The narrator: that unseen, often nameless character who somehow knows everything that’s happening and what everyone is thinking. Unless you’re writing from first person perspective, in which case the narrator is one of your characters, the narrator is that omnipresent “being”, who exists only to narrate the events transpiring in the story.
One thing that is very important when writing from third person (narrator) perspective is to lay out early on the “laws” that govern your narrator.
First off, is your narrator an actual character? If this is the case, the “laws” would fit more with first person perspective, which I won’t get into in this article. Assuming your narrator is truly third person, is he/she omnipresent (privy to all information and thoughts), or is their perspective limited? For example, in the classic story “Les Miserables”, the narrator will occasionally make reference to information they were unable to find, making the narrator appear to be a sort of journalist.
One mistake many writers make is growing too comfortable with the omnipresence of the narrator. It can be so convenient to have “someone” who knows and sees everything that occasionally the author makes the error of letting this access to unlimited knowledge affect their characters. Suddenly, characters themselves know things they could not possibly know. Remember: when you are writing from the point of view of a character, the reader’s access to knowledge is limited by what the character knows.
Below is an example of point of view error:
John walked through the stadium, hot dog in one hand and soda in the other. “This place is too crowded,” he thought. Just then, he looked up to see a 22-year-old college student named Samantha. “Who is that?” he wondered.
Unless John possesses super human deductive abilities, there is absolutely no way he could know that the girl he was looking at was a 22-year-old college student. This information should be reserved for the narrator.
Speaking of point of view (POV), the narrator can serve as a great tool for switching POV between characters. Too often, writers rapidly switch POV between characters or “head hop”. Without clear transfer of POV, this can become very confusing to the reader. Notice the improper POV switch down below:
“I hate hot dogs,” thought James.
“Hot dogs are the best!” thought Michael.
“What is in a hot dog anyway?” thought Stacey.
“What’s the capital of Peru?” thought Fred.
In this example, rapid changing of POV makes this section confusing to a potential reader. Note the “cleaned up” version below:
“I hate hot dogs,” thought James, glancing over at Michael. Michael conversely, appeared very enthusiastic about the meal. “Hot dogs are the best!” he thought, inadvertently squirting Stacey with ketchup in his zeal. The girl shot him a withering glance, then looked at her own steaming bun. “What is in a hot dog anyway?” she thought. She turned to ask Fred, but he was lost in an entirely different world. “What’s the capital of Peru?” he wondered.
In this example, the narrator serves as the “middleman” to smoothly transfer POV between the four friends.
One point that is important to keep in mind: once you have formed the “laws” for your narrator, don’t break them. For instance, it is generally best to keep the narrator entirely removed emotionally, although there are select instances where he/she might express an opinion. If you have opted for the first method, by no means can you allow an expression like, “the poor boy,” or “sadly, the man”. This expresses empathy from the narrator, who up to this point has been entirely removed.
The narrator is an incredibly valuable asset in fiction writing. Strides should be taken to preserve the special “abilities” the narrator possesses. Remember: the narrator is your character’s guide. Handle with care.