There are all kinds of narrators–going way beyond simple first or third person. Here’s a little study of the different types.
1. The Protagonist
Relatively straightforward, this is a story the hero narrates. He’ll narrate the same way he talks, but with more description and perhaps better grammar. The reader is privy to all his thoughts and opinions, which means we get to know the hero faster, and often relate to him more easily.
…I take up my pen in the year of grace 17–, and go back to the time when my father kept the “Admiral Benbow” inn, and the brown old seaman, with the saber cut, first took up his lodging under our roof.
Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson
2. The Secondary Character
Someone close to the protagonist, but not the main hero. The same things in the above type apply to this type, but the focus of the story moves away from the narrator.
“Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” said Stamford, introducing us.
“How are you?” he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”
“How on earth did you know that?” I asked in astonishment.
“Never mind,” said he, chuckling to himself.
Watson in A Study in Scarlet, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- Third person omniscient
This type knows all, peeking into the lives of major and minor characters, reading everyone’s thoughts. This enables the writer to explore multiple facets of the story in depth. Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart trilogy, for example.
- Third person limited
This type knows only what the main character, or characters, know. This is more restrictive, but increases suspense and intrigue, because the reader only solves the mystery at the same time the characters do. 1984, by George Orwell, is a good example.
The following types can fall into either omniscient or limited:
3. The Detached Observer
A detached third person narrator sticks to telling the story, and never inserts his own opinions—never slips in an “I” or a “me” except in direct dialogue. You probably won’t notice voice at all. It’s fruitless to give an excerpt showing what a writer didn’t do, but Orwell’s 1984 is, again, a good example.
4. The Commentator
This type never physically enters the story, but freely adds in his own amusing commentary. Allows voice without the complication of using an existing character.
The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face-to-face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
Somewhere in Between
Or maybe the narrator isn’t a strict “third person,” but is involved in the story in some way.
5. The Interviewer
This type has collected the details of the story after it happened, such as by interviewing the characters. This lends a sense of reality to the story.
It brought both a smell and a sound, a musical sound. Edmund and Eustace would never talk about it afterwards. Lucy could only say, “It would break your heart.” “Why,” said I, “was it so sad?” “Sad! No,” said Lucy.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis
6. The Secret Character
Sometimes a narrator only pretends to removed from the story—they may refer to themselves in third person right up to the end, but will eventually be mentioned by some other character, or revealed to be a major character, even the villain, for an extra-pleasing plot twist.
“Lemony?” Violet repeated. “They would have named me Lemony? Where did they get that idea?”
“From someone who died, presumably,” Klaus said.
The End, by Lemony Snicket
7. The Unreliable Narrator
Usually first person, but occasionally third, an unreliable narrator has a flawed point of view. That is, the writer intentionally made him biased, misinformed, insane, etc. Examples include Nelly in Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë, or Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. Here’s one from Poe.
“If still you think me mad, you will think no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I dismembered the corpse.”
The Tell-Tale Heart, by Edgar Allen Poe
Some of these (such as the Unreliable Narrator) are established terms, while I’ve coined many of them myself. Can you think of any other types? What type are you using in your work in progress?