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The Narrator in Novels Role & Examples

Caitlin Stephens, Amy Bonn
  • Author
    Caitlin Stephens

    Caitlin Stephens has taught English for nine years. She has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Syracuse University, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Colby College. She has published two books and a variety of pieces in magazines.

  • Instructor
    Amy Bonn

    Amy has taught college and law school writing courses. She holds a master's degree in English and a law degree.

Learn the meaning of a narrator, and examine the role of narrators in American novels. Explore the various types of narrators' points of view, and find examples. Updated: 02/21/2022

What Is a Narrator?

What does narrator mean, and who is the narrator of a story? The narrator is the person who is recounting the narrative, and is separate from the author, or the actual human who wrote the story. A narrator can be a character within the story, or an outside observer who does not interact with the other characters, but just informs the reader about them. There are several different types of narrators, all of whom serve a slightly different purpose and allow a story to be told in a unique way. This demonstrates a different type of perspective and point of view.


The narrator is the persona telling the story, not the author who wrote the story.

The narrator is the persona telling the story.


The Role of the Narrator

What does a narrator do? The role of narrator depends, in part, on what type of narrator they are. Authors make different choices about who will narrate the story, and how they will do it, based on what effect they desire to create with the story. Although the primary role of all narrators is to recount or tell a narrative, they do it in different ways that add nuance to their basic purpose.

The narrator of a story has more power than the other characters, because they control what gets said and what gets left out. They control how details are described, and what aspects of the story are emphasized. Just like people, most narrators have some kind of motive, a reason for telling the story that impacts how they tell it. A group of a hundred people recounting the same event would all portray it slightly differently. People have certain biases and preoccupations that color the way they each tell stories. Likewise, the role of a narrator is to convey to the reader a story, filtered through the lens of their own perspective. This lesson focuses on examples of narrators from American literature.

Role of the Narrator in American Novels

You may be familiar with the concepts of narration and narrators if you've ever had to write a narrative essay in which you talk about your own personal experiences. Simply stated, a narrator is the person who tells a story. When we read a novel, it's the narrator's point of view, or perspective, from which we see the events of the story - it's the narrator's perspective of the events that's our window into the story as readers.

This may seem pretty straightforward and even, perhaps, not particularly important. But when you think about the fact that just like in real life the person who tells us a tale may not know the full story or may not be completely trustworthy, it becomes clear that understanding the role played by a narrator in a novel can add an entirely new dimension of intrigue.

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Types of Narrators

The type of narrator used in a story impacts the role of the narrator. There are several types of narrators, which are discussed below.

First-Person Narrator

A first-person narrator uses "I" to tell a story from their own perspective. In almost all cases, first-person narrators are characters within the story itself, whether they are the protagonist of the story or another supporting character. For example, in Moby Dick by Herman Melville, the first line of the book is "Call me Ishmael." Moby Dick is told from the perspective of a first-person narrator named Ishmael. First-person narration allows the reader to see deeply into the mind of one character. However, first-person narration can be misleading in how trustworthy it is. Sometimes, first-person narrators have reasons to conceal certain details from readers, or they might think they are telling the truth, but they are unaware of how skewed or biased their own perspective is. Overall, first-person narration is fairly common in American literature, though not quite as common as third-person narration.

Second-Person Narrator

A second-person narrator uses "you" to tell a story. Second-person narration can make the events of the story feel very real and close to the reader, since the reader is implicated. However, some second-person narration is not truly "about" the reader, but about some other character or to some generalized "you." Also, the use of "you" does not make the reader the narrator; the narrator is still a separate persona telling the story. In general, in fiction and in American literature, second-person narrators are uncommon. They are used more often in horror stories and choose your own adventure books. One example of a story with a second-person narrator is Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl," which consists of things that are said to the girl, rather than things the girl is saying.

Third-Person Narrator

A third-person narrator tells a story about other people. Third-person narrators use the names of characters, as well as pronouns like "he" or "she," to narrate events. There are different types of third-person narrators, and they are very common in American literature. A third-person narrator never makes "I" statements or talks about themselves, so they tend to feel like less of a character in the text than first-person narrators do. Nonetheless, some third-person narrators clearly have a personality, which can be gleaned from their narration. An example of a third-person narrator is in Joseph Heller's Catch 22, which is about Yossarian, but not told by him. Third-person narration is very common in American literature.

Third-Person Objective Narrator

A third-person objective narrator tells the events of the story without knowing the thoughts or motivations of any of the characters. This type of narrator does not have anything personal at stake in the story, but they can still make judgments about the characters or prefer some characters over others. An example of a third-person objective narrator is in "Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway, where the narrator does not comment on the characters' thoughts or motivations.

Third-Person Subjective Narrator

A third-person subjective narrator does have access to at least one character's thoughts and motivations. This type of narrator is not an objective observer, but has intimate knowledge of at least one character. This makes them likely to be biased in some way, either for or against that character. An example of a third-person subjective narrator is in George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones, where the narrator has access to the minds of all characters.

Third-Person Limited Narrator

A third-person limited narrator only has extensive knowledge of one character. The third-person narrator has access to this one character's thoughts, feelings, and actions at all times throughout the story, though they do not necessarily tell the reader everything they know. In some ways, a third-person limited narrator is similar to a first-person narrator, because the story is being filtered to some degree through the perspective of one character. However, a third-person narrator is a separate person from the character whose perspective they have access to, so they can potentially add commentary that the character themselves would not add. A third-person limited narrator may also dislike or disagree with the character whose perspective they have access to, and may paint a less pleasant picture than a first-person narrator would paint of themselves. An example of a third-person limited narrator is in The Giver by Lois Lowry, where the narrator is not Jonas, but has access to Jonas's thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Point of View

You may have heard of the terms first person, second person, and third person when discussing points of view. The term first person applies to a story told from the 'I' point of view; the narrator him or herself is typically part of the story and relates events from his or her perspective in this type of novel.

An example of a first person narrator in an American novel is the narrator in Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Notably, the reader is never told the name of the narrator in this novel; the lack of a name for our protagonist underscores Ellison's point about the loss of identity for African Americans in society. Not to be confused with H.G. Wells' sci-fi classic The Invisible Man, Ellison's Invisible Man involves a symbolic, rather than literal, invisibility.

Our narrator famously explains in the prologue to the novel, 'I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.'

Ellison's use of first person narration in Invisible Man very importantly allows us to see the events of the novel from the point of view of our protagonist, to understand intimately why he has literally been driven underground, and beyond that, to see how the actions of others in society directly affect his thinking and identity.

We don't tend to see many novels written from the second person perspective; that would entail telling a story from the 'you' point of view, as though you are a character in the story. It would be pretty awkward for an entire novel to be presented from this perspective (think of those Choose Your Own Adventure children's books, which address the reader directly as 'you,' when you think about second person).

Many American novels are told from the third person point of view, which means that the narrator is external to and apart from the actions of the story. The reader receives something of an outsider's perspective in this type of novel. One type of third person narrator is third person omniscient, in which the narrator is all-knowing and able to tell us about the actions and inner thoughts of all of the characters.

Remember that with this type of narration, there are no real limits on what the storyteller knows or what the reader can be told about. For example, in Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22, the reader is told that, 'After he made up his mind to spend the rest of the war in the hospital, Yossarian wrote letters to everyone he knew, saying that he was in the hospital but never mentioning why.'

Here, the audience is offered a look into both the internal thoughts and the actions of our protagonist, Yossarian. But we're also provided with the inner workings of other characters as well. We're told of another patient, 'The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him. He sent shudders of annoyance scampering up ticklish spines, and everybody fled from him…' The omniscient third person narrator in Catch-22 gives the reader glimpses of what a variety of characters are thinking, feeling, and doing. We're not limited to what one person thinks and observes.

The other type of third person narrator does involve that type of limitation - it's called the third person limited narrator. With this type of narration, the narrator shares only one character's thoughts and doesn't discuss the actions of other characters when they're not interacting with that one character. This type of narrator, as the name indicates, is limited in his or her perspective, somewhat like a first person narrator would be.

Multiple and Unreliable Narrators

Sometimes the identity or role of the narrator is crucial to the meaning of the novel itself. Take the example of The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. That novel is famous for being written from four different points of view.

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Video Transcript

Role of the Narrator in American Novels

You may be familiar with the concepts of narration and narrators if you've ever had to write a narrative essay in which you talk about your own personal experiences. Simply stated, a narrator is the person who tells a story. When we read a novel, it's the narrator's point of view, or perspective, from which we see the events of the story - it's the narrator's perspective of the events that's our window into the story as readers.

This may seem pretty straightforward and even, perhaps, not particularly important. But when you think about the fact that just like in real life the person who tells us a tale may not know the full story or may not be completely trustworthy, it becomes clear that understanding the role played by a narrator in a novel can add an entirely new dimension of intrigue.

Point of View

You may have heard of the terms first person, second person, and third person when discussing points of view. The term first person applies to a story told from the 'I' point of view; the narrator him or herself is typically part of the story and relates events from his or her perspective in this type of novel.

An example of a first person narrator in an American novel is the narrator in Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Notably, the reader is never told the name of the narrator in this novel; the lack of a name for our protagonist underscores Ellison's point about the loss of identity for African Americans in society. Not to be confused with H.G. Wells' sci-fi classic The Invisible Man, Ellison's Invisible Man involves a symbolic, rather than literal, invisibility.

Our narrator famously explains in the prologue to the novel, 'I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.'

Ellison's use of first person narration in Invisible Man very importantly allows us to see the events of the novel from the point of view of our protagonist, to understand intimately why he has literally been driven underground, and beyond that, to see how the actions of others in society directly affect his thinking and identity.

We don't tend to see many novels written from the second person perspective; that would entail telling a story from the 'you' point of view, as though you are a character in the story. It would be pretty awkward for an entire novel to be presented from this perspective (think of those Choose Your Own Adventure children's books, which address the reader directly as 'you,' when you think about second person).

Many American novels are told from the third person point of view, which means that the narrator is external to and apart from the actions of the story. The reader receives something of an outsider's perspective in this type of novel. One type of third person narrator is third person omniscient, in which the narrator is all-knowing and able to tell us about the actions and inner thoughts of all of the characters.

Remember that with this type of narration, there are no real limits on what the storyteller knows or what the reader can be told about. For example, in Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22, the reader is told that, 'After he made up his mind to spend the rest of the war in the hospital, Yossarian wrote letters to everyone he knew, saying that he was in the hospital but never mentioning why.'

Here, the audience is offered a look into both the internal thoughts and the actions of our protagonist, Yossarian. But we're also provided with the inner workings of other characters as well. We're told of another patient, 'The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him. He sent shudders of annoyance scampering up ticklish spines, and everybody fled from him…' The omniscient third person narrator in Catch-22 gives the reader glimpses of what a variety of characters are thinking, feeling, and doing. We're not limited to what one person thinks and observes.

The other type of third person narrator does involve that type of limitation - it's called the third person limited narrator. With this type of narration, the narrator shares only one character's thoughts and doesn't discuss the actions of other characters when they're not interacting with that one character. This type of narrator, as the name indicates, is limited in his or her perspective, somewhat like a first person narrator would be.

Multiple and Unreliable Narrators

Sometimes the identity or role of the narrator is crucial to the meaning of the novel itself. Take the example of The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. That novel is famous for being written from four different points of view.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What does it mean to be a narrator?

The narrator is the person telling the story. The narrator is different from the author, or the actual human who wrote the story. The narrator is a fictional invention, even when they are not an actual character in the story.

What are the types of narrators?

There are different types of narrators, which affect what the narrator does and what type of story is told. A first-person narrator uses "I" to tell a story from their own perspective. A second-person narrator uses "you" to tell a story either implicating the reader, or told to another person. A third-person narrator uses names or pronouns to tell a story about others, who they may or may not have something at stake with. Some stories have multiple narrators, rather than being told by one person the entire time. Some stories also have unreliable narrators, where the reader has good reason to seriously question what the narrator says.

How does a narrator affect a story?

A narrator has a lot of power to affect almost any aspect of a story. They decide which details to include, and what to leave out. They decide what order to tell events in, and how much time to spend discussing each one. They decide how to describe events and other characters. They might try to sway the reader toward certain conclusions about what happens in the story, either through overt tactics or covert and subtle tactics.

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