Interesting post at Writer Unboxed: Knowing Your Invisible Narrator
So we’ve got this whole “third-person narration” thing. You know it already. It’s that “he/she/they” thing instead of the “I/me/we” thing. The narrator isn’t the protagonist or (usually) any of the playing characters, and so the narrator is kind of floating above everybody’s heads, nonexistent, as lives are lived. …
I would argue, vehemently, that in a close third-person narrative, you can indeed consider the protagonist the narrator. In that style of third-person, the reader is aware of the emotional reactions of the protagonist, sees and reacts to the world from the protagonist’s perspective, is limited to what the protagonist knows about the world, and so on. This is all exactly like a first-person narrative.
In close third person, we read paragraphs like:
Turned out, getting shot and then having a huge hole torn through your guts was a great way to get just soaked with blood. Even after the mogui took the injuries, the blood was still there, saturating the rags of Tommy’s shirt, his jeans, even his shoes, somehow. Blood was okay, great even, if it was somebody else’s blood, and if it didn’t make too much of a mess. This was definitely a mess. No wonder these other black dogs didn’t want him in their clean car. It was a nice car. Upholstered seats. Gray upholstery that’d show blood real well. Tommy kept his head bowed because Ethan was glowering at him. Probably thinking that if he just killed Tommy after all, he could leave the body right here and not get any kind of mess in that nice car.
The other two black dogs would do whatever Ethan wanted. That was obvious. Don was stronger than Ethan; Rip was close, but a little stronger; Tommy could feel that, or his mogui could feel it. Didn’t matter, though. Ethan was for sure the one calling the shots. Because he was Grayson Lanning’s nephew and Grayson Lanning was Master of Dimilioc, yeah. Tommy got how that worked. He wasn’t going to make a single move that might make Ethan mad, not if he could avoid it. He bowed his head a little lower.
This is the opening of Tommy’s story for the new Black Dog collection coming out this fall. (I presume it’s coming out then, even if, no, not every story is written for it yet.) Anyway, this story is finished, though I expect I’ll wind up fiddling with it a bit. The point is, this is close third and so the reader is right with Tommy, and will be through the whole story.
In distant third person, I guess one might consider the narrator to be some invisible person who isn’t the protagonist. This is the style where the author writes, “Tommy thought that … it occurred to Tommy … it seemed to Tommy that …” and so on
In the real world, this is more complicated than the above distinction makes it seem, because as a rule, an author moves from close to more distant and back again depending on the scene. Not all the time, though. CJ Cherryh generally writes in close third all the way through her books. Perhaps there are some exceptions, but that’s the rule for CJC.
A writer who starts a book as the Instructor Bruno mystery starts may be sticking to more distant third most of the time. I mean, let’s look again at the opening paragraph:
On a bright May morning, so early that the last of the mist was still lingering low over a bend in the Vézère River, a white van drew to a halt on the ridge that overlooked the small French town. A man climbed out, strode to the edge of the road and stretched mightily as he admired the familiar view of St. Denis. The town emerged from the lush green of the trees and meadows like a tumbled heap of treasure; the golden stone of the buildings, the ruby red tiles of the rooftops and the silver curve of the river running through it. The houses clustered down the slope and around the main square of the Hôtel de Ville where the council chamber, its Mairie, and the office of the town’s own policeman perched above the thick stone columns that framed the covered market. The grime of three centuries only lately scrubbed away, its honey-colored stone glowed richly in the morning sun.
“A man climbed out.” That’s as distant as you can get. The reader is most definitely not sharing this person’s perspective at all. You could consider the narrator an invisible person standing back from this scene, describing it to the reader.
I don’t, as a rule.
The linked post about invisible narrators goes on:
You, as the author, need to make sure you know who your narrator is and what they’re up to.
Since I’ve never thought about who my invisible narrator is, I don’t agree. Usually I stay in fairly close third most of the time — more so in more recent novels of mine, I think — and perhaps that is why the above assertion seems so odd to me. But it does seem odd.
- Who is your narrator? (e.g. age, identity, experiences, likes and dislikes, personality)?
- How are they related to the book? (Do they have any personal stakes here? Some sort of emotional connection? Why or why not?)
- Why are they the one telling the story? (What is their authority, wisdom, or right to do so?)
And so on. The author is supposed to figure out this stuff in order to handle the narrator as a separate entity from the protagonist. I mean, seriously, this seems SO WEIRD. I have never pondered these questions. Never.
To me, it seems as though the post is confusing third with omniscient. Or something.
I will add that for me personally, this sort of question is much more relevant for FIRST person, not third. Yes, of course, in first person, the protagonist is telling the story. But when? And to whom? And why? For ME, getting those questions sorted out is much more important than thinking about some non-protagonist narrator in third-person narratives.