The Power of Point of View

The Narrator’s Perspective: Characterizing the Storyteller – WILLIAM SANGER CAMPBELL

photo - campbellReaders are essential to the narrative process in that they are the ones responsible for constructing characters, including the narrator. Characters are constructed by readers from evidence offered in the text (character indicators). It is the reader’s interpretation of what characters say and do, how they interact with other characters, what is said to and about them and done to them, their setting in the narrative, and the like, that transforms characters from mere textual information into person-like figures, that is, individuals. Readers gather these traits and construct the narrator character just as they do for any other character. Narratives may be considered to exist on a single plane with two levels of discourse. Primary or first-level narration focuses on the story, the succession of events with which the narrator is concerned. The narrator relates the events of the story using a variety of techniques, including the discourse of other characters. This level may be designated the “event level” because it deals with telling the narrative events. The secondary level has to do with telling about the storytelling, and may be designated the “narrator level.” This level contains most of the narrator’s character-indicators. At this level, through non-event commentary, what the narrator thinks, believes, or is certain of concerning the narrative, why this particular tale is being told as well as the narrator’s qualifications for doing so, and other matters about the narrator and narration, are often reported, though sometimes the narrator enters into the story itself (e.g., the “we” passages in Acts). This two-level interdependent narrative structure properly locates the whole of the narrative action—events and narrator commentary—inside the narrative.

Traditionally, narratologists have used “point of view” (perspective) with reference to authors, in effect emptying the narrator’s character of any content. It is more accurate, however, to speak of point of view as an element of the narrator’s characterization. Interpretive theory (hermeneutics) has come to the recognition that all speaking subjects communicate from multiple social locations and, therefore that all texts, including narratives should be regarded as perspectival. As the storyteller, the narrator is the primary speaking subject in the narrative and, therefore, the perspective gleaned in reading the story belongs to the characterization of the narrator. Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan’s discussion of narration and focalization might help clarify this. She argues that, although the activities of narrating (speaking) and focalizing (perspective) may be attributed to the same person, this need not be the case because a narrative agent “is also capable of undertaking to tell what another person sees or has seen” (Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, 72). Using the opening of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, she attempts to illustrate the possibility of such a divided perspective in narrative:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. . . .

Rimmon-Kenan argues that the language is that of a child (specifically the character Stephen as a child), but that the sentence structure betrays a more mature narrator (Narrative Fiction, 72-73). In contrast to Rimmon-Kenan’s conclusion, however, the language does not represent Stephen’s grammar and vocabulary as a child, but the narrator’s interpretation of the youngster’s perception and how he might communicate it. That is to say, narratives are told from the narrator character’s perspective, and nothing escapes the narrator’s ideological lens. What is said and done, who says or does it, and how it is said or done are all filtered through the narrator’s perspective, regardless of how much or little the narrator intrudes in the story.

To summarize, narratives generally have one—and only one—narrator, not an omniscient but contentless cipher outside the narrative through which the author voices the narrative, but a character in the narrative from whose limited and interested perspective the story is told, and whose characterization as storyteller readers construct from character-indicators found mostly, but not entirely, at the narrator level of narration. As a character, the narrator may participate in the narrative at the event level. In addition, narratives consist of two narrative levels (event and narrator) that distinguish interdependent foci inside the narrative. Thus, comments, asides, and other techniques employed at the narrator level contribute to event-level discourse as they simultaneously reveal the narrator’s character.

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3 Responses »

  1. found this to be a fascinating discussion of narration, and narrating; left me feeling much better about my role as a writer, and to (especially) quit trying to “not be there” as the writer, lol! 🙂

    wordpress had your post on a list of suggestions for related posts to one of my own, and i’m very glad i checked it out

    thank you much william, am signing up for ya’ll’s newsletter 🙂 best wishes

  2. Glad you found the post helpful, Felipe!

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