The Narrator and the Writer

Writing is like acting, only more so and less so. The two activities are parts of a continuum of the performing arts. All writing is performed, even those works which may be unlikely to be called dramatic. Communication with language may be more abstract than communicating with the body and the face, but underneath all words lie ideas and emotions, and the intention to project them.

If I speak to you, you must know that I am trying to affect your state of mind: to make you think and feel. But am I honest? Am I forthright? Or am I subtle? Sly? Do I have ulterior motives? A hidden agenda? Am I sincere, or am I playing a role?

Of course! As we play roles in life, we play roles in writing, and as in life, or on stage, we cannot take a writer's words at face value. Every one is suspect. Every work has a voice. It may sound like the writer's voice. But unless you know a writer personally, and to know a person is difficult at the best of times, you must be skeptical. Because that voice may, in fact, be someone else's. Someone who only exists in the work. A character.

That character, you've certainly realized, is the narrator. Every work has a narrator. And every narrator is a creation of the writer. And as such, every narrator is both the writer and not the writer. The narrator is a shard of the writer. He (forgive my weakness), that anonymous voice who speaks to you, the audience, may be complex and self-contradictory, or straightforward and simple, but no less constructed. As a person herself is constructed out of memories of observing other people, a narrator is a lesser version of a person. The shorter the work, the flimsier the narrator.

The essence of a person blurs like fog when you try to inspect it too closely. Likewise, the nature of our narrator is vapour, less substantial, and more readily disperses into the grey background. The fewer words, the less you know. The less you know, the less real. But always a role. True to life or entirely different, and no one can be certain.

Once again, forgive my triteness: don't judge the writer by his narrator. Judge the work. But not until you've thought about it. We're all shadows of ourselves. Or of other characters.

Nar*ra"tor (?), n. [L.]

One who narrates; one who relates a series of events or transactions.


© Webster 1913.

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