The Present Narrator: a preference out of time?

In writing The Circle this November I tried out a thing which I have been interested in for a while and which I suspect may be verboten in some people’s books: having a narrator who has a character of their own, and isn’t part of the story (and thus an omniscient-third for the narration).

In first-person stories the narrator is usually expected to be the protagonist and usually the hero, and sometimes (such as Maria McCann’s sublime As Meat Loves Salt, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita) the author will play with this expectation of heroism and the narrator-protagonist is revealed to be the monster of the piece all along; this is often done through the use of an unreliable narrator, one of my favourite kinds. These stories allow the author to force the reader to use their head a little more instead of being carried along on the tide of the narrative: one is supposed to stop and apply a formula of “wait but he/she said this earlier” or “remember not to trust this person”; there is even comedy, in some cases, in the dissonance between the narrator’s perception of the event and the evidence of the event as seen without the distorting filter of their reality. I have two first-person stories (Tame, The Breaking of M) as Melissa Snowndon and one (Protect Me From What I Want) in which the dissonance between the narrator’s statements about themselves and their evident behaviour are supposed to be the source of humour and occasional tragedy. The gap between what a narrator is prepared to reveal about themselves and what they have actually revealed in relating their own behaviour can make for compelling reading as the riddle of a personality is solved.

In close-third the voice and beliefs of the character should seep through more subtly: this type of narration seems to cause a lot of confusion among readers, with angry reviews on places like Amazon and Goodreads suggesting that the story represents the belief of the author rather than the belief of the viewpoint character (not always the same thing: I have just after all spent a month writing from the perspective of several white Edwardian men of reasonable means and their social norms are not my social norms); then again there are those who are determined that Nabokov must share every expression opinion with Humbert Humbert, so I’m not sure it’s so much a flaw in the narration form as it is a flaw in the intelligence of the reader. I’ve used multiple-viewpoint close-third for Pass the Parcel, in which it is directly possible to see from one section to the next the difference between how someone sees themselves and how others see them; and single-viewpoint close-third for The Other Daughter, which to my mind created a claustrophobic and traumatic narrative in which it was often impossible to see what was coming until it was almost upon the reader. This is a limitation which needn’t be a limitation: seeding the narrative with oncoming tragedy/events that the reader will spot even while the viewpoint character does not is a common enough trick.

The present narrator – that is, a third-person omniscient narrator whose character and voice is such that they become a distinctive part of the story, holding opinions or leading the gaze of the reader rather than merely dumping the events on them as if this occurred naturally – is in my memory associated with children’s fiction (specifically the works of Roald Dahl and C S Lewis, upon whose work I unfortunately cut my teeth, along with a slew of books by Tolkien, Dick King Smith, Colin Dann, Willard Price, and Hugh Lofting, rendering me infinitely “problematic” in the idiom of the current age), and with comedy (Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which breaks a lot of fiction-writing “rules” and is the better for it).  By “present” I mean “here” rather than “in this moment” (that would be the present tense).

Throughout my education and the proliferation of articles about fiction, and conversations with friends,  I’ve been exposed to the idea that a present narrator is a quaint anomaly, a relic of another time, shoved in the corner along with Improving Fiction and Gothic Horror as curiosities of the past. I am rather fond of the Present Narrator. I am rather fond of first person narration also; it holds up well for War of the Worlds, and the Present Narrator handing over to the first person in The Time Machine lends the story a certain air of credibility. It’s not just H G Wells – as mentioned above there are authors whose stock-in-trade involves the presence of the narrator, pointing at things, judging the characters, making jokes at their expense, or simply telling the reader that X character is a big liar. In terms of readerly difficulty, then, perhaps it is – or is seen as – the entry-level. It separates the beliefs of the narrator from the beliefs of the characters; it tells the reader when the character is wrong or being mendacious or will be proven wrong later. No alarms, no surprises: except it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Present Narrator, like the first-person narrator, the third-person-close-narration, comes with its own set of expectations. We expect the Present Narrator to have the whole story. We expect them, the conduit to the fictional world, to tell us the “truth”, while pointing out the lies of the characters; we expect them to be on our side, if not that of the characters; we expect them to perhaps mislead us a little, but not a lot.

Knowledge of expectations from a certain format in writing is an invitation to overturn them.

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2 thoughts on “The Present Narrator: a preference out of time?

  1. I have a great fondness for the present narrator. I’m sure it’s partly nostalgia for children’s fiction, but also there’s often a warmth to it, a gossipy intimacy. Having a personality behind but unconnected to the narration feels like someone is specifically choosing to tell you the story because it’s interesting or exciting or they just think you’d really enjoy it. Instead of me seeking out a reportage of a thing that happened, the present narrator says, “I heard about this thing that happened and I thought of you.”

    1. I agree – there’s a personal element, where the sense that you’re having the experience between you and the story is heightened.

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