The Detached Narrator

This may not be my own invention, but I’ve never seen any concept like it in all the study of writing I’ve done over the past fifteen years or so, so I may not be able to take credit for it.  What I’m talking about is the notion of a character in a story, usually a short story, though a novel could be written this way, who is the narrator of the story, but is not affected by the outcome.  That is to say, this is a person through whose eyes we see the action and hear all about the other characters, but we are taken into that narrator’s head only.  His function is merely to describe what is going on.  This “detached” narrator takes minimal if any part in the action and does not influence the outcome, and–most importantly–is not changed or influenced in any way by the events of the story.  We, as reader, watch the story unfold, brought to life by the narrator, yet our focus is on the other characters.  We root for the protagonist and boo the antagonist, yet we’re not privileged to know what they are thinking.  We discern what the characters say, see what they see, smell what they smell, hear what they hear, and so forth, but we have to infer for ourselves what they think.  Even the narrator doesn’t know what they are thinking (unless one of the characters tells him).  Sort of like the narrator in the stage play, “Our Town,” by Thornton Wilder.

However, that comparison is not complete.  In fact, in any stage play, or even movie, the audience is always watching the players from “outside.”  Usually there’s no narrator at all.  Each member of the audience has to decide for himself or herself what the characters are thinking and what their motivation is for the actions they take.  In a similar manner, the concept of a detached narrator is to bring to life a story in the way we would see it on the stage or the screen but without the physical presence of either.  I’ve written a few stories this way, and stumbled on the concept by accident.  In my fumbling around for a new way to write something, I began giving an outsider the narration and allowed that person to chronicle the story.  It doesn’t always work, and I’m suspicious that it may not be a very effective way to write a story.  The limited access we have into the minds of the main characters reduces the story to one of description.  The narrator has to be damn good at revealing to the reader the motivation behind the characters, not just the actions.  In today’s fiction market, we are so used to seeing a character grow and evolve in some visible and well-defined manner that I think the presence of a narrator who doesn’t change will be looked on as unsatisfying and incomplete.  Might be hard to get such a story published.

Anybody got any comments?

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  1. #1 by Fre on June 3, 2013 - 9:37 AM

    Based upon what you have written in this blog entry, you are describing initially the omnipotent point of view, the all seeing, all knowing external viewpoint and later the cinematic point of view. Both are well described points of view. Your statement “We descern what the characters say, see what they see, smell what they smell, hear what they hear are all characterists of the omnipotent point of view, except ‘smelling what they smell’. To experience the senses of feeling, tasting, and smelling, you have to be in first person to experience these in the mind of the character and thus go from third person omnipotent to first person limited.

    Your statement ‘ audience is always watching the players from the outside’ is the definition of the cinematic point of view. The point of view rule in short stories is that their must only be one point of view; although, a second POV might be used with proper scene breaks and transitions on rare occasion.

    • #2 by rogerfloyd on June 3, 2013 - 5:55 PM

      Fred,
      Thanks for your comment.
      The omnipotent point of view is where the writer enters the head of whatever character he wants, anytime he wants. That’s not the same as the detached narrator. The detached narrator is a single person who describes the action for us and who is generally outside the action. He’s (or she’s) a real character, but that person is the only one whose head we are privileged to enter. We see the action only through that narrator’s filter. We know only what he/she knows. We don’t know what the other characters are feeling, seeing, etc., except as the detached narrator tells us. So when I said we “see what they see, smell what they smell…” then that sensory perception comes to us through the narrator. In the omnipotent POV, that information comes to us directly, not filtered through someone else. This is not the same as cinematic POV because, as above, everything comes to us through the one person, the narrator. I’m trying to make a distinction between all the other types of POV and the detached narrator, though I’m not sure I’ve done a very good job.
      In any event, thanks for commenting.
      Roger

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