The 7 Narrator Types: and You Thought There Were Only Two!

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Photo by Charles Hutchins

Photo by Charles Hutchins

There are all kinds of narrators–going way beyond simple first or third person. So, in anticipation of Voice Week (comment if you want to join!), I thought I’d do a little study of the different types.

First Person

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.
Example:

…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.
Example:

“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

  • 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.
Example:

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.
Example:

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.
Example:

“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. It’s difficult to find a single passage that illustrates this, but examples include Nelly in Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë, or Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. Read more about unreliable narrators here.

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?

 

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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50 Comments

  1. What type are you using in your work in progress?

    Oh, this is hard. When I was really a beginner, I only knew of a first-person perspective (the protagonist), then soon I learned of the third POV (I usually used the limited type) then I sometimes I combined it with a commentator or interviewer narrator type. :)

    • Limited is hard! I’ll try to write limited, but find myself wanting to say things I couldn’t possibly know.

      • I’m in the same boat. I want to write a story from the perspective of the son of the one of the characters, but even the style is cramping me up. Mainly since the story is written from back to current. Just THINKING about it is giving me a headache. At the same time, I want there to be some connection to the character. Third person omniscient would give me more lee-way but wouldn’t feel as close. Decisions, decisions. And I HATE re-writes. So I’m gonna have to plough through this long-hand, until I have an idea. ….

        • Hmm. Is the son writing the story years after it happened? If so, he may know some things about the story now he didn’t then. There could be scenes he personally remembers, and scenes he’s retelling that he heard from his father (mother?) or others. That would give you some more leeway without being totally third person.

    • Writer of Riders

      How you write it is important. Though the thing I read for the most is content. It depends what subject you value most. Since we are led to believe one thing is better than another.

    • When I write my first draft, it’s always third-person limited. For me, this is an easy style to write in while at the same time stopping me from wandering all over the place and not getting what I’m working on done. After that? Well, then I have fun. A ghost story I’ve previously written is going to have a campfire storytelling style. I know it’s not one you mentioned (and the term is my own), but I’ve seen it a number of times in horror tales and not really outside of it. It’s a meandering type of POV, occasionally comments, but the commentary style drops off completely during the climax. My WiP though is going to be pure commentary. It’s a horror-comedy-sf adventure thing. The voice I’m going for is a new one for me, but it’s classic Folk Lore storytelling style where it’s heavy-handed commentary and everything is said matter-of-fact as if “Of course time travel and vampires exist, where have you been?”

      • Haha, the matter-of-fact voice sounds hilarious! Sounds like a good policy to start with third person limited, too. Seems like that’s the only one that would allow you to easily switch to first person, or expand to omniscient. if you decided you wanted to.

  2. Hey BeKind … another truly excellent post. You are an inspiration and a wonderful mentor. Thank you!

  3. What a wonderful list! I’ve been writing my historical novel in third-person omniscient and I love how you broke that category into subcategories. My narrator is definitely a commentator.

    • Commentators are fun. It’s almost like one of the characters is gossiping in your ear about the story.

      • Totally! I love that you broke it out as its own POV option. I’m having so much fun with that “psst–listen to this!” style, even though I’ve only ever written first person protagonist before.

      • I love how Charles Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’ was used as the example for commentators. He’s truly the king of engaging narrating! He mocks nearly everything and is always providing useful and humorous insights about the story. At some point I want to try to write using a commentating narrator, but I don’t think I’m ready to be that clever yet!

  4. I’ve heard that in “Bright Lights, Big City” the author used second person to make the main character more immediate to the reader — “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this…”

    I’m a big fan of the unreliable narrator. It gives the story a flavor that 3rd person omniscient just doesn’t have. When you change perspectives, you get to change tone and how the story feels. (This is exactly what I plan to do during Voice Week!)

    • I think I heard that somewhere, too. I’ll have to look that book up. Choose Your Own Adventure books use second person. It seems like it would be cumbersome in large doses.

      Good point on the flavor of an unreliable narration. It definitely adds interest. Voice Week! So excited!

    • Lorrie Moore has a collection of stories written in the second person, entitled Self Help (they may not all be second person). My favorite of them is “How to Become a Writer.” Tom Robbins also has a novel written in the second person.

  5. Wow, so many! I tend to use first person or third person alternating pov. I never realised there are so many. Thanks for sharing :-)

    • Alternating POVs can be very cool. TragicPete, my brother, is writing a book that actually switches from first person to third person–which is insane, of course, but it works. Mostly because the main character is insane. : )

  6. I love how you sort out the different points of view and give examples for us more visual learners. I, myself, prefer the first-person or third-person limited, although I have been tempted to play around with the unreliable narrator just to see what happens.

    Matter of fact, your post comes at the most opportune time for me as I’m in the process of blogging about my latest experience with POV issues. I will be citing your helpful information in my post.

  7. Great post — thanks! My personal favourite is the unreliable narrator… they are the best fun to create. Really enjoyed John Hewitt’s blog article too, so thank you for signposting to that.

  8. Thank you. I’ll make sure the others in my writing groups know about this essay and your newsletter.

    I often write my first draft in first person and then change to Limited. My most recent attempt started in first and then changed to Limited. As a writing exercise, I tried a very short story in second person and found it very difficult. Perhaps the difficulty in writing second person is the reason you didn’t mention it, although some very good stories have used it.

    Thank you for your thought provoking and information laden newsletter.

    • Thanks for spreading the word!

      Yeah, I considered mentioning 2nd, but it is so rare and limiting, I decided not to. The Choose Your Own Adventure books are one example, and as writingsprint mentions above, Bright Lights, Big City is apparently entirely second person. I’ll have to read that one, if only as a learning experience.

  9. Trying to write my novella in the first person past tense…although it is getting harder to keep from revealling things the character knows because of his timeline, and the reader finding out too much of the story to make it uninteresting. May go to seperate styles in each chapter instead… too much to think about, too many styles to try. To the short stories (this way my wife thinks I’m still serious writing, not having fun!)

    • Haha. Yeah, it’s difficult to find a balance between giving too much away and being obvious about hiding something from your readers. It’s probably best to state only the facts you have to state, and let the readers draw conclusions themselves–until all is revealed at the end!

  10. My WIP uses the Interviewer. She’s really the character that ties the overall big picture in together, actually. The story starts in one extreme and ends in the other, through a chain of characters, so… she’s the one who takes it through to the end.

  11. The unreliable narrator is actually kind of fun to write. I’m employing this narrative device on my current project. The best example of the unreliable narrator is Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment).

  12. ';ljhgfddddddsasdfty

    you forgot omnicien narrator

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  14. How about http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Salieri for an unrealiable narrator in Amadeous? Antonio Salieri was played by f. Murray Abraham.

  15. Welp, thanks for ruining then end of series of unfortunate events…

    • I didn’t ruin it at all. Klaus assumed the name came from somebody who died, that doesn’t mean he was right. How could Lemony be writing the story if he died???
      When I do give away the endings of things, I always try to give fair warning with spoiler alerts.

  16. Great post! A good example of the Unreliable Narrator is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground.” The Underground Man (narrator of the work) often contradicts himself and oftentimes seems mentally ill during the duration of the book. Notes from Underground is also separated into two halves: the first, a collection of the Underground Man’s personal thoughts; the second, a story. The first half displays more of his unreliability, but either way, anybody interested in learning more uses for the Unreliable Narrator may be interested in reading “Notes from Underground,” along with many of Dostoyevsky’s other works.

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  18. Is this an example of an unreliable narrator?

    “Bullroarer charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields, and knocked their king Golfimbul’s head clean off with a wooden club. It sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down a rabbit-hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of Golf invented at the same time moment.”

    • One of my favorite quotes from The Hobbit! And yes, I think it can be an example of an unreliable narrator – as someone who is perhaps telling a tall tale (though who are we to say what really happens in Middle Earth?). Thanks for commenting with that!

  19. Is the narrator of the book “Daisy Miller” an example of an unreliable narrator. He usually has thoughts influenced by his aunt’s gossip and the jealousy he holds when the protagonist is having an affair with another person.

  20. Guys, I really need your help.
    I am writing a story in 3rd person.However I bring forth the protagonist’s POV also (who is a mom telling her story to her daughter). She goes in flashback mode and tells the story. However in flashback-I have two characters-Mom herself and a subplot character. I want to write a couple of chapters in that subplot character’s POV.
    Please suggest how to do this? Thanks a lot for your help!!!

    • Hi, fellow Stephanie!

      If I’m reading this right, it sounds like you have three POVs – the third person narrator, the mom, and the subplot character. It will depend on how much of the story is in each POV. The trick is to think of your third person narrator as a character, too. Who is s/he? How does he know all these stories and why does he care?

      1. The narrator could be an existing character – the daughter, perhaps. She could be recording what her mother is telling her, and she could also interview Mr. Subplot for his story. She needn’t reveal that she is the narrator (and thus slip from third into first person) until the end. Could make a cool plot twist, even.

      2. The narrator could be a new character you create who knows Mom, daughter, and Subplot. Someone in the position to learn their stories. For instance, someone who overheard Mom telling daughter her story, or someone who got the story from daughter secondhand, later on, and who collected Subplot’s story in a similar way.

      3. Consider the possibility of telling the entire flashback from Mom’s POV, including Subplot’s parts. There may be things that happen to Subplot that Mom doesn’t see – brainstorm some ways those events could be revealed as plot twists later. But don’t force it – if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.

      4. Or maybe your narrator was secretly Subplot all along???

      For a good example of layered narration, check out some of P.G. Wodehouse’s “Mr. Mulliner” stories. They all start with a first person narrator sitting in a pub. Mr. Mulliner is also in the pub, and starts telling a story about one of his relatives, for which he usually switches into third person. You can read one free here, although the weird formatting makes it difficult.

      Does that help?

  21. Looks like Writingspring already said what I was going to mention…2nd person narrative. It’s rather rare, but an interesting technique if the author wants to make the reader the main character. When I was a kid, I read a lot of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. These were written in 2nd person.

    • I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books! Somehow I always ended up dying somehow, though. Second person is definitely worth a mention, albeit difficult to pull off in long form prose. Admittedly, though, the more I think about it, the more I want to try it!

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