Narratology is a branch of literary theory that studies narrative structure and function. Fiction is one form of narrative prose, meaning it’s an account of events told by someone. It’s always communicated through a “voice,” and that voice belongs to the narrator.
To understand narrative voice, you must identify who speaks—who tells the story. This is always the narrator, a fictitious character who has a purpose in telling the tale.
Types of Narrators
Narrators are often a character in the story they’re telling. These types of narrators are called homodiegetic narrators. (Diegetic means within a setting or story world.) If the homodiegetic narrator is also the protagonist of the story, he or she is called an autodiegetic narrator.
For example, Nick Carraway is the narrator of as well as a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. But he’s not the protagonist of the novel; Jay Gatsby is. This makes Carraway a homodiegetic narrator but not an autodiegetic one. Katniss Everdeen, however, is both the narrator and protagonist of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games; she’s an autodiegetic narrator.
A narrator who is not a character in the story but who knows everything and tells the story from an omniscient point of view is called a heterodiegetic narrator. Heterodiegetic narrators were popular in Victorian literature but are out of vogue today.
It isn’t crucial that you remember this jargon so long as you understand the concepts.
It’s also important to realize that the narrator is not the same as you, the author. Narrators, whether they’re story people or not, are fictive characters who can hold viewpoints and opinions that you don’t share. For example, female authors can create male narrators. And you can write multiple stories each with different narrators who have opposite worldviews. Remember: the narrator in fiction is a made-up character.
Narrators are characters who relay the story to a fictive reader, a narratee. A specific addressee is rarely named in stories. However, in my psychological thriller The Bedwetter: Journal of a Budding Psychopath, protagonist Russell Pisarek ends up writing his journal for another character in the story world.
Levels of Narrative Communication
Three levels comprise a fiction narrative, presented here from the inside out:
- A character addresses another character in the story world narrative. For example, Russell Pisarek argues with his sister Becky.
- This exchange, along with description of character actions and setting, is told by a narrator who addresses an imaginary reader (the narratee). In The Bedwetter, Russell writes in his journal about his encounters and thoughts for another character in the book.
- The text is composed by a real author (yours truly) and is read by an actual reader (hopefully, you).
These three levels are nested, as depicted in the following diagram:
Next installment, we’ll learn more about focalization: how narrators intersect with point of view.