Using a narrator character to create a mythic story

By (Alexandra Sokoloff)


– Who’s the main character of Moby Dick?

– Who’s the main character of The Great Gatsby?

Did you have to think about that for a minute? Are you even maybe still thinking about it?

These three classics all use the same structural technique. They’ve created a mythic character (and three timeless novels) by telling the story through the eyes of what I’m going to call “The Narrator Character.” The actual literary term for it – the “intradiegetic narrator” – has never exactly caught fire, for pretty obvious reasons .

I’m talking about the narrator who is within the story but NOT the main character. The narrator who observes the main character, and in good stories, is changed by the influence of the main character.

I could make a strong argument that in both fiction and film, a great way to create a mythic character is to keep their point-of-view minimal, and instead depict them mainly from the outside observation of a narrator or point-of-view character: Nick Carraway observing Gatsby, Ishmael observing Captain Ahab, Scout Finch observing Atticus, Watson observing Holmes, Marlow observing Captain Kurtz.

The Shawshank Redemption, which we re-watched last night, is another classic example of that very effective structural paradigm, with narrator Red observing Andy Dufresne.

And for a TV example (on a smaller level, but also effective) – there’s the first season of True Detective. We are never really inside Rust, but rather observing him ourselves or through his partner’s eyes, and that’s a big part of what made that character the most interesting part of the show. Bloodlinealso does this to a certain extent, with Kyle Chandler/John’s point-of-view narration serving to create a more layered character in his brother Danny.

Note that this is different from the more widely dissected “Unreliable Narrator” storytelling technique. The Narrator Character can certainly be an unreliable narrator – you can even argue that a narrator character is alwaysan unreliable narrator, because an outside person will never have the full scoop on the character they’re talking about. But you could equally argue that no human being is capable of telling the full truth about their own experience (I know for freaking sure that I’m not!) and by that standard, no story is ever fully “reliable.”

Anyway, the point is – the term “Unreliable Narrator” is usually used to describe a narrator who is deliberately holding something back from the reader (The Death of Roger Ackroyd), or incapable of telling the full story because of mental illness or impairment, youth, etc. The lying narrator creates a twist in the story because the narrator knows more than the reader, and the reveal of the lie plays as a surprise. The impaired narrator creates a sense of pathos for the reader by putting them in a position of knowing more than the narrator (Flowers for Algernon and Charly, To Kill a Mockingbird).

A narrator character can be overt or covert. Nick Carraway and Ishmael are overt narrators, first person tellers of their tales. In the original Road Warrior movie, it’s only at the end that we understand that the narrator is the Feral Boy, and that reveal plays as a satisfying twist.

A narrator character can be useful when the main character is disintegrating mentally or morally, because that point of view character can pull back from hero or heroine worship to arrive at moral judgment.

And I should point out that in film, you don’t have to necessarily use voiceover to achieve the effects of a narrator character. In film Inception, there is no narration, but the Ellen Page character, Ariadne, is set up as a point of view character who observes (and falls for) Cobb, the Leonardo DiCaprio character, giving him a bit of a mythic quality. Then Ariadne gradually takes charge of the action herself as Cobb falls apart. I don’t think this was done particularly well in this movie – mostly because of bad casting. But if you can look past that misfire, you can see the potential is there in the script.

You don’t have to go all out with this technique with it to be useful and powerful, either. I actually use it in my Huntress Moon thriller series. In one way, the books have the normal structure of protagonist vs. antagonist: my FBI lead, Roarke, is hunting a vicious mass killer, The Huntress. But the uniqueness of the books is that Roarke is also a Narrator Character who is constantly observing and commenting on the Huntress. For my purposes, this structure helps to keep the Huntress mysterious. There’s an elusive quality about her that is much more effective than shining too much light on her.

Reviewers have also made the point about the Huntress books that as a man, Roarke is struggling to understand the world of female experience, and that we need the more familiar male point of view or “male gaze” to take us into that alien world. (Then of course, I can turn that point of view completely inside out.)

So what are some other examples of the Narrator Character in movies, books, and TV?

I’d also love to hear about examples from authors who have a Narrator Character in their own books. How is that working for you?

For the New Year I’m experimenting – I’ve just set up a separate Facebook page where I can get deeply into topics like this, and where people might be more inclined to join a discussion than on a blog.

If this kind of thing interests you, come on over to Stealing Hollywood for the discussion (and Like the page if you want to get updates in your FB feed).

– Alex



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Via: Alexandra Sokoloff


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