In the first page of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, the narrator makes a declaration of intent: “I prepare to leave on this parchment my testimony as to the wondrous and terrible events that I happened to observe in my youth, now repeating all that I saw and heard, without venturing to seek a design, as if to leave to those who will come after (if the Antichrist has not come first) signs of signs, so that the prayer of deciphering may be exercised on them.”
You just read the words of a witness narrator which is a role played by a character who tells the story in the third person (he isn’t the protagonist) and has the point of view of someone who has witnessed it either from the inside or from the outside. This type of narrator doesn’t usually write about himself or herself.
There are many different types of witness narrators, each with his distinctive features. Here are the most common ones:
Impersonal witness – he (or she) behaves like a camera that just records what it sees, thus the readers feel as if they are watching a film. The Hive, by Camilo Jose Cela, would exemplify this type of witness narrator.
Eyewitness – he (or she) recalls past events he watched first hand. An example of this type of narrator is Sherlock Holmes’ assistant, Dr Watson.
Informant – he (or she) transcribes the events as if he were writing an official report and presents them as true. Brodie’s Report, by Jorge Luis Borges, is a good example of this type of narrator.
As I have said before, there are many other types of witness narrators (some of them a mixture of those described above), but all of them share a series of features:
1. He/she is not the protagonist.
The character who plays the role of witness is never the protagonist of the story’s events and tries to be as impartial as possible in his account of them.
2. He/she has a limited perspective.
He/she tells the story from his point of view and is limited by his own perceptions. He can’t be everywhere and see everything, nor can he know what the other characters are thinking.
3. He/she describes and suggests.
As a result of his restricted perspective, the witness narrator can’t explain why the other characters act one way or another, and he rarely makes value judgments. He merely describes what he has seen and suggests what he can’t see (always from his limited point of view).
4. He/she is reliable.
He/she makes the readers feel that the events he’s describing are real – just like when you hear something first hand. This type of narrator establishes a deep connection with the reader.
5. He/she uses his own language.
The witness narrator is a character in the story and thus has specific characteristics. For example, he could be a child and unable to explain the events with an adult’s vocabulary, or he could be a policeman who tells what happened as if he were writing a report. The kind of language you choose will depend on your character’s distinctive features.
6. He/she is not the author.
The witness narrator can’t be identified with the author, and the author doesn’t take part in the story. This type of narrator is a character with his own function in the chain of events. When you choose a witness narrator, it must be because you believe it’s the best way to tell the story.