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What Is a Narrator?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated May 23, 2024
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A narrator is the character or voice within a novel, story, film, play or other work that relates the story to the audience. He or she may be one of the characters in the story or a disembodied, impersonal presence. Depending on the nature of the work, narrators can take many different forms, although their functions are all related.

The first-person narrator, often called a viewpoint character, is a common tool in fiction. This is a character in the story itself who describes to the reader only the events that he or she would be able to perceive. Some authors use multiple first-person narrators within the same story to show several different perspectives.

In some works of fiction, the narrator is not a character, but an outside observer. These are called third-person narrators. A third-person narrator can either be limited or omniscient, depending on the amount of access to information. If limited, the narrative voice will only present information available to the observer, while an omniscient narrator has access to things which are not usually visible. For example, he or she might know what multiple different characters are thinking, even if the characters themselves are not aware of their own feelings or motivations.

In stage or film productions, the role of the narrator is slightly different from the role in literary works. In plays or films, a narrator often takes the form of a separate character who, unlike the protagonists of the story, addresses the audience directly. On stage, this may take the form of a person standing at the foot of the stage, ignoring the action of the play, while in film voice-over is used to present the narrative voice as disembodied, either describing or contrasting with the action. In either case, first-person and third-person narrators are both common.

Many authors have played with this concept, subverting the audience's expectations to create dramatic effect. One of the most common variations is the unreliable narrator. This type of character presents a version of the story which is at odds with reality or with other accounts.

One of the most famous uses of this technique is Akira Kurosawa's film Rashomon, which involves three characters telling the story of a single incident. As each relates his or her version of events, it becomes clear that although all three witnessed the same things, they remember them completely differently. The audience is left wondering which story, if any, is the truth.

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