Who Is the Narrator’s Audience?

Photo © 2007 Gisela Giardino CC 2.0 BY SA

Here’s a twist on narrative point-of-view that most authors seem to let slip through the cracks. We all talk about who the narrator is. But who is she talking to? Who is that narrator’s audience?

I’m not asking about the writer’s audience, which might be different than the narrator’s audience. The writer is obviously writing to the reader, and we do often talk about who the intended reader is. We also often assume that the writer’s audience and the narrator’s are one in the same, but they may be different. The narrator may be writing to someone else entirely.

Let’s take the case of a first-person narrator, because it’s easier to see the difference there. If the book is a memoir, then we assume that the writer and narrator are one in the same and that the reader is her intended audience. We also assume that the author is writing in order to lay down some part of her history, for posterity or even to relate a lesson from her experiences. And these are all reasonable assumptions, for a memoir.

But what if the book is a diary? Then the narrator, when she originally wrote it, intended it only to be read by her cat. By sneaking a peek at this book, we nose in on the privileged and private thoughts of the author. The reader is a completely different audience than the narrator intended. So a novel written as a diary, reflects the same privacy, even though the narrator is a fictional character. What she says in her private diary is different than what she might say directly to us as readers. What she reveals about her thoughts and motivations (and what she conceals) is also sure to differ. And her purpose in writing is sure to be different than if she were narrating, first-person, to us directly (as in a memoir).

Another example: EyeLeash: A Blog Novel, which I reviewed favorably. Author Jess C. Scott set it in the form of a private journal, which her fictional character Jade had written. Actually, it’s in the form of an email Jade had sent to her crush Novan (another fictional character), an email that contained the journal as an attachment. So the bulk of the novel consists of Jade’s private conversation with herself, wrapped in comments she wrote to Novan, published as a novel that author Jess intended for you. Jade’s diary contains much that she originally did not tell Novan, and that she later did let him read it says something about what happened to her afterward.

It’s easy to see that a first-person narrator might have written to a different audience than the reader. But even a third-person narrator could have. For example, when we analyze Biblical historical literature (such as the gospels of the New Testament), we consider who wrote them (the narrators) and who their intended audience was (which is a different audience than us). We do this even though the stories are told in third-person narration, because we know that the narrator (who is the author himself in this case) potentially has his own worldview and agenda.

Sometimes literary analysts make these distinctions, when they stick out. But usually authors don’t seem to have given much thought to who the narrator is writing to and what he hopes to accomplish by his writing. Even first-person fictional narrators seem to just rattle off thoughts onto the page, as if they’re chatting with us about what’s on their mind… but we have no idea what our relationship is with the character or what level of openness and honesty, or what kind of slant, we can expect from them.



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