Whenever you write a story, you have to choose who you’re writing as, how the story will be narrated, and in what tense. I’d like to focus on narrative voice in this one: first, second, and third person. Of course, narrative tense is also important, as is which character you choose as a viewpoint, but in this post I’m focusing on the voice.
First person is the book equivalent of the hand-held shot in a movie. You are inside one person’s mind, and looking at the world through that one person’s eyes. They are the narrator of their own tale. A short example:
My name is William Jackson. I lived in the small constraining village of Westdale. My tale began on a Monday in the spring of 1923. I was walking from one end of the only street in Westdale to the other, when I saw Joe approach me. Bastard owed me money.
The advantage of first person is that you are very close to your main character. You can show their hopes and dreams, and views on the world. First person is also good if you want to use an ‘unreliable narrator’. Because the story is narrated by the main character, you can make them lie about anything and everything. This feels like cheating with other viewpoints, but not in this one.
There are disadvantages as well. Doing multiple viewpoints is not really possible. You could try to do alternating chapters with different viewpoints, but that’s very hard to pull off, and usually just confusing. This means that you have to show all the action through that one character. If something happens where they are not present you’re out of luck, you can’t write it in. Also, it’s clear from the outset that the main character will survive. That can be a problem, depending on the story you want to tell.
In second person the narrator refers to ‘you’. You may be familiar with this from the old choose your own adventure novels, and of course, blog posts like this. An example:
Your name is William Jackson. You live in the small constraining village of Westdale. Your tale begins on a Monday in the spring of 1923. You’re walking from one end of the only street in Westdale to the other, when you see Joe approach. Bastard owes you money.
The advantage of this form is that it allows you to make the reader the main character. It’s the language of video games and blogs where the reader – you – is directly addressed.
That said, I would be very careful before choosing this narrative voice. It’s not used as much in fiction, and easy to do wrong. A big disadvantage is that it requires a lot effort on the part of the reader. You are being addressed directly, and it pushes you out of the story if the character does something or feels something that you would not.
Third person limited
If we zoom out the movie a little further, we go into third person limited. In this narrative voice, you refer to all the characters in third person, but only one is the viewpoint, and everything is described from that character. An example:
His name was William Jackson. He lived in the small constraining village of Westdale. His tale began on a Monday in the spring of 1923. William was walking from one end of the only street in Westdale to the other, when he saw Joe approach. Bastard owed him money.
The advantage of the third person limited is that you can still follow a character, but you are no longer constrained by a single viewpoint. The reader is not as close to the character as in first person, but can still feel close to them. This allows you to switch to other viewpoints when the need arises, allowing the tale to be broader, while retaining the focus on a small set of viewpoints characters.
The disadvantage is that it’s easy to accidentally switch viewpoint. Every character is in third person, so switching from one person’s head to another can happen before you realise it. It’s very easy to describe how a non-viewpoint character feels or what they think, when you shouldn’t do that in third person limited.
Third person omniscient
Third person omniscient is the furthest you can zoom out; the book equivalent of the wide shot. You can follow everybody and look inside everybody’s mind. An example:
His name was William Jackson. He lived in the small constraining village of Westdale. His tale began on a Monday in the spring of 1923. William was walking from one end of the only street in Westdale to the other, when he saw Joe approach. Bastard owed him money. Joe was just thinking the same thing. He owed William money. How was he ever going to pay him?
The advantages are that you can see everything from a comfortable distance and look inside everybody’s head. If you’re describing a heated dinner, you can describe exactly what goes the minds of all participants, without having to switch scenes and chapters to accommodate a viewpoint shift.
The disadvantage is that the third person limited is the most distant viewpoint, making it harder to put the spotlight on a single character. A second problem is that it requires a lot of skill to transfer smoothly from one character’s head to another. Because you have no constraints, you can write something in person A’s head, but when the reader reads it, they might think it as being from person B’s.
Choosing a good narrative voice is one of the first and most important decisions to make when writing a story. Do you want to zoom in, or zoom out? Do you have a cast of characters, or a single protagonist?
Play around with it. As an exercise, write the same scene from all viewpoints some time. It’s very enlightening. And remember, you can still change it while writing a story, it’s just a lot of rewriting work.