Tuesday, March 4

Narrators, Their Knowledge And Awareness



Today I'm going to pick up where I left off Thursday (see: Point Of View: Elements) and talk about a narrator's knowledge (restricted vs unrestricted) as well as what I've been calling transparency/awareness. 

But first ...

Why is this important? Why should we care about the narrator and his/her/it capabilities?

The short answer is, because it's fun! It's fun to employ narrators who depart from the omnipresent third person limited viewpoint where the narrator has restricted knowledge (that is, only knows what the viewpoint character does). Stephen King's sprawling, immersive novel, Under The Dome uses a narrator with an omniscient voice. As I discussed last time, at one point the narrator floats through town acting as a virtual tour guide and addresses the reader directly. Brilliant! I laughed out loud. 

Joe Hill, in his book NOS4A2, uses a narrator who--while using third person limited--has an omniscient voice. That is, the narrator knows all about the viewpoint character, knows things about the viewpoint character that character doesn't know. The narrator even knows what will happen to that character in the future. But that's it. Other character's minds and futures are closed to him/her/it.

Having written a bit about why a writer might care about dusty sounding phrases like "narrative voice" let's continue looking at the various abilities a narrator can have. (Note: I'm only addressing third-person narratives in this post.)

3. Restricted vs Unrestricted Knowledge


This refers to the extent, the scope, of the narrators knowledge. Does he/she/it know only about the viewpoint character's present and past or does he/she/it also know:

- what the viewpoint character doesn't
- about the viewpoint character's future. 

Restricted knowledge: 


The narrator is restricted to knowing only what the viewpoint character (or all the characters if using an omniscient perspective) does at that point in time. Therefore, the narrator doesn't know what will happen to the viewpoint character in the future.

Unrestricted knowledge: 


The narrator's knowledge is not restricted. He/she/it knows things the viewpoint character is ignorant of, things about themselves. Also, the narrator can know what will happen to the viewpoint character in the future.

Keep in mind, though, that this is a continuum. On one end of the continuum the narrator has restricted knowledge of the character and only knows what the character does at that moment.

On the other end of the continuum the narrator has unrestricted knowledge of the character; he/she/it knows everything about them, past, present and future. The narrator knows things the character has forgotten as well as things about herself she was never aware of.

For example, Joe Hill in NOS4A2 writes:

"Her Raleigh Tuff Burner had been her birthday gift in May and was also, quite simply, her favorite birthday gift of all time ... then and forever. Even at thirty, if her own son asked her the nicest thing she had ever been given, she would think immediately of the Day-Glo blue Raleigh Tuff Burner with banana yellow rims and fat tires."

We aren't told that her son will ask that question. No. The narrator's knowledge is more extensive than that. The narrator knows that if he asked that question then that would be her answer. That is, the narrator's knowledge of the viewpoint character extends to counterfactual situations (/other possible worlds). At least, that's how I read it.

"The square of brightness at the far end of the bridge expanded and intensified. As she approached, she was conscious of an almost brutal heat emanating from the exit. She inexplicably smelled suntan lotion and onion rings. It did not cross her mind to wonder why there was no gate here at the other end of the bridge either." (Joe Hill, NOS4A2)

I thought that was a nice example of the narrator knowing something about the viewpoint character that the viewpoint character did not. For me, it gave the novel an extra dimension, it seemed to expand the universe of possibilities. It, in an odd sort of way, made the story world seem more real. 

Third Person Limited vs Third Person Omniscient


What POV was that last bit of writing told from? It seems to me it's third person, limited, even though the narrator seems to have full knowledge (/unrestricted knowledge) of the viewpoint character. 

You might wonder why I put such emphasis on this, I used to have the idea that if a narrator was omniscient concerning the viewpoint character--if they had, say, total knowledge of their thoughts and their future actions--that the viewpoint had to be third person, omniscient. 

4. Transparency/Awareness: Representational vs Presentational 


As I discussed Monday, transparency has to do with the narrator's relationship with the audience.

Representational: The narrator never addresses the reader.

Presentational: The narrator addresses the reader and may also express personal opinions.

A presentational narrator will make it clear he/she/it is speaking, not to characters in the story world, but to readers in the real world. A thoroughly presentational narrator knows he/she/it is the narrator of a work of fiction and that someone is reading it.

That said, even in a presentational narrative the narrator will, at times, fade into invisibility making the text seem representational. However, if a narrative is truly representational, the same will not be true. A representational narrative will not have any presentational moments. 

As Orson Scott Card writes in Character & Viewpoint, it is jarring if, in the middle of the story, the narrator suddenly starts addressing the reader. Which is not to say it should never be done, it would just be tricky to pull it off without jarring the reader. 

By the way, all the narrative examples in this post are representational. See my post on Monday for an example of presentational prose.

The Narrator's Presence In A Story


Think of a window. A freshly cleaned window is--as many birds have discovered--practically invisible. It is so clear one gazes through to the other side without noticing it. 

If a window is a little dirty, one notices the window but barely. Most of one's attention is still focused on what is on the other side.

On the other hand, if the window is very dirty then one notices the window almost as much as what is on the other side.

A transparent window --> An invisible narrator
An invisible narrator  --> No personality of their own

An opaque window --> A visible narrator
A visible narrator --> A personality of their own

What is the difference between a visible and invisible narrator? Well, clearly, the least visible narrator is going to be one that tells a story from the third-person, limited, where their knowledge is restricted to what the character knows. Also, they will never turn to the reader and indicate they know what's going on, that they are a narrator in a story you are being entertained by. In this case, the narrator seems non-existent and one focuses solely on the viewpoint character and experiences the story world through the viewpoint character's senses.

On the other hand, the most visible narrator--or one of them--would be one who turns to the audience and announces that the gig is up. They know they're telling a story to an audience--to you. But that's not the only way to become aware of a narrator. Whenever the narrator tells you, the reader, about something the viewpoint character doesn't know the narrator becomes visible. That is, such things encourage a reader to focus on the narrator and not just the viewpoint character. 

Summary


As you can tell, I'm currently fascinated with narrators, the kind of abilities they can have, and how storytellers can use them to weave a story.


Thanks for reading. If you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Good writing!

Photo credit: "Intrigued" by Marina del Castell under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

2 comments:

  1. Nice overview. I usually stick to a single character, restricted viewpoint, but I would like to branch out one day.

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    Replies
    1. Me too. But I find it invigorating to mix it up a bit when I do my "warming up" exercises. That's what I call the short sprint of writing I do (or try to do!) at the beginning of each day. I especially want to play with incorporating an omniscient viewpoint.

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