Regardless of the tense and perspective you use in your story, you will have someone narrating. A story can’t be told if someone isn’t telling it. The person (or being, or source, or entity, etc.) telling the story is the narrator.
In first-person perspective, the narrator is a character in the story using “I” pronouns to tell the story through their eyes. This narrator can be someone in the story, most likely the protagonist, but can also be an narrator who exists outside of the story.
When we move into third-person perspective, of varying distances, the narrator can become a little ambiguous. To really understand narrator and the narrator’s role in the story, we have to remember that the narrator exists regardless of whether or not they’re a character taking part in the story’s plot. You need to consider how close they are with the story and plot.
The narrator in third-person perspective will either be a character in the story, through third-person limited perspective; or it will be a narrator watching the story, as in third-person omniscient perspective. Multiple points of view are possible when you use third-person perspective.
But you must always remember that a narrator exists in every single perspective. In third-person, they may distant or intimate; personal or objective; involved or uninvolved. The narrator still exists.
I find it helpful to imagine the narrator as a character outside the story. They have a certain voice—that storytelling voice that you, the writer, use when you describe scenery in broad strokes that a character wouldn’t particularly or intimately know—and tone to them. There are words that “fit” with the story, and other bits of vocabulary won’t. That’s part of your narrator’s voice. You don’t have to create a character profile for them, of course, but separating them a little more from the characters in the story might help you decide what the narrator knows, shows, and tells.
Another way to imagine your narrator more concretely: imagine yourself telling the story. I don’t mean create a self-insert character via a narrator; but when you write your poem, short story, book (anything, really!), you are the one narrating it. Becoming self-aware of your role as storyteller can be helpful in deciding what to reveal through a narrator vs. a character.
Here are some questions to ask about your narrator (when your narrator is not the protagonist):
Is my narrator invested in the story?
A character like Lemony Snicket in A Series of Unfortunate Events is both a narrator and a character. Snicket is invested in the story, but has no part in the plot. s such, he has biases and can comment on the story through his own lens of personality, experience, and personal investment in the Baudelaires’ story.
Does my narrator affect the plot?
A narrator like Death in The Book Thief is one of those narrators that I personally marvel at. Death affects the plot because that’s what death does–the protagonist’s sibling dying is the most obvious example of Death affecting the plot. But that’s about as far as Death can reach into the plot of The Book Thief. There are different degrees of influence that a narrator can have on the plot, so consider what your narrator can, cannot, does, and does not do.
How personal or objective is my narrator?
With this question, I mean what kinds of stakes and feeling does the narrator have for the protagonist. Do they care at all? Are they merely commenting on events? The less personal your narrator is, the less likely they’ll feel as if they’re a character in the story. If you have a very objective narrator, you may not even consider your narrator to be a character at all. The narrator may just be you, telling the story, and you occasionally hone in on character’s experiences and points of view.
How distanced or intimate is my narrator?
Similar to the above question, consider the distance and intimacy that your narrator has with the plot and characters. In first-person perspective, you are in a more intimate space with the “I” narrator: the story directly involves the character. Swinging toward third-person perspective can create more distance, depending on how you use it. A third-person omniscient perspective has the most distance from the plot. They are an all-seeing storyteller, relaying a story about other people. When your narrator is part of the story in some way, there will be levels of intimacy and distance from the events happening in the plot, since they are involved.
Does my narrator step back when my characters tell the story?
This question is specifically directed at anyone writing a third-person limited story, or a story with multiple points of view. Your characters narrate if they say what they observe, show their thoughts, and experience what comes to their senses of sight, smell, sound, etc. Your narrator might not show up until you pull back from your characters to give a sweeping view of the landscape or explain some worldbuilding.
In The Pilgrimage, I use third-person limited perspective. The story is told through my characters’ eyes—the protagonist, his sister, the two companions they meet, and the antagonist. It seems like a lot of characters already… but I also have a narrator. When I wrote the story, and while I edit it now, I remember that I am the narrator when one of my characters isn’t. I could imagine my narrator as another character outside the story, but because I have an intimate perspective through five characters (*internally screaming*), adding another theoretical character will be too much. So I just remind myself that I’m also involved. I am telling the story when my characters aren’t telling me about their experiences.
A follow-up to this topic is a quick focus on a focalising character! They’re similar to narrators, but not the same thing. When you write in multiple points of view, or have a narrator like Nick in The Great Gatsby, you will also run into a focaliser in the story. My novel uses focaliser characters, but this is content for another post!