The hidden character is you: Dick Miller on the role of the narrator

We don't often think about the narrator in our documentaries as a character. But the narrator, usually the producer of the doc, has already made editing, structure, sound, music and script decisions. Veteran host and producer Dick Miller takes us through the role of the narrator in documentary storytelling.
Producer Dick Miller gathering sound for the Legends Project. (CBC Aboriginal)
We don't often think about the narrator in our documentaries as a character, unless of course it is a first person account. But think about this: the narrator, usually the producer of the doc, has done all the research and the interviews. She has decided what she thinks the story is. She has decided what she feels about the story. She has made a million editing decisions, structure decisions, sound and music mixes and she has written a script. She appears alongside the other characters. Even more importantly, she has a relationship with the people in her doc. She knows them. Even if she is not fully engaged in the action of the doc, even if the stakes do not apply to her, she is there. The audience understands what's going on through her. She is a character.
Mary Rose Julian with Legends producer Dick Miller.
Think back to those English Lit classes where the professor talked about the narrator's voice in a novel. You may remember the "third person objective voice" — a sort of 'just the facts ma'am' narrator. We hear a lot of audio docs delivered that way. The script provides a framework for the characters — they deliver the emotion and action and human complexity. But the narrator is still there front and centre. The listener though doesn't get much information about who they are, why they care about the story, whether the story has any meaning for them.

The first person narrator

And then there's the first person narrator. We are hearing more and more of that lately with the increase in personal storytelling. The listener gets to know that narrator intimately, understanding through their words their motivation, their actions and their relationships with other characters.

Both of those "voices" have served listeners well for decades. But between those two voices lies a whole range of narrative devices and styles.

I don't think I am offering anything new here. I have heard many docs where the narrator has taken on some pretty fascinating roles — as an observer, a bearer of witness, a participant. But I have found over the years that few people ever think about that narrator's role. They just write the darn script, record it and mix it in. But if you take the time to treat the narrator's role with as much care as you do in developing the other characters, then you have the chance to give your docs more depth and be more engaging for the listener.

Dick Miller, veteran documentary producer.
Many docs I listen to take on the feeling of an illustrated lecture. The narrator assumes the role of chief storyteller and bottle washer, taking up a fair bit of audio real estate in the process. 

The other folks are there but the narrator is running the show. As I said, that has worked for decades and the audience is used to it. But what if the narrator throws off the shackles of omniscience and objectivity and works with, rather than just presenting, the characters to help tell more of the story? What if the narrator is discovering the story as it happens? Instead of having an omniscient narrator you have instead a person who is bearing witness to an event, bringing us along on her journey. 

The effect for the listener is a more fluid listening experience.

Again, not a new idea. People do it all the time. But not consistently. And probably not through planning. We have a bunch of tools in our doc tool chests. This is another one. And a power tool at that.

The role of editing

In part, making the narrator more of a character is done through editing. Think of the way Radiolab presents its programs. Or Spark on CBC Radio. The hosts and the guests share the responsibility of moving the story forward. A little from the host, the next bit from the guest, then the host, then the guest, sometimes completing each other's sentences. That style in a documentary, in just the right places, puts the narrator and the character on equal footing in telling the story. The narrator is right there, a character, rather than an omniscient being. Doing the same thing all the time, no matter how good, can get predictable and predictability can lead to irritability. I get irritated a lot.

Here's an excerpt from a doc by Andrea Huncar about a young man whose suicide attempt left him disabled. A production conceit like that affords the narrator an opportunity to respond to  what she is seeing and hearing. She is working with the characters, not directing them. And this is interesting — sometimes it lets the character respond to the narration. How weird is that?

Here's a short clip from a documentary that aired on The Current by Dominic Girard, focused on a man named Darren Atkinson. He was a dumpster diver, not for food but for just about anything else. He once found a set of Hot Wheels cars in their original packaging. He's found lamps and office supplies. He sells what he scavenges. What you'll hear is Dominic's narration followed by Darren responding to it.

It ties the two of them, Dom the narrator and Darren the scavenger, together in the car. "Did you say lonely?," asks Darren of the narrator. It makes the narration an organic part of the story, not a separate track. Dom is taken out of the studio and put in the car in one slick and easy motion.

In this clip, Shannon Quinn interacts with her central character Rod Radford in a doc about community treatment orders. Rod has schizophrenia. A community treatment order would require him to take his medication. Shannon wrote some script but also uses official documents as part of her narration. And at one point Shannon leaves the role of third person and addresses Rod directly from the narrator's chair.

Now I don't imagine anyone drove off the road screaming about how a narrator switched from third person to second person and back with no warning. But it does provide an interesting moment of tension and brings Shannon deeper in Rod's world, developing herself as a character. Listen to how Shannon and Rod work together.

My argument is this: the more salient facts I know about you as narrator the more I can understand the story – why you are telling it, what you are feeling about it, why I should listen. 

Imagine you are in a bar and some guy is starting to spin a yarn. He will make comments along the way, "I couldn't believe it," he'll say.  Or, "Now I'm a pretty level headed guy but when ...." Maybe even "Now, I can't add to save my soul" (these are all things I have said – well maybe not the level headed one). Buddy is developing his character as it relates to the story. When you are a narrator I think you can afford to do some of that.

I have some examples. 

The first is something I produced. It was a doc called The Witness Trees and it was for Ideas. The doc explored ways we can live with and use our forest resources sustainably – for the forest and for us.

As I was considering my narration I decided I needed to show the genesis of my idea, how I view the forest. I wrote three or four "meditations" – moments when I left the doc and went to my little piece of the forest in western Nova Scotia. In a sense I exposed my bias but my hope was that some listeners who walk in the woods would understand me, my character in the doc.

Michael Kaloki is a BBC correspondent in Nairobi, Kenya. He produced a doc for The Current about a Kenyan pastoralist trying to find food for his cattle during a severe drought. The man had set up camp just outside Nairobi and then led his cattle into town to feed on the lawns of the wealthy and on any other greenery they could find. There are two delightful moments of narration where we understand Michael's personality and perspective and that gives us a deeper insight into the story. Here they are ... a short bit of silence between them.

So the way I see it, just to say it again, the narrator is a character. That character can be an omniscient guide. She can be a bearer of witness. She can be a participant in the action. She can be investigative, delivering just the facts and intro­ing and extro­ing clips. She can be on a quest. But it is worthwhile considering the role for consistency but also to develop that role into something that makes for a stronger documentary.


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