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  • Key literary notions: narrators and point of view

In fiction the author does not address the reader directly. He creates a narrator whose voice we hear as we read the story. It is from the narrator's point of view that see events unfold. The narrator may be a strong presence in the text commenting on and interpreting the material he presents or he may be almost invisible, simply allowing the story to present itself.

Narrators are divided into two broad categories: first-person narrators and third-person narrators. The category of third-person narrators is divided into three subcategories: omniscient, limited and dramatic objective.

Stream of consciousness, a relatively recent development in narrative technique, may be an extension of either first or third-person narratives.

First-person narrators

First-person narrators, who refer to themselves as “I”, tell stories in which they are directly involved. In a first-person narrative the reader's vision of the story, or point of view, is limited to what the narrator himself knows, experiences, infers or has learned second-hand from others.

First-person narratives are, by definition, subjective. The only thoughts and feelings that first-person narrators experience directly are their own. The reader can never expect to see characters and events as they actually are, but only as they appear to the “I” narrator. Therefore special attention should be paid to the personality of the first-person narrators. Are they reliable? Do they have biases or prejudices that may influence how they tell the story?

In certain first-person narratives the reader can understand more than the narrator himself. This is often the case when the narrator is a child or a not very perceptive adult. By contrasting the narrator’s perception of events and the reader’s more informed views, the author can create humour or irony.

The first-person narrative is commonly associated with non-fictional literary forms such as biographies, memoirs or diaries. When used in fictional works it lends authenticity to the story. It is also perhaps the most effective form of storytelling for getting the reader intellectually and emotionally involved.

Third-person narrators: Omniscient point of view

When a story is told by someone outside the action, he is called a third-person narrator (because he refers to everybody in the story in the third person: “he”, “she”, “they”). In this form of narration the person who is telling the story is like an observer who has witnessed what has happened, but plays no part in the events.

The omniscient third-person narrator is a kind of god; he is all-knowing. He knows everything about the fictional world he has created: he can read other characters’ innermost thoughts, he is able to be in several places at once, he knows exactly what is going to happen and how each character will behave. He is free to tell us as much or as little as he wishes. An omniscient third-person narrator who interrupts the narrative and speaks directly to the readers is called obtrusive. He may use these intrusions to summarise, philosophise, moralise or to guide the reader’s interpretation of events. This kind of narrator was particularly popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. If the narrator does not address the reader directly he is referred to as non-obtrusive.

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