Writers must know the difference between author, narrator, and characters when crafting a story. All three entities typically exist separately from one another, each playing a distinct role in the tale. Without a correct understanding of these entities, writing may come off as sloppy or unintentionally haughty.
A writer is not the same thing as a narrator unless the writer tells their story from their perspective. Writers construct the story, and narrators convey that story through the character’s words, actions, and thoughts. Narrators can be characters within the story or an outside source.
This article dives into the meanings of narrator and author and what “psychic distance” means relative to a book’s narration. Additionally, it explains whether an author should include themselves in the story and provides examples of authors versus narrators. Read on to learn more.
Does “Narrator” Mean Author?
“Narrator” does not mean “author.” But, authors can be narrators if they’re writing their own first-person accounts. Usually, the narrator and author are separate entities, with the narrator telling the story and providing a point of view for the reader. Some books have multiple narrators.
Here are the main differences between the author, narrator, and characters in a story:
- Author: Writes the story
- Narrator: Tells the story
- Character: Lives the story
If an author writes a first-person account of their own life and experiences, they would essentially be the narrator. This is most often seen in biographies, memoirs, and other personal narratives.
Fictional writing rarely sees the author as the narrator. In fact, the narrator in fictitious works is almost character-like, in the sense that they’re a fictional construct crafted by the writer.
The narrator’s sole purpose is to tell the story as it unfolds, viewing events and actions from an outside perspective and peer into the minds of characters and “know” their perceptions, thoughts, and feelings.
Narrators Practice “Psychic Distance” in Stories
Narrators tell the story, but it’s barely enough just to describe what’s happening. When the author writes, he or she must develop a deep point of view for the reader.
To do this, the author uses the narrator as a “medium” or middleman.
Much like an invisible, teleporting, all-seeing entity, the narrator is, in a sense, supernatural. They see what’s happening in the present, what happened in the past, and what’s going to happen in the future. The narrator can move in close to the characters and get into their mind to see what makes them tick or how they feel.
Additionally, a narrator can move away from characters and observe physical actions, even what’s going on outside of the characters’ world.
Here are a few examples of how narrators can tell a story using psychic distance:
The narrator observes what’s happening outside of the characters.
|“The lightning streaked across the horizon like a torchlight illuminating intensely in the darkness.”|
The narrator observes the character’s physical actions from an outside perspective.
|“Norma settled down in her tattered armchair with a heavy sigh.”|
The narrator observes the character’s internal perception, although without emotion.
|“Out of the corner of his eye, he observed the movement ever so slightly. It appeared as a glimmer of light.”|
The narrator observes from an outside perspective and “sees” internally into the author’s thoughts and emotions.
|“The still water mirrored the sky, stars twinkling both above and below. This swamp was foreign to Brady. His stomach twisted into knots as a green log-like shape rapidly moved across the water. He swallowed, a lump forming in his throat. ‘I’m going to die,’ he whispered.|
Should the Author Be in a Story?
Unless the author is telling their story from their very own first-person point of view, he or she is not the narrator, and frankly, shouldn’t be. Exposing the author in a story can ruin the spellbinding aspect that makes stories deeply immersive and captivating.
Imagine going to a play. There’s a loud, booming voice narrating each scene. Smoke billows, pyrotechnics, flare, and laser lights flash about, creating a mood for telling the tale.
Now, imagine the smoke dissipates, the pyrotechnics stop, and the lights shut off. There, on the stage, you see the narrator appear from behind the veil of smoke. He’s holding a microphone, still narrating the scene and the characters’ actions, thoughts, and feelings. The author has broken the spell. The illusion? Destroyed.
This is precisely why authors should typically remain unseen, unheard, and totally imperceptible in a story. The reader is no longer immersed in an imaginary world because they “see” the author telling the tale.
It eliminates the magic.
Examples of Narrator vs. Authors
In the book “Duma Key,” Stephen King is the author. He crafted the story using the power of his imagination.
However, King writes from the perspective of a character, Edgar Freemantle. When the audience reads the story, and the book states, “Any act that re-makes the world is heroic. Or so I’ve come to believe,” they recognize that Edgar Freemantle is speaking — he is the narrator. Stephen King is the author.
We come across narrated stories on a daily basis. For example, if your best friend calls you and relays a story about her latest blind date, she is the narrator.
Sometimes, however, there’s some confusion regarding narrators that usually comes when a person verbally tells a story from the perspective of someone else. Case in point, imagine that your best friend tells you a story about her sister’s blind date. She raises the pitch in her voice, speaks faster, and uses slang that she doesn’t normally use, impersonating her sister.
It’s still your best friend telling the story, so, who’s the narrator?
As your best friend tells the story acting as her sister, you stop seeing her as your best friend and she “becomes” her sister as she relates the tale. It’s a performance by a creator, and you’re listening to her sister tell the story.
The best friend is like the “author” or the story’s creator. It sounds confusing, but it’s much easier to understand if you imagine it written.
If your best friend wrote a book about a blind date from her sister’s perspective, your best friend is the author and her sister, the narrator. As explained above, Stephen King wrote “Duma Key” from the perspective of Edgar Freemantle, but King is the author.
Freemantle is the narrator.
The table below offers additional information about authors and narrators and provides more examples of authors and narrators using three well-known books:
|Author vs. NarratorAuthorNarratorDefinition: The person who writes a story, novel, book, or play.||Definition: The person who tells or gives a written account of the events in a story, including action, emotion, or perspective.|
|What They Do: Authors create stories.||What They Do: Narrators tell stories.|
|Etymology: Old French “autor,” from Latin “auctor,” from “augere,” meaning “increase, originate, promote.”Etymology: Latin “narrat-” meaning “related, told” from “gnarus” meaning “knowing.”Examples:|
In “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Mark Twain is the author.
In “Moby Dick,” Herman Melville is the author.
In “The Catcher In The Rye,” J.D. Salinger is the author.
|Examples:In “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Huck Finn is the narrator.|
In “Moby Dick,” Ishmael is the narrator.
In “The Catcher In The Rye,” Holden is the narrator.
Why Narrators Are Important
Most authors write because they enjoy writing, creating imaginary worlds, or relaying a story in a way that captivates the reader. The goal is to form a relationship between the characters within the story, and authors do this by using a medium, and the narrator acts as that medium.
No book is without a narrator, whether the author, a character, or an outside observer.
Narrators offer flashbacks and backstories and, sometimes, even jump to the future. They do this to tell the story in a way that’s easy for the reader to understand while also holding on to their attention.
Challenges arise when the narrator incorporates too little or too much information.
If the narrator summarizes and brushes over events that should be more “in-scene,” it can completely destroy the storyline, rendering it dull and lifeless.
Narrators are important because narration can make or break a story, much like a good storyteller versus a lousy storyteller. Good narrators, much like good storytellers, include all relevant information, including:
- The right amount of action
- Internal perspective
Bad narrators, and bad storytellers, may limit the story’s brilliance by telling it in a tedious, chronological manner with too little, or too much, detail.
Understanding the difference between the creation and narration of a story can help a writer craft an enthralling and deeply immersive tale.
Without proper knowledge of these roles, the writer might include too much obvious detail, coming off as condescending to the reader, or too little detail, appearing thoughtless and hasty in their writing.
To reiterate, authors are not usually narrators unless the story is the author’s to tell in their own words and from their own perspective. Generally, narrators are separate from authors, and authors should remain “behind the scenes,” much like a movie producer.