●  extradiegetic for a narrative in which the narrator is superior, in the sense of being at least one level higher than the story itself (the narrative ‘now’ is outside the story), and hence having a good or virtually omniscient knowledge of the story he tells; and

●  intradiegetic for one in which the narrator is at the same level as the story itself (the narrative ‘now’, although occurring towards the end, is still technically within the world of the story); the intradiegetic narrator's knowledge is limited, as it is bound to the knowledge limitations of a particular character.


<Table 7.3: Genette’s Narrators




a story in which the narrator is present in the story he narrates


a story in which the narrator is absent from the story he narrates


narrative in which the narrator is superior, in the sense of being at least one level higher than the story world, and hence has a good or virtually complete knowledge of the story he narrates; and


narrative in which the narrator is immersed within the same level as that of the story world, and has limited or incomplete knowledge of the story he narrates.


7.16 Does Genette Make the Terms First- and Third-Person Narrators Unnecessary?


In spite of Genette's criticism of the terms first- and third-person narratives, and his introduction of new terms, the more traditional terms do seem to be still operable (at least in the way they have been defined here), and in fact, they may be able to further refine Genette's concepts. For example, both the first-person homodiegetic and first-person heterodiegetic narratives are possible; the same can be said about the terms first-person heterodiegetic and third-person heterodiegetic.

If a homodiegetic narrative is one in which the narrator is present in the story he tells, a first-person narrative is also one in which the narrator is present in the world of the story.  There is a difference here.  A personage who is present in the world of the story (first-person narrator) can either be present or absent in the story itself (i.e. can either be homodiegetic or heterodiegetic).  In other words, if a first-person narrator is not a character in the story and is outside the story proper, then he or she is a heterodiegetic first-person narrator.  If a first-person narrator is a character (whether minor or major) within the story, then he or she is a homodiegetic first-person narrator.  The latter – the homodiegetic first-person narrator – is more commonly found.  A heterodiegetic first-person narrator may receive information on the story from a secondary source, but is not actually part of it (unless, of course, there is a sub- or outer plot in which he is involved, in which case he should be regarded as homodiegetic).  Alhough a heterodiegetic first-person narrator may be found, a heterodiegetic narrator is more commonly a third-person narrator.


Table 7.4: Intermingling of First/Third Persons & Homo-/Heterodiegetic

first-person narrator

either homodiegetic or heterodiegetic

heterodiegetic narrator

either first-person or third-person


7.17 Levels of Narration


There are several levels or layers of narration. The following illustration will lead us to a discussion of further terms associated with the narrator:














implied author


character {speaker(s)}












character {listener(s)}


implied reader



7.18 The Implied Author


The implied author – which is a concept introduced in the first edition of Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) – is not the same as the ‘real’ author.  The implied author is the ‘author’ presumed by the narrative. As such, he/she/it may not share the views of the real author. Being a personage presumed by the narrative, the implied author does not actually exist in the real world, and hence is not a real person like the actual author, but merely a technical device.

It has been claimed that the observation statements made by the implied author are usually more truthful than those made by the third-person narrator; but one must view this in relative terms, as even the implied author has been regarded as not completely reliable.  The implied author should also not be confused with the narrator. To Chatman (1978) for example, certain literary narratives, like soliloquy and written records – which as we have seen (in section 1 above), do not, to him, have narrators – do have implied authors.


7.19 The Narratee


The narratee is the personage the narrator relates the story to. According to Chatman, the narratee is optional.

In first-person narratives, the narratee is the character the narrator tells the story to. If this personage is absent, the implied reader may be regarded as the narratee: this is especially evident when the first-person narrator uses second person pronouns to address the implied reader.  We may mention here that the implied reader is a term popularised by Wolfgang Iser (who has in fact written a book with the term as its title).

In third-person narratives, the narratee exists when there is a narrator telling the story to another imaginary personage; this imaginary personage is, in effect, the narratee.  In this regard, it can be argued that the narratee can be equated to the implied reader, as the narrator uses second person pronouns to address him/her.

Toolan (1988) however, has a more restricted definition of narratee: to him, the narratee is always addressed by an intradiegetic narrator, in the sense that both the narrator and the personage the narrator speaks to are within the same narrative level.  However, Toolan does not regard the narratee as belonging to the overall framework of narrative (as illustrated in relation to the levels of narrative in section 17 above).


7.20 Sympathy between Levels


The various personages listed in section 17 may have a sympathetic relationship with one another.  There may be a sympathetic bond, for example, between the reader and narrators, between the narrator and characters, between the implied author and the reader and so on. Sympathy may also apply to the narrator's view of what happens in the story.

7.21 Irony


Irony may arise if there is a discrepancy (as perceived by the real reader) between

the ‘messages’ sent by the various personages noted in section 17 above

the ‘messages’ received by them, or,

the ‘messages’ sent and received between them.

For example, there may be discrepancies, amongst other possibilities, between the ‘messages’ of the implied author and the real author, between those of the implied author and the narrator, and between those of the real author and the narrator.

Narrative irony may also arise in the discrepancies between the ‘messages’ received by the real reader and the implied reader, by the real reader and the narratee and so on.  Also, there may be discrepancies between them.  Irony viewed in these terms has been discussed by Chatman 1978: 228-237.


7.22  Boris Uspensky’s Approach


Boris Uspensky (in his Poetics of Composition, 1973) has a slightly different approach to point of view, although we can discuss his conceptions in relation to what has been discussed above. To Uspensky, point of view can be viewed in terms of the phraseological, spatiotemporal, psychological, and the ideological planes.

In the phraseological plane, it is expressed largely using language in order to present an attitude.


In the spatiotemporal plane, it is the subject's physical and temporal nearness or distance from what is observed that is of concern, or, we should add, the spatial angle, or the subject's appearance or concealment  from what is observed.  


The psychological plane can be related to first- or third-person narration: of whether the point of view is presented through a character in the narrative (first-person), or through a device that does not exist in the world of the story (third-person).


The ideological plane has to do with the assumption of a character’s perspective by the narrator.

The four planes are of course inter-related, and may converge or inter-connected patterns may be seen in them. There is a convergence of the psychological and ideological planes, for example, in first-person narration.


7.23  Does the Narrator Exist in Drama?


It can be argued that the narrator does not exist in drama.  But we can say this only in the sense of a clear-cut personage telling the story for us, and in fact, even if we take this definition, there are instances of overt narrators in drama.  The narrator is also defined (at least in the traditional Anglo-Saxon approach) in terms of the perspective given to us in relation to a story (see section 13 above).  Thus the concept of the narrator is not clearly distinguished from that of point of view.  In this light, it is difficult to dismiss the dramatic narrator (or at least a related concept) completely.  In this regard, we can see that the objective third-person narrator in prose fiction, or what is also known as the dramatic third-person narrator, is still regarded (at least traditionally) as a narrator, and not summarily dismissed.


7.24  How about the Narrator in Film?


If we dismiss the narrator from drama, we have to dismiss it from film as well.  But most scholars believe that some kind of narration is at work in film, even though it is not strictly or faithfully viewed in terms of first- and third-person narrators. The terms used in film theory in relation to the narrator are camera-eye narration and voice-over narration (or related terms), although what complicates matters is that something similar to first- and third-person narration in written narratives also finds its way into cinematic narrative. (For more discussion, see sections 20-23 and 25 of chapter 11.)