Owen Flanagan of Duke University, a leading consciousness researcher, writes that “Evidence strongly suggests that humans in all cultures come to cast their own identity in some sort of narrative form. We are inveterate storytellers.”
Centuries ago, the written form changed the storytelling sandbox when the passed-down oral versions could be compiled into books, making it possible for stories to reach and influence a wider audience. Whether through the written or the oral medium, the writer of the story ably portrays some of his or her own expressions, idiosyncrasies, flaws, anger, frustration, and sadness through the characters and sometimes through his or her narrative style.
When the story is from the point of view of a character in the novel (often the protagonist), you’re reading the first-person narration. This first-person narrator makes frequent use of the pronoun “I,” and gives a direct peek into his or her feelings.
Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a six-year-old girl who apprises the readers of the story from her point of view. Her role shifts from an active narrator to an observer when the trial of Tom Robinson begins but readers continue to see events unfold through her lens. Her young age lends a fresh and untarnished perspective but at the same time also limits the scale of the narrative as her limited exposure to life mitigates her understanding of the adult world.
The first person narration can be confusing when it comes to tenses.
Reminiscing – “I used to walk the streets with my mom holding the bag of groceries.”
Happening now – “As I walk the streets with groceries, I think of my mom.”
In Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” we are introduced to a plural [we] first-person narration, namely, the townspeople. It’s a unique way in that when a writer uses multiple first-person narrators, he or she is able to create an emotional distance from events and characters.
Bilbo Baggins, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, is a third-person narrator. The third-person narration gives the author plenty of room to play around with the story, the setting, and the characters. Bilbo being the omniscient narrator knows the thought processes of all the characters.
To this narrator, the writer grants a lot of credence, freedom, responsibility, and knowledge. They can withhold information and release it at the appropriate time.
Then there are superheroes! They are everywhere!
Omniscient narrators usually are unprejudiced and non-judgmental and have the superhero capabilities of witnessing and describing simultaneous events.
Epics like Beowulf the Iliad, and Star-Trek have this know-it-all narrator. The epic tale of Mahabharata has Sanjaya as the see all narrator of the battle of Kurukshetra to his king without being present at the battle.
There is also a narrator watching all the action from the sidelines. This narrator is peripheral and not the main character. The peripheral narrator stands at a safe distance and gives us the details about the protagonists and antagonists like Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, ‘The Great Gatsby.’
Narrative Complications: A writer can make the narrator complicate things in a story like there is the interior monologue of the Underground Man in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground and the dramatic monologue of Jean-Baptiste in Albert Camus’s The Fall.
One of the most interesting plots is concocted by the unreliable narrator, one whose credibility is compromised, whose MO is to lie or cheat the reader and shroud the narrative with a cloud of doubt, or whose account of an event is based on his or her misconceptions.
Fears, biases, preconceptions are constantly projected by the unreliable narrator and at some point, the reader realizes that the narrator is not to be trusted.
Think Gone Girl where Amy portrays a sweet girl: the perfect girl, the perfect wife, the scorned wife until we learn of her deceptions and her villainy. Patrick Bateman in The American Psycho leads a jet-set life until his darker side that murders people is revealed, Pi Patel’s story of being adrift at sea with a tiger in the Life of Pi is questioned for its plausibility and when asked by his rescuers, a different version is told by him.
The limits and scope of the unreliable narration were pushed further when authors like James Joyce and William Faulkner and a few others incorporated Stream-of-Consciousness. This technique lets the author pen the feelings, thoughts, compulsions as they happen in the minds of the protagonists.
When an author uses the most befitting narrative lens through which to tell the story, the effect is breathtaking.
Think Lord of the Rings, Wuthering Heights!