I am not an expert on all the ins and outs of the narrator or narrative voice in fiction. Most of my stories wind up being in the third person, and often from multiple characters’ points of view. Before you jump all over me for that, let it be known that a) I never head-hop within a scene, and b) I’m currently writing an epic fantasy trilogy, and it just wouldn’t work if I had only one P.O.V. character.
Anyway, despite the fact that I have experimented very little with my narrators, I’m fascinated by the concept of the role of the narrator. I’ve decided to make this blog post a brief study of several unusual narrators that I’ve come across (in both books and movies).
The role of the narrator is first and foremost that of storyteller. Whether it’s omniscient third person point of view or an individual character who says “let me tell you my tale,” we learn the story from a narrator. Since I like the telling of stories, I’m always fascinated when I encounter an unusual storyteller.
Unusual Narrators in Movies
Okay, so both of these that I’m going to talk about are technically stage productions, but I’ve only seen the movie versions. The story and the characters would be the same, though. The musicals Evita and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat feature very unusual narrators to tell the story. The narrator Ché in Evita and the unnamed Narrator in Joseph both actively participate in the story, even though they are not characters within it. This is a technique that seems like it would be more effective in a show or movie rather than a book.
Ché and Joseph’s Narrator set up the story, introduce the characters, and then take the audience on the journey of the story. Both of these narrators are in just about every scene and every song, but not just as a distant storyteller – they interact with the scene and the characters within it. The characters in both of these stories are unaware that the narrator is a being that exists outside of their world.
For example, in Evita, Eva has several duets with Ché, but she does not recognize him from scene to scene. Ché is simply there to represent the everyman (or sometimes her conscience). Similarly, in Joseph, the characters always greet the Narrator with exuberance and welcome her into the scene, but treat her as a passing fancy. Only at the end, when Joseph and the Narrator sing the final duet, does Joseph seem to become aware that the Narrator has been there all along, telling his story and giving him life. These two stories would actually make a great character study, as well, because of this unique interaction with the narrators, but I won’t go into that right now.
Unusual Narrators in Books
The two books I’ve decided to discuss are Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. (Incidentally, I mentioned the narrator of Rebecca in another post I wrote some time back, in which I outline first, second, and third person points of view.)
Both of these books are written in the first person, which at first blush seems like the most limiting of all narrative styles, because the reader can never know anything beyond what the narrator knows. This is definitely the case in Rebecca, where the narrator’s ignorance and conjecture is basically what drives the plot.
The Historian features a very different sort of narrator, because there are technically several narrators. The main narrator (unnamed) is telling the story of her hunt for her father. She follows the trail left by her father based on the letters he’s written to her; these letters are first person, narrated by her father, and his narration (this narrator’s name is Paul) actually takes up the bulk of the book. Paul (via his first person letters) also followed a trail left his by his professor, so portions of the book are told in the first person by the narrator Professor Rossi. It’s a fascinating way to tell a story, and this technique enables the reader to experience multiple points of view (and even multiple time periods) while always staying in the first person. I found it occasionally confusing, though, as there were no markers to indicate when we were switching narrators (or time periods). Since everything was told by “I,” the reader has to rely only on the setting, and an acute awareness for each of the narrator’s voices, to determine who was telling the story at any point in time.
What’s also interesting about both of these stories is that the narrators are not actually the main characters. In Rebecca, we are in the unnamed narrator’s head the entire time and we get to know her intimately, but Max de Winter and even Rebecca herself are the major players in the story. In The Historian, the unnamed primary narrator quickly fades into secondary importance as we follow her father Paul as the narrator. At times reading this book, it was easy to forget that the “main” plot of the story was supposed to take place in the 1970s, because the majority of the story was told via Paul’s letters from the 1950s.
Other Unusual Narrators?
So now I’d like to hear from you. Have you ever read (or watched, or written) a story with an unusual narrator or narrative style? There are other stories I could have discussed here, but I’d love to hear some more examples from you!
And also, for your viewing pleasure, here is the Narrator from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat setting up the story and introducing the main character: