A version of this article previously appeared in Vol. 30 of Writer’s Journal .
It all depends on your point of view…
In all my years as a student, teacher, writer and reader, the most frustrating—most convoluted—writing topic I’ve ever encountered has to be narrative viewpoint . Writing instructors, writing books and literature critics invariably resort to a list of definitions fictional narratives purportedly fall into: 1st person, 1st person unreliable, 2nd person, 3rd person omniscient, 3rd person limited, 3rd person limited omniscient, 3rd person objective, 3rd person subjective, dramatic point of view, universal omniscient point of view… Like most broad categorizations of artistic elements, these definitions are as inadequate as they are confusing.
Rather than typecasting narrators, I’ve discovered it is more beneficial to think of narrators in terms of having a set of characteristics that fall along a set of four distinct continuums: Knowledge, Distance, Objectivity , and Presence .
As a writer, it’s vital to make sure these characteristics stay consistent in any given story, and as a reader, thinking of a narrative in these terms allows us to better understand a story and gain a better appreciating of everything from characterization and plot to tone, style, symbolism and theme.
Narrative Knowledge is the amount of information a narrator has access to. On one end of the scale the narrator’s knowledge is limited to the perspective of only one character; on the other, the narrator is all knowing: omniscient. The omniscient narrator knows what’s happening everywhere in the fictional universe, knows the past, present, and future, and has access to the thoughts and feelings of every character in the story.
Figure 1 illustrates where the typical viewpoint definitions fall on this spectrum. On the far limited end of the Knowledge scale lies the 1st person narrative . But even the 1st person narrator’s knowledge can vary. In the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, our narrator, Dr. Watson, has very limited knowledge, and this is crucial considering that Holmes knows the answer to every mystery from the outset of the story. If the story were told from Holmes’ perspective, we’d know right off the bat whodunit, and that would take all the fun out of the detective mystery story. (To give due credit, Edgar Allan Poe invented this form of detective story well before Doyle. See: “The Purloined Letter.”) Alternatively, the first person narrator, Gordie, from Stephen King’s “The Body” (which was adapted into the motion picture Stand by Me) is very knowledgeable. He tells a tale from his childhood as an adult and has all the wisdom time and age afford.
Also on the limited side of the scale are 3rd person limited stories, stories like The Metamorphosis where Gregor Samsa is the sole viewpoint character. On the opposite half of the Knowledge scale, we have the 3rd person omniscient narrative, occupied by narrators like the one in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy who jumps from character to character and from one space and time to another.
But what about stories told from the perspective of a selected few characters, or stories that occasionally jump from space and time to advance the plot? Stories like The Da Vinci Code , by Dan Brown? This type of viewpoint shifting is sometimes enviously called “bestseller point of view” by critics, but the fact of the matter is that it’s a powerful tool in dramatizing plot-driven stories, and this is just one of many instances where the conventional viewpoint definitions of limited and omniscient 3rd person are too constricting. While contemporary short stories tend to be told from a true limited 3rd person perspective, most popular contemporary novels and a good number of short stories from experienced writers fall somewhere in between 3rd person limited and 3rd person omniscient. Is this bad writing? Of course not. The whole point of telling a story is to tell the story in the most entertaining—most dramatic—way possible, and if that means an author defining their own bounds to the narrator’s knowledge, then so be it! As the rules of geometry say, there are an infinite amount of values between two points, and 3rd person limited and 3rd person omniscient are just two points on the Narrative Knowledge scale.
Narrative Distance is the degree by which a narrator gets into characters’ heads and hearts. On one end of the Narrative Distance scale we have the distant narrator , who merely narrates the actions in the story and never reveals the thoughts or emotions of the characters. Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is a classic example; the story narrates a couple’s actions and dialogue, leaving the reader to infer all the underlying thoughts, emotions, and subtext. Hemingway’s narrator never lets us into the characters’ heads to see what’s really bothering them—the characters never utter the word abortion—and yet that’s what’s on their minds.
On the opposite end of the Distance scale is the close narrator . The close narrator accesses all the thoughts and feelings of a character, or characters, essentially zooming the narrative focus right into the middle of the characters’ minds.
Figure 2 shows where another batch of typical narrative definitions fit into the spectrum. By definition, the 1st person narrative is a close narrative, since it’s literally told by one of the characters in the story. But, just like real people, 1st person narrators can vary—they can be introspective or they can be completely thoughtless. Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye is a very self-reflective narrator, for example, whereas, Dr. Watson primarily narrates his observations of Sherlock Holmes.
Not surprisingly, the close 3rd person narrator lies on the close side of the Narrative Distance scale, while the distant 3rd person narrator lies on the distant side. Here, though, we run into the same problem with the 3rd person definitions as we do with the Narrative Knowledge Scale: a 3rd person narrative need not be one or the other . The narrators in the 3rd person short stories of Raymond Carver , for example, while often described as being Hemingway-like because of their matter-of-fact tone and seeming distance, often comment on the motives, thoughts, and emotions of the characters in the stories. While Carver’s style gives the illusory effect of distance, the narrative is actually somewhere in the middle of the Distance scale.
Narrative Objectivity is how biased or unbiased a narrator is. Figure 3 illustrates another batch of typical narrative definitions that occupy this scale. By definition, the 1st person narrative is subjective because it is told from a specific character’s perspective. Like with Narrative Knowledge and Distance, however, objectivity in a 1st person narrator isn’t absolute. Again, Dr. Watson serves as a good example: he objectively narrates what happens and what Holmes says, and there is little textual evidence to suggest the narrative is significantly biased or otherwise filtered by Watson’s personality. On the other hand, Humbert Humbert, the narrator in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Lolita , is an extremely subjective narrator ; the entire text is colored by Humbert’s obsession with the pubescent Dolores Haze and the rationalization of his pedophiliac actions.
Also occupying the subjective side of the spectrum is the 3rd person subjective narrative. A 3rd person subjective narrative is biased, or filtered, by the personality of a character (or more rarely, the narrator). In Tobias Wolff’s “Say Yes,” for example, the 3rd person narrative is limited and very close to a man who has gotten in an argument with his wife; the comments and judgments expressed in the narrative—about how he’s being very reasonable and how she’s being irrational—are biased by the husband’s point of view. This creates a subjective narrative.
The objective narrator on the other hand remains uninfluenced by the characters. The truly objective narrator keeps the thoughts and impressions of the characters independent from itself: it attributes all of the characters’ thoughts and impressions to the characters themselves by either using italics to offset internal monologues, or by using thought tags (e.g. Wow, he’s a lousy teacher, little Sally thought to herself.) The truly objective narrative is unbiased, treats characters fairly, and always lets the reader pass judgment on the characters. If an objective narrator does offer any commentary it is backed up with direct evidence, otherwise it ceases to be objective. Tolkien’s narrator in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, is not shy about saying whether a character is good or evil, but the narrator remains largely objective by going on to show how that given character is good or evil.
But even Tolkien’s narrator isn’t truly objective. It is often thought—and even taught—that omniscient and distant narrators must be objective while close and limited narrators must be subjective, but in reality most narratives are somewhere in the middle , even our extreme examples. Just as Tolkien’s narrative is somewhat biased towards Frodo and his well-being, Wolff’s narrator in “Say Yes” provides just enough of the wife’s perspective to provide some objectivity and keep the story from becoming stilted.
Our last continuum is Narrative Presence . On one end of the scale is the inconspicuous narrator. The inconspicuous narrator shows rather than tells and does not draw attention to itself. Again, Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is a perfect example. The conspicuous narrator , on the other hand, really stands out ; the narrator may address the reader (e.g. “Dear reader, such a tale you have never before heard…”), it may make judgments or comment on the characters in the story (e.g. “Sally was an interminable twit.”), it may have a story-teller feel (e.g. “Once upon a time…”), or it may be heavy-handed in how it leads the reader from scene to scene (e.g. “While Thomas hung precariously from the edge of the cliff, Lilian sat eating a picnic lunch back in town.”).
As Figure 4 illustrates, only two of the typical narrative definitions fit on the Narrative Presence scale, and even these two are only associated with the scale by deduction. This is because narrative conspicuity is largely shunned in contemporary fiction unless the story is in 1st person. 1st person narratives by definition are conspicuous because the narrator is a character in the story, and, in fact, it’s often the narrative conspicuity in these types of stories that provides the subtext readers find so intriguing—the inconsistencies and subtle traits hinting at the true personality of the narrator. Again, Humbert Humbert in Lolita is a perfect example.
As much as this conspicuity is praised in 1st person narratives, it is condemned in contemporary 3rd person narratives (with the possible exceptions of experimental fiction and children’s stories). For whatever reason, conspicuous 3rd person narrators are assumed to be subjective and therefore thought to be intrusive and a distraction from the story. Hence, narrative conspicuity is largely left untaught by writing instructors and writing books, and most of the standard narrative definitions ignore narrative conspicuity altogether. The only other typical definition that fits on the Narrative Presence scale is dramatic point of view, which by definition lies at the inconspicuous end of the spectrum. Dramatic point of view is a term used to describe stories like “Hills Like White Elephants,” stories where only actions and dialogue are narrated , where everything is shown and nothing is told. Dramatic point of view is also by definition distant and objective.
So the question we’re left to ask is whether we should remain closed-minded about Narrative Presence in our fiction? Should authors by rote just write narrators as inconspicuously as possible because that’s what’s in fashion? I for one say no and no! While it’s true the vast majority of 3rd person stories published these days have inconspicuous narrators, it’s also true that some of the most powerful and widely read stories have very conspicuous narrators . “Popular Mechanics” by Raymond Carver has a highly conspicuous narrator which—gasp!—tells more than shows, and it is probably one his top five most anthologized short stories. The fact of the matter is, a narrator with presence provides a voice to a story and makes it stand out from the slew of other stories in magazines and books and on the desks of editors and instructors. I’m certainly not saying the narrator need be highly conspicuous, on the verge of obnoxious, but remember, that’s why we’re thinking of narrative characteristics as being on a scale. All I’m saying is a narrator needn’t occupy the far left end of the scale, and that—yes—as writers or readers we should give thought and consideration to where our narrator lies on the scale.
In the end, thinking of a narrator in terms of having characteristics that lie on these four scales—Knowledge, Distance, Objectivity, and Presence—may not make the issue of viewpoint all that simple, but it does provide a context for fully understanding our narrators , whereas the typical narrative definitions leave a lot of gaps. As a writer , if you can take your narrator and point to where it lies on each of these four scales, you now have a guide for writing (or editing) your story. All you have to do is make sure your narrator’s characteristics stay consistent —make sure they’re not wandering aimlessly on those scales—and your story will have a distinct voice, tone, and style, and furthermore, the limits to what your narrator knows, shows, and tells will be rational and consistent. Whether all those factors add up to a good story still depends on how good your idea is and how well you write it, but then again, isn’t that always the challenge? And as a reader , identifying the characteristics of the narrator will better equip you to delve deeper into a story and better appreciate it.
So, what novels and short stories stand out in your mind as having a distinct narrative voice? Do they fit one of the standard viewpoint definitions or does this new approach make it easier to better analyze the narrator?
Writers, what about in your own fiction writing? Do you give much thought to characterizing your narrator or just let the narrative figure itself out?
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