Point of View and Narrative Voice

250Fiction TermsLit Analysis


[Original Site: http://teenwriting.about.com/library/weekly/aa111102e.htm]


Seeing and Speaking
When you've got an idea for a story, a few characters, an idea of the plot maybe, you have to figure out who is going to tell it. This is where point of view comes in. The point of view in fiction determines whose eyes the reader experiences the story through. It can be a key choice, as different points of view have different strengths and weaknesses. Narrative voice is a related topic to think about, and especially important in third person stories. First person narratives already have a narrator built in; the narrative voice is the teller's voice. But how do you tell a third person narrative? This part of the Beginner's Guide to Writing Fiction will explore these topics.

Many Points of View
There are many points of view for a writer to choose from, and each has different problems, responsibilities and effects. Different writers have categorized them in different ways, but the system used in this article is fairly common. The available points of view are first, second and third person. Of these, second person is very uncommon, while first and third person each have three primary variants. As you read through the descriptions and examples, think about how you might use each of them in your own fiction. Do you tend to write in first person? Third? Or do you sometimes switch point of view in the middle of a piece? Why do you think that is?

The First Person
A story written in the first person is told by an "I," where "I" can be the main character, a less important character witnessing events, or a person retelling a story they were told by someone else. This point of view is often effective in giving a sense of closeness to the character. It can be very easy to get the reader to identify or sympathize with your main character when the reader is seeing everything through that character's eyes.

There are some important things to consider when writing in first person, though. First of all, you need to decide how this story is being told. Is the character writing it down? Telling it out loud? Thinking it to their self? And if they are writing it down, is it something meant to be read by the public? Or is it a private diary? A story meant for one other person? The way the first person narrator is relating the story will affect how you write it, the language you choose, the length of your sentences, your tone of voice and many other things. The reader should have at least some sense of this as well. The way they interpret a story could be very different if it is told as a secret diary or if it is a public statement.

Another aspect to think about is how much time has elapsed between when the character experienced the events of the story and when they decided to tell them. If only a few days have passed, the story could be related very differently than if the character was reflecting on events of the distant past. Also think about why the character is telling the story. What is their motivation? Are they just trying to clear up events for their own peace of mind? Make a confession about a wrong they did? Or tell a good adventure tale to their beer-guzzling friends? The reason why a story is told will also affect how it is written, and you at least should know the answer, even if it never makes its way into the text. And not only Why? but Why now?

A first person narrative is often more effective when it is a first person narrator telling someone else's story (in other words, when the narrator is not the main character). This allows a certain distance between the narrator and the events which is impossible for the main character. On the other hand, the inability to see the bigger picture can sometimes be exploited to good effect. Whether or not your narrator is actually telling the truth is another big question (and one your readers will ask, so you'd best think about it, too).

First Person Protagonist: For this point of view, a character relates events that occurred to them; the "I" is the main character, telling her or his own story.
I missed the bus that morning because I couldn't convince myself to get out of bed. It was just too cosy under the comforter, with the cat curled up next to me. I was going to have to walk all the way to work.

First Person Witness: The story of the main character is told by another character observing the events.
She missed the bus. She'd probably spent an hour arguing with herself that she really should get up. I could picture her there, curled up in bed with the cat next to her. Now she was going to have to walk to work.

First Person Re-teller: The story is told, not by a witness to the events, but by someone who has heard the story from yet another person.

She missed the bus. I don't know why; probably couldn't get out of bed. You know how warm it gets when you're all curled up in the blankets. She had a cat, too, and somehow a cat makes it harder to get up in the morning. So she missed the bus, and would have to walk all the way to work.

The Second Person
In second person, the narrator addresses the protagonist as "you." Often, this kind of story has the narrator speaking to a younger version of their self. This point of view is very rare because it is extremely difficult to pull off. The reader may feel that they are the one spoken to, and will find it difficult to accept that they are doing the things the narrator tells them they are doing. If you choose to tell a story in second person, it is very important to make it clear to the reader who is being addressed, so they can trust in the teller and accept the story as given.

You missed the bus again because you just couldn't convince yourself to get out of bed. The comforter made a cosy nest around you, and there was the cat, a warm ball of fur curled next to you. So you had to walk all the way to work.

The Third Person
Characters are referred to as "he" and "she" in third person. In this case the narrator (who may be indistinguishable from the author) is not a character in the story. Depending on the type of third person point of view, the narrator may know -- and be able to tell about -- the thoughts and feelings of all characters, or only one character, or they may only be able to report what is seen or heard.
Sometimes a third person narrator requires the reader to accept the narrator's authority, which they may be hesitant to do. Just because a narrator sounds like they know it all, doesn't mean they do. This may be why the first person point of view has become more and more popular -- it can be harder to get the reader to identify with a nameless, third person teller. However, third person narration is very flexible and should not be discarded without thought. It is still the most common point of view, and for good reason.

When a writer is turning personal experiences into fiction, it is often easier to write in third person (even if they intend to put the final draft in first person). This is because the third person distances the reader (and the writer) from events. It is easier to write about personal things when you write as if they are happening to someone else. It is also easier to change events -- often necessary to turn reality into fiction -- when you aren't claiming that it was you who experienced them.

Third Person Omniscient: The narrator knows everything; all thoughts, feelings, and actions may be related to the reader (or they may be withheld).

She missed the bus. She spent nearly an hour arguing with herself about getting up. You have to be awake now, it's a work day. But it's so warm. Just a few more minutes. You'll be late. I don't care. Yes you do. Curled up there with the cat, it was so hard to move, so warm and cosy. And so she missed the bus, and swore, and told herself how stupid she was. Then she started the long walk to work.

Third Person Objective: The narrator can only relate to the reader what is seen or heard. A good writer can tell a completely objective story in such a way that the reader is able to determine the feelings and sometimes even the thoughts of the characters through what those characters say and do, even though the thoughts and feelings are never described.

She arrived panting at the bus stop when the bus was already long gone. She looked at her watch and swore. "Damn warm blankets," she said. "Damn warm, purring cat." She sighed and walked along the sidewalk in the direction of her office building.

Third Person Limited: The narrator is able to see into the mind of a single character. Sometimes the point of view may zoom in so close to that character that the narrator begins to use that character's manner of speech and thought, and sometimes the narrator may step back to take a more objective view. This point of view is sort of the "default" in fiction -- it is the most common because it can be used the most effectively in the majority of situations. If there is no reason not to use a third person limited point of view, then it is probably the best choice (but you will find it useful to experiment before choosing the point of view for any given story; third person limited may often work, but it isn't always the best point of view. Don't be afraid to use other points of view, just make sure you have a reason for your choice). In longer forms like novels, third person limited can be made even more effective by changing the character that the point of view is limited to. You must always be sure the reader knows when you have switched points of view and who you have changed to, however. If you are going to use shifting third person points of view, it is often best to change at a chapter or section break, at least until you are proficient enough at it that you won't lose your reader.

She arrived panting at the bus stop only to see a far-off glimpse of the back of the bus, moving quickly away. She glanced at her watch. It was already half past eight. "Damn warm blankets," she said, thinking of how it had felt to be curled up and warm in bed. She had argued with herself for an hour about how she should get going. She had stayed in bed so long she didn't even have time for a shower, and now she'd missed the bus. It was the warm cat curled up next to her that had made it so hard to get out of bed. "Damn warm, purring cat," she said, and headed along the sidewalk to work.

Whose Voice?
Now that you've seen the possibilities for who tells the story, what about how it's told? Narrative voice is not exactly the same thing as the writer's voice (as in "You need to find your voice"), though it can be. Narrative voice is another layer on the way a story is told. If you are writing in first person, for example, the narrative voice is the narrator's voice (which means it is not the voice of the writer, but the voice of a character) and involves the narrator's manner of speaking, word choice, dialect and so on. A third person story can also make use of a voice that is not the writer's -- even though the narrator is not a character in the sense that they participate in the story, they can be a character in the sense that they are not the writer.

Tone
Tone of voice is something you'll have whether you use your natural voice or an adopted voice. It reflects an attitude towards events and the world in general, and will affect the reader's perceptions of the work. If you recognize how you feel about what you are writing, you will be able to exploit those feelings and that tone to add to your writing.

Experiment with point of view and narrative voice to see what things you can do with them. Finding the right point of view and the right voice for each individual piece of fiction is vital. Getting one of them wrong can result in a story that just doesn't quite work.