In storytelling, the narrator is a guiding voice that leads readers through the intricate landscapes of narrative. Traditionally, this narrator is an objective observer, an omniscient presence that stands apart from the events unfolding. But what happens when the narrator becomes a character in their own right? Welcome to the world of unconventional narrators—a narrative technique that challenges norms and tells tales from perspectives as diverse as the human imagination.
Unconventional narrators turn the spotlight inward, offering readers an glimpse into the thoughts, biases, and emotions of the storyteller. Whether it’s a child, an animal, or even an inanimate object, these unique perspectives infuse narratives with depth, complexity, and a fresh lens through which to view the world.
The Observer within the Story
Unconventional narrators are not mere spectators; they are participants entangled in the narrative’s fabric. By granting them agency, authors create dynamic relationships between the narrator and the story’s events. This technique invites readers to explore the subjective nature of storytelling and the art of interpretation.
Consider the unreliable narrator—a character whose perceptions are skewed by their emotions, memories, or mental state. In works like “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger or “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn, unreliable narrators draw readers into their inner worlds, forcing them to navigate the blurred lines between reality and perception.
Walking in Different Shoes
Unconventional narrators compel readers to walk in different shoes, to experience the world through unfamiliar eyes. This technique cultivates empathy and expands perspectives, fostering a deeper understanding of characters and their motivations. It’s a literary exercise in putting oneself in another’s position, crossing boundaries of age, gender, species, and even existence.
In “Room” by Emma Donoghue, a five-year-old boy narrates the story of his life within the confines of a small, locked room. Through his innocent voice, readers gain insight into his perception of the world, allowing them to see beyond the room’s walls and into the complexities of his mother’s struggles.
Animals and Anthropomorphism
Animals as narrators blur the line between the human and the non-human. Anthropomorphism—the attribution of human traits to animals—opens a doorway to understanding the animal kingdom through human emotions. This technique reminds us that emotions and experiences are not unique to humans alone.
In “Watership Down” by Richard Adams, rabbits are anthropomorphised, their struggles for survival mirroring human society’s dynamics. This blend of the familiar and the fantastical invites readers to reconsider their relationship with the natural world and the beings that inhabit it.
The Inanimate Speaks
Unconventional narrators can also be inanimate objects that carry symbolic weight and thematic resonance. These narrators transcend their physical forms, becoming vessels for the stories they contain. By attributing thoughts and emotions to inanimate objects, authors breathe life into the mundane and explore the layers of human experience.
In “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak, Death serves as the narrator, offering a perspective that transcends time and observes humanity’s experiences during World War II. By employing Death as the narrator, the story takes on a unique poignancy, emphasizing the cyclical nature of life and the passage of time.
Voices from Beyond
Ghostly narrators add an ethereal dimension to storytelling, giving voice to those who have passed beyond the realm of the living. These narrators bridge the gap between life and death, offering a perspective that is both haunting and poignant. By speaking from beyond the grave, these narrators reflect on the past and grapple with unfinished business.
“The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold features a young girl who narrates her story from the afterlife. Through her perspective, readers witness the impact of her death on her family and peers, offering insights into the complexity of grief and the enduring connections between the living and the dead.
Voices of the Unheard
Unconventional narrators can also give voice to those whose stories have been silenced by history or societal norms. Through their perspectives, authors challenge dominant narratives, shine a light on marginalised experiences, and confront the legacy of oppression.
In “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, the ghost of a slave baby becomes a narrator, embodying the trauma of slavery and its enduring impact. Through this narrative choice, Morrison honours the voices of the silenced and engages readers in a profound exploration of history, memory, and the legacy of racial injustice.
Exploring the Unconscious
Unconventional narrators provide a gateway to the unconscious mind—a realm of thoughts, dreams, and desires that often elude conscious understanding. By delving into the inner workings of characters’ minds, authors explore the intricacies of the human psyche and the motivations that drive actions.
In “The Sound and the Fury” by William Faulkner, the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique offers readers direct access to the thoughts and memories of the characters. This narrative approach reveals the complexity of human thought patterns, showcasing how the conscious and unconscious mind interweave to shape individual perspectives.
Unconventional narrators challenge assumptions and upend expectations. By presenting narratives through non-traditional voices, authors prompt readers to reevaluate their preconceived notions about identity, reality, and the boundaries of storytelling.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” features a narrator who gradually reveals that the characters are clones raised for organ donation. Through the narrator’s reflections, readers confront ethical dilemmas surrounding the value of human life and the impact of scientific advancements on our moral compass.
Pushing the Boundaries of Imagination
Unconventional narrators invite authors to push the boundaries of imagination and experiment with narrative form. By using unique perspectives, authors challenge themselves to break free from conventions, embracing the freedom to craft stories that transcend traditional limitations.
In “If on a winter’s night a traveler” by Italo Calvino, the narrator alternates between addressing the reader directly and narrating different stories. This metafictional approach disrupts the typical reader-narrator relationship, encouraging readers to engage with the narrative in unexpected ways.
A Multitude of Voices
Unconventional narrators enrich literature by offering a multitude of voices, each with its own unique lens through which to view the world. Whether it’s an unreliable observer, an anthropomorphised animal, a ghostly presence, or an inanimate object, these narrators elevate storytelling to new heights of complexity and depth.
Through storytelling, authors bridge gaps connect readers with characters and experiences they might never have encountered otherwise. Unconventional narrators remind us that the power of storytelling lies not only in the stories themselves but in the diverse voices that bring them to life.
Some books with unconventional narrators:
- “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon – Narrated by an autistic teenager who views the world with a unique and mathematical perspective.
- “Room” by Emma Donoghue – Told from the perspective of a five-year-old boy who has never known the world beyond the room he’s held captive in.
- “The Sound and the Fury” by William Faulkner – Features multiple narrators, including one with severe mental and intellectual disabilities, which can make the narrative disjointed and complex.
- “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger – Narrated by a rebellious and emotionally troubled teenager, Holden Caulfield.
- “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov – The narrator, Humbert Humbert, is a morally corrupt and unreliable narrator who justifies his actions in disturbing ways.
- “Fight Club” by Chuck Palahniuk – The narrator has dissociative identity disorder, leading to an unreliable narrative as he grapples with his alternate personality, Tyler Durden.
- “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak – Death narrates the story, providing a unique and often melancholic perspective on World War II.
- “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman – A short story in which the narrator’s descent into madness is documented through her journal, offering a chilling portrayal of her mental state.
- “If on a winter’s night a traveler” by Italo Calvino – The second-person narration style directly involves the reader in the story, making them a character in the narrative.
- “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey – The novel is narrated by a mute, half-Indian patient in a mental institution, Chief Bromden, offering a unique view of the world within the hospital.
- “The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro – Narrated by an English butler who reflects on his life and the changing world around him.
- “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Díaz – The narrator, Yunior, interweaves his own commentary and experiences into the story of the titular character, Oscar.
- “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka – The protagonist, Gregor Samsa, transforms into a giant insect, and the story is told from his perspective.