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The Persistence of Character

The Power of the Voice: From Voice-Over to Character?



L’usage de la narration par le biais de la voix off a été condamné pendant la majeure partie du vingtième siècle. Ce n’est en effet qu’à partir des années 1980 que ce procédé a commencé à être plus répandu et accepté dans les productions cinématographiques et télévisuelles. La décennie suivante a été marquée par des essais expérimentaux donnant ainsi lieu à une variété de narrations en voix-off. On peut observer ceci dans diverses séries télévisées américaines telles que Desperate Housewives ou encore Jane the Virgin dans lesquelles la voix-off joue un rôle narratologique très important. Cependant, ces deux exemples soulignent également que la voix-off peut être homodiégétique ou hétérodiégétique. Ainsi, dans le premier cas il s’agit d’une narration assumée par un personnage qui existe dans le récit, tandis que dans le second, il s’agit d’un narrateur absent du récit. Cet article avance que dans certains cas, une voix-off hétérodiégétique peut devenir un personnage à part entière malgré son incorporalité à l’écran, le tout grâce au pouvoir de la voix.

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1The unconventional—and oftentimes overwhelming—presence of certain types of narrators in 19th-century literature has often been the kernel of debates about their mode of existence, necessity, and nature. Critics seem to have reached a consensus as to the status of narrators who, they contend, are not, and cannot be considered as characters for the simple reason that they belong to a different space, that of discourse (Chatman; Shaw; Phelan; Frow). In fact, Chatman argues that there are two interrelated systems of narrative: story and discourse. Based on this distinction, he propounds that narrators are merely speakers who report on the events that happen in the storyworld. As such, they are not in the storyworld, they do not participate in it, and hence they do not “perceive” the events per se. Chatman and other critics (Phelan; Shaw) have discussed this idea debating over focalization and whether narrators can be focalizers or not. Mentioning this debate is essential because the perception/voice (or story/discourse) distinction will prove significant in examining the power of the voice later. But can voice-over narrators be treated in the same way as literary ones? Recently, an increasing number of TV series have experimented with voice-over narration, thus providing a wide array of narrator types based on the nature and the degree of their involvement in the narrative. Some of them are even considered by viewers as characters in the full sense of the word. Voice-over narrators do differ from literary ones in that there is no potential overlap between narrative and authorial voice for instance, but most importantly by the fact that their presence, in time and space, is materialized by their very medium of communication: their voice. In this sense, voice can be understood in terms of “substance” with its own set of characteristics (sonority, accent, pace, etc.) or “acts of speech” (Le Fèvre-Berthelot). However, is that enough to make the claim that voice-over narrators are characters? Although the literature seems to suggest that this cannot be the case, the question still needs to be raised in order to set forth a modulated hypothesis that would determine which type of voice-over narrators can be perceived as such and in which case. In an attempt to do so, this paper will be divided into four sections: the first will offer a brief survey of the literature defining “characters”; the second will draw a list of the different types of voice-over narrators and delineate those that do fit in this study; the third will try to make a case through the examination of the Latin Lover narrator in Jane the Virgin; and the last section will revolve around the reception of this narrative figure as character.

1. What Makes a Character?

2The very notion of “characters” in fiction can be defined and viewed from multiple perspectives. Eder, Jannidis and Schneider in their introduction to Characters in Fictional Worlds: Understanding Imaginary Beings in Literature identify four dominant paradigms when it comes to the study of characters: the hermeneutic, the psychoanalytic, the semiotic, and the cognitive paradigms; and each one proposes a miscellany of approaches in its turn (5). Even philosophers have discussed the essence of fictional characters through ontological examinations leading to debates about the various “modes of being” (Reicher 112) of characters, which has led to the identification of two major branches: the realist and the anti-realist approach to character study. In this paper, “character” is to be understood in hermeneutic, semiotic, and cognitive terms essentially, as it will rely on the three major theoretical perspectives of characters, as defined by Uri Margolin, which consider characters as (1) “literary figure[s]”, (2) “as [individuals] within a possible world” and (3) “as text-based construct[s] or mental image[s] in the reader’s mind.” (“Character” 66)

3A character is routinely defined as “a text- or media-based figure in a storyworld, usually human or humanlike” (Jannidis n.p). This definition highlights three components: its nature (text/sign), its space (storyworld), and its state (humanlike). Some of these elements find their roots in the very etymology of the word “character”, which according to Eder, Jannidis and Schneider:

goes back to Greek charaktér, ›a stamping tool‹, meaning, in a figural sense, the stamp of personality, that which is unique to a human being. The French and Italian terms–personnage and personaggio, respectively–point to Latin persona, i.e. the mask through which the sound of the voice of an actor is heard. (7)

4The Latin origin “persona” is interesting insofar as it underscores the fictionality of characters—they do belong after all to a storyworld—and it brings to the foreground the importance of the “voice,” i.e., a character is not just a soulless figure in the storyworld, it is an “agen[t] endowed with an identity, social and personal relationships, feelings, desires and thoughts” (Ribó n.p.) that are communicated through their voice. So far, both definitions stipulate that characters need to have humanlike features. Nevertheless, anthropomorphism has proven limited inasmuch as robots or objects can also be considered as characters in some narratives. Hence, the “human” aspect of the fictional figure is no longer a prerequisite to the definition of a character. Nevertheless, for a robot or object to be considered as a character, it would still need to be able to interact with its surroundings or with the other characters in the storyworld, which is often associated with human and/or animal communication; hence, the “human-like” feature is often maintained (Eder, Jannidis, and Schneider 9-10).

  • 1 Page number unavailable for this online source.

5Later in their introduction, Eder, Jannidis and Schneider refer to Uri Margolin’s definition of a character which views the latter as “a general semiotic element, independent of any particular verbal expression” (Margolin “Characterisation in Narrative” 7). Margolin’s statement has thus raised the following question: “what differentiates [characters] from the other elements of the text?” (Eder, Jannidis and Schneider 9). In an attempt to answer this question, Uri Margolin sets a list of criteria such as being animate, being human-like, having a person status or having an intentional mind. But Eder, Jannidis, and Schneider shed light on the limitations of such criteria, and keep only one major criterion: intentionality. They argue that “[a]t the prototypical core of the concept of character, then, is a recognisable fictional being, to which the ability to think and act is ascribed” (10). Therefore, a character must have agency and participate in the storyworld (Ribó n.p., Margolin “Character” 66), but most importantly, they must be recognizable, singular and unique (Margolin, “Character” 74). These conditions are mostly fulfilled thanks to the process of individuation. In fact, Ignasi Ribó explains that regardless of the importance of the role played by a character in the narrative, they need to be attributed a set of “physical, mental, and behavioural characteristics” that would set them apart from other narrative figures. Individuation is thus achieved through characterization, which can be direct or indirect, and which can sometimes rely on stereotypes—thus leading to the creation of stock characters—or on what Richard Dyer has dubbed “social types.” Therefore, it would seem that the literature on characters could be summed up as follows: a character is a recognizable narrative figure with an outer appearance, a psyche, sociality, and which is endowed with intentionality and agency in the storyworld. But is this definition applicable to characters in audiovisual productions such as films and TV series as well? Fotis Jannidis refers to Eder’s heuristic of film characters wherein he proposes the following classification: “(a) the character as an artifact (how is it made?); (b) the character as a fictional being (what features describe the character?); (c) the character as a symbol (what meaning is communicated through the character?); and (d) the character as a symptom (why is the character as it is and what is the effect?).”1 Hence, it appears that there is more flexibility and diversity in the definition of characters in audiovisual productions, and although Eder’s list does not mention specific features, it does open the door to interpretative definitions of characters. But is there enough room for interpretation that voice-over narrators could eventually be perceived as characters? Before answering the question, it is important to identify the different types of voice-over narration that may exist.

2. Types of Voice-Over Narration

6Sarah Kozloff reminds her readers in the conclusion of her book Invisible Storytellers: Voice-Over Narration in American Fiction Film that “[a] short time ago left-leaning critics castigated voice-over as repressive” and that “[o]vertness of narrative discourse does not irresistibly imply honesty; self-reflexivity and self-consciousness do not necessarily compromise narrative authority” (128). The perception of voice-over narration as repressive is reminiscent of how intrusive narrators in 19th-century novels have long been treated and received. But as the author points out, the use of voice-over narration can participate in imbuing an audiovisual production with a metafictional and self-reflexive dimension. Voice-over narration is thus not a mere reporting tool, limited in scope and function; it has gained in prominence thanks to the opportunities it offers directors in terms of creativity and experimentation in narrative structure and storytelling. In fact, according to Allrath et al., “during the 1990s TV series increasingly began to employ experimental narrative techniques like multiperspectivity and unreliable narration as well as innovative functionalizations of voice-over narration and of audiovisual presentation of consciousness” (4). Nevertheless, regardless of the possibilities it offers, voice-over narration is still defined by its structural function in narratological terms and it is still strongly associated with the discourse system, although this can and will be challenged later. In this sense, Allrath et al. argue that voice-over narrators can be considered as “a partial equivalent of literary narrators” (14), and can thus be treated as such in terms of classification. Sarah Kozloff posits the same idea and suggests that Gérard Genette’s taxonomy be used in classifying voice-over narrators. Accordingly, depending on the distance of the narrators to the events being related, their point of view, but most importantly, the “narrative level” (Kozloff 42) from which they speak, voice-over narrators can be homodiegetic, i.e., characters in the story, or heterodiegetic, i.e., absent from the story, and they can be extradiegetic, intradiegetic, or metadiegetic depending on whether they recount the frame story, an embedded story, or a doubly embedded story (Kozloff 42). Bearing in mind this taxonomy, it is evident that the case of homodiegetic narrators does not pose a problem inasmuch as they are characters within the storyworld. In this sense, this paper is not interested in voice-over narrators such as Mary Alice in Desperate Housewives, June (or Offred) in The Handmaid’s Tale, or Rue in Euphoria, because the latter do appear in their respective storyworlds whether it be in flashbacks or in the present. Likewise, voice-over narration provided by real celebrities such as American tennis star John McEnroe, supermodel Gigi Hadid and actor Andy Samberg in Never Have I Ever is not part of the discussion for the simple reason that they are not fictional beings, and they are well-known public figures; hence, the audience’s suspension of disbelief is broken (it should be noted that there are three narrators in this series and although McEnroe is the main narrator, Hadid and Samberg intervene when the focus of the episode is on Paxton and Ben respectively). Therefore, the question germane to the power of the voice and whether the latter can transform a voice-over narrator into character only concerns heterodiegetic narrators. But when and how can that happen?

3. Can a Voice-Over Narrator Be(come) a Character?

7Heterodiegetic voice-over narrators are absent from the story they recount; thus, they are not physically represented. They are solely materialized by their voice, and yet their incorporeality on screen does not hinder their reception as characters, in the full sense of the word, by the viewers. This is the case of the Latin Lover narrator in the CW dramedy Jane the Virgin for instance. It would thus be interesting to examine this case in order to elucidate why such a voice-over narrator is considered as a character and if that could be applicable to other cases.

8In order to better understand how such voice-over narrators function—and act—in the narrative, it is important to go back to the discourse/story distinction. Gérard Genette, Seymour Chatman, and Gerald Prince posit that narrators speak and report on events, but they do not perceive the events that happen in the story—a feature proper to characters—because they belong to a different space, that of the discourse; accordingly, they cannot focalize a story (Phelan 52-53). Such a claim limits the role of narrators to mere reporters devoid of agency and intent. Nevertheless, as Shaw and Phelan propound, the border between the story space and the discourse space is not infrangible. Shaw argues that “loose narrators” do seem to enter “story space” (98) which might even lead to talks of narrators as “invisible characters” (103) —an idea which, he contends, might seem “imprecise, illogical” (103) but that still needs consideration—while Phelan suggests that narrators do see the events and focalize them, thus offering readers one (out of many) perspectives on the events. He advances that “as the narrator reports, the narrator cannot help but simultaneously function as a set of lenses through which the audience perceives the story world” (Phelan 57). This very idea is also voiced by Sarah Kozloff in her description of voice-over narrators (74). The question in this case is whether there is intentionality in the focalization process which would suggest that there is a thinking entity behind it. This possibility seems to apply to metafictional works wherein voice-over narrators could point to themselves, to the story they recount, and to their own fictionality. Consequently, the discourse space from which they speak would itself be part of the fictional world where they act (narration is described by Kozloff as an act) and thus participate. In this context, Kozloff explains that:

Neither Genette nor any of his recent followers have clearly delineated what it means ‘to participate’ or ‘not to participate’ in a story; I think the issue hinges not upon whether the narrator is telling a story ‘about himself’ but on whether he or she exists in the same fictive world as the characters, whether he or she could possibly know them and they know him or her. (76)

9Accordingly, Kozloff highlights the “double-layering of story and discourse” (77) in such cases, an idea described by James Phelan as “dual focalization” (63). This narrative complexity allows for a challenge of the clear-cut distinction between story and discourse, and thus of the very narrator-character differentiation. Voice-over narrators of metafictional works are actants and do participate in the story, though one step removed compared to the other characters who are the main subjects of the story. This is the case of the TV series Jane the Virgin, where the Latin Lover narrator is more than a mere “structural feature” (Allrath et al.; Mittel; Le Fèvre-Berthelot; Edholm), and even though he is absent from the story he relates, he has found a way to gradually infiltrate the latter, so much so that he becomes a solid element of the fictional world created by Jennie Snyder Urman. Indeed, the Latin Lover narrator does not simply report on events, he also comments, reacts, and interjects, and he explicitly frames the story. This voice-over narrator is omniscient, he is sarcastic, he refers to himself as a person, he points to his own metafictionality, and he establishes himself as a reliable narrator although not always an objective one. Hence, the narrator of Jane the Virgin demonstrates ostensible intentionality, agency, and mental features; he is a narrative figure that participates in the fictional world thanks to one of the main defining features of characters: psyche. But is this the only element that characterizes this voice-over narrator?

  • 2 My translation.
  • 3 c.f. Anthony Mendez’s interview with AriseEntertainment 360°.

10Besides contributing to the metanarrative dimension of the series, the narrator’s oratory contributes to his humanization and emphasizes his ability to think and act, i.e., determining features that make a character. In fact, this is perfectly illustrated in Chapter Eleven (S01E11), where the Latin Lover narrator praises Jane’s writing, to which he adds: “In my entirely unbiased opinion” (24’30”) and in Chapter 21 (S01E21) when Stephanie Kovakovitch—Jane’s high school nemesis—appears and the narrator in an attempt to remind the audience of her identity misspells her name as “KOVAKOBITCH” to which he exclaims “oups!” and corrects it, but then reconsiders and maintains "no, I meant it" and rewrites it, with the ‘B’ written in red for emphasis. In addition, despite the absence of a physical figure embodying the voice-over narrator within the story, he is present at the level of the frame story, and his presence is materialized by his voice, a voice that points to his “social type” (Dyer 14-15). This could explain why the voice-over narrator of Jane the Virgin has been accepted by viewers as a fully-fledged character; he is not solely intentionality and personality; his physicality and other characteristics are also brought to the foreground directly and indirectly. The Latin Lover often highlights his humanity which combines body and psyche; for instance, in Chapter Seventeen (S01E17) the audience can hear the sound effect of someone crying, after what the narrator apologizes: “hm hm... Excuse me, I seem to have something in my eye, just give me a moment" (40’20”). In this sense, he is reminiscent of Michlin’s definition of the voice as “emerging at the intersection of a body and a psyche (thus its timbre in the concrete sense of the word)”2 (quoted in Le Fèvre-Berthelot 11). Furthermore, he is introduced from the onset as a “latin lover”, in clear reference to the stock character in American popular culture; he is thus characterized, as any character would be, by being associated to a social type which is further underscored by his Pan-Hispanic accent. Therefore, the voice of the narrator informs the viewers about his physical appearance, though vaguely, by relying on the viewers’ knowledge and mental images of his social type (which, by the same token, excludes other mental images such as those associated with a Caucasian male figure, for instance). Accordingly, what is supposedly a simple structural feature that conveys “any portion of a narrative” (Kozloff 5), characterized by incorporeality and a limited function, grows into an independent figure endowed with mental, behavioral, and physical features (ill-defined though they may be). Based on these elements, the voice-over narrator in Jane the Virgin can be described as an invisible character. He is in fact a narrative figure with an outer appearance, a psyche, sociality, and he is endowed with intentionality and agency in the storyworld. In addition, he does fall under three out of the four categories defined by Eder in his heuristic of films (Jannidis n.p.). He is made primarily of a voice, a potentially imagined body, and a psyche (character as an artifact); he is portrayed as Hispanic, sarcastic, strong-willed, and emotional (character as a fictional being); the Latin Lover narrator needed to be presented as such to represent a father figure for the protagonist of the series3, a revisitation of the clichéd stock character, and Pan-Latinidad (character as a symptom). Ultimately, based on this example, it seems arguable that such a reception of the Latin Lover narrator as a character relies heavily on what Eder, Jannidis and Schneider have called “media knowledge and narrative knowledge” as well as “social knowledge” (14). They set forth that the readers’ and/or viewers’ understanding and experience of the narrative world depend on these three types of knowledge. Narrative knowledge is concerned with the “rules of the narrated world” (Eder, Jannidis, and Schneider 14) and it is of the utmost importance in metafictional works. Social knowledge refers to an awareness of “person schemata; images of human nature; social categories; prototypes and stereotypes” (Eder, Jannidis and Schneider 14) among other things. And media knowledge “includes an awareness of a text’s communication processes and fictionality” (Eder, Jannidis, and Schneider 14). It seems arguable in this case that the conception of the Latin Lover narrator as a character results from the vagueness of his characterization—which is unsurprising since narrators are seldom characterized (they are after all the ones presenting the story and the characters)—which invites viewers to activate their schemata and imagine this invisible character in a process of co-creation. As a result, these types of knowledge enable the viewers to accept a voice as a character. This could be read as an invitation to probe into the relationship between reception and character definition.

4. Character and Reception: a New Debate?

11For a character to be treated as one, it needs to be received and accepted by the audience as such. If all the narratological features necessary to the definition of a character (as discussed above) are gathered, but they are not received by the readers and/or viewers as such, then there is a clear problem. This is seldom the case, and although the relation between audience and characters may seem evident, it is the least discussed feature in the literature about characters. Eder, Jannidis, and Schneider do mention reception—though briefly—in their introduction to Characters in Fictional Worlds: Understanding Imaginary Beings in Literature, but they raise this issue in an attempt to address the ontological question of what distinguishes a character from a real person. The authors state that

If we conceive of characters as beings in fictional worlds, to which the audience ascribes intentionality or action, we must ask what precisely the difference between characters and real persons is. [...] Obviously, the reception of characters is quite different from the direct encounter with real persons: readers, listeners, or viewers focus on media texts, activate media knowledge and communication rules, they cannot interact with the represented persons but can think about their meaning, as well as about causes and effects, and they can shift their attention from the level of what is represented [...] to the level of presentation [...]. (11)

12Accordingly, the audience actively participates in the process of character-making, which is made possible thanks to their narrative and media knowledge. By activating such schemata, they apprehend the text at hand, and accept to play along and perceive these narrative figures as “paper people” (Ribó n.p.). Furthermore, the audience is the one which “ascribes intentionality” to the character; which is to say that one of the major defining features of characters is not necessarily inherent but it rather depends on the audience’s interpretation and participation.

13This section of the paper does not in any way claim to provide answers as to how reception is key to the determination of characters; it merely points to the paucity of literature in this regard and invites scholars to probe into this question further because as Eder, Jannidis, and Schneider have highlighted, the audience plays an ostensibly important role. This is equally made evident in the example mentioned above. In fact, fans of Jane the Virgin tend to refer to the voice-over narrator as a character on social media, in the series fandom wiki page, and in various online articles. In an NPR article entitled “How The Narrator Of 'Jane The Virgin' Found His Voice,” he is described as one of the series’ “funniest characters” and “most entertaining characters” (Chow n.p.), and a Looper article refers to him as a “fan-favorite character” (Mehrtens n.p.). Consequently, such a reception of a voice does point to the power it might hold over a narrative and how its characteristics could lead to its humanization, individuation, and thus, to its acceptance as a fully-fledged character.


14In the end, it would be interesting to circle back to the initial question raised in this paper: can a heterodiegetic voice-over narrator be(come) a character? When and how does that happen? Based on the pre-existent literature about characters, the classification of voice-over narrators, and the example examined, the answer seems quite straightforward. A voice-over narrator can in fact become a character, but in order to be considered as such, some conditions need to be met. Not every voice-over narrator can be perceived and received as a character; the qualities, characteristics, narratological features and functions of the latter will determine whether that is a possibility or not. As a result, when a heterodiegetic narrator is characterized (in the literary sense of the word), when they are endowed with mental and/or physical and/or behavioral features (directly or indirectly), when they have agency and intentionality, when they participate in their fictional world, and when they are received as such, they can be considered as characters. This long list might suggest that all these conditions can seldom be gathered—and this is correct—but it is necessary to underscore that the move from voice to character is not simple and automatic. This is essentially made possible in experimental, post-modern, and/or metafictional works—though not exclusively—as they play with narrative complexity thereby blurring the lines of discourse. Although the example of the Latin Lover narrator in Jane the Virgin has demonstrated that this is a possibility, the number of audiovisual productions that present an analogous case are close to inexistent.

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TV Series:

Desperate Housewives. Created by Marc Cherry. ABC, 2004-2012.

Euphoria. Created by Sam Levinson. HBO, 2019–present.

Jane the Virgin. Created by Jenni Snyder Urman. The CW, 2014-2019.

Never Have I Ever. Created by Mindy Kaling Lang Fisher. Netflix, 2020-present.

The Handmaid’s Tale. Created by Bruce Miller. Hulu, 2017-present.

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2 My translation.

3 c.f. Anthony Mendez’s interview with AriseEntertainment 360°.

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Rim KHALED, « The Power of the Voice: From Voice-Over to Character? »e-Rea [En ligne], 21.2 | 2024, mis en ligne le 13 juin 2024, consulté le 19 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Université de Caen-Normandie
Rim Khaled is an ENS (Tunis) alumnus. She has worked as a professeur agrégée of English Literature and Civilization at the University of Tunis for seven years. She has participated in multiple conferences and published chapters related to her fields of interest, namely cultural studies, television studies, film studies and American studies. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Caen Normandy where she is a member of the research laboratory ERIBIA. Her thesis is entitled Adapting, Adopting, and Rethinking Telenovelas the American Way: from Juana la Virgen to Jane the Virgin. She is conducting her PhD under the supervision of Professor Penny Starfield.
Rim Khaled est une ancienne élève de l’ENS Tunis. Elle a enseigné en tant que professeur agrégée de littérature et civilisation anglophone à l’Université de Tunis pendant sept ans. Elle a participé à plusieurs conférences, et a publié des chapitres relatifs à ses centres d'intérêts, notamment les études culturelles, télévisuelles, filmiques et américaines. Elle est actuellement doctorante à l’Université de Caen Normandie et membre du laboratoire de recherche ERIBIA. Sa thèse s’intitule Adapter, adopter et repenser les télénovelas à l’américaine: de Juana la Virgen à Jane the Virgin. Elle conduit ses travaux de recherche sous la direction de Mme le Professeur Penny Starfield.

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