Whose Voice Is It Anyway?

Besides the obvious matter of what to write about, of whether to intricately plot or lose yourself in the exhilaration of scribing on the fly, or what genre your writing belongs to, you will want to decide fairly early on who is telling your story. Deciding whose voice the narrative will be in will save a lot of rewriting later on.

But how do you choose?

Here are the different types of points of view (POV) and some of their advantages and disadvantages.

First Person

First person narration is perhaps the most intuitive. It uses pronouns such as ‘I’ and ‘me’, and places you directly in the head of the character. The narrative is written in the language of the main protagonist. It can have a great feeling of intimacy. But the reader is restricted to only experiencing events that the narrator does — which will obviously be subjective and bias.

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is a classic example of first person narration:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.

First person POV doesn’t have to be narrated by the main protagonist. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is narrated by Nick Carraway who acts as a witness to the events and provides some distance from the passion and immorality of Jay Gatsby.

Additionally, the subjectivity of first person narration allows you, the author, great opportunity to play with the device of the unreliable narrator. This type of narrator only reveals partial information in an attempt (deliberate or otherwise) to mislead the reader. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club are examples of unreliable first person narrators.

First person POV may seem to be a natural choice, but it is not without its challenges, you must ensure the voice is unique and interesting — that the voice is your character’s not yours (the author). The protagonist doesn’t have to be likeable (it’s debatable whether Salinger’s bratish Holden Caulfield is likeable at all). And take Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The narrator is the monstrous, sexual predator, Humbert Humbert. You often question his interpretation of events, but you cannot help but be seduced by his dazzling language, and feel drawn in to his frantic, decadent descent into depravity.

Second Person

Second person POV is less often used. It uses the pronoun ‘you’ to address the reader. Rather than being a witness to events or having the actions told to you, this point of view almost places you directly into the role of the detatched protagonist as if being directed. It can be difficult to sustain, but, if done correctly, can be used to great effect. This is an excerpt from Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City:

You stand up. At the same time, the man stands up. He brushes his coat with his hands and then walks down to the far end of the car. You feel silly standing there. The old lady is dabbing her eyes with a Kleenex. You would like to see if she’s all right, but at this point it wouldn’t do much good. You sit down.

Third Person

Third person is narrated by a narrator (not necessarily the author) who relays the thoughts and feelings of the characters. It uses pronouns such as ‘he’ / ‘she’, ‘him’ / ‘her’. And can either be from the point of view a single character or shift between multiple characters using scene and/or chapter breaks.

When it’s restricted to a single character, this is known as ‘limited third person’. The narrator only has access to one character’s thoughts and feelings at a time. Multiple ‘limited’ view points may be used and separated by chapter and scene breaks. Whereas the omniscient narrator will have access to multiple characters all the time, and shift the narrative between them as the story progresses.

A godlike omniscient POV offers more distance than limited third person. It has a sweeping cinematic feel. And is best suited for epic novels with complex plots and many characters. Omniscient third person is commonly associated with nineteenth century literature (Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina) but has been employed to great effect by modern novelists such as Martin Amis, Jonathan Frazen, Gabriel García Márquez, and Salman Rushdie. However, sometimes the interruptions of the godlike narrator’s voice can pull you out of the story. Authors will often to use this for comedic or ironic effect, with the narrator/author providing additional commentary on the events and characters of the novel.

An example of a third person omniscient POV from Martin Amis’s The Information.

A square of city rather than a city square, it branched out like an inbred slum family whose common name was Wroxhall. Wroxhall Road, then Wroxhall Street. Wroxhall Terrace, then Wroxhall Gardens. Then Court, Lane, Close, Place, Row, Way. So Drive, then Park, then Walk. Richard locked the Maestro, whose days were numbered, and turned to confront a landscape out of one of his own novels — if you could speak of landscape, or of locus, or of anywhere at all, in a prose so diagonal and mood-warped. Actually this is as good a time as any to do what Gal Aplanalp is doing and take a quick look at Richard’s stuff — while the author stumbles, swearing, from Avenue to Crescent to Mews, in search of Darko, and of Belladonna.

Deep Third Person

The deep third person point of view can be seen as an extension of limited third person. It has the subtle difference in that the events are narrated using the character’s (as opposed to an unknown, detached narrator’s) voice. It takes on the subtleties of the character’s language and characteristics. And tends to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ This places the reader ‘deep’ within the character’s head in the same sense as a first person POV does. But unlike first person it still allows an amount of detachment (or at least the illusion of it).

Third person limited

‘I don’t see the point in going,’ she said. Cassie had not been sleeping well, and had a bad day at the office. She felt that Brian didn’t understand how difficult things were now. She thought she would have another panic attack just thinking about it. And wondered how she was going to get out of this.

Deep third person limited

‘I don’t see the point in going.’ Cassie yawned. Only two hours sleep last night, and work sucked. Brian just didn’t understand how difficult things were. It was alright for him. Her heart palpitated at the thought. How was she going to get out of this?

The second example dispenses with the filter words (‘said’, ‘felt’, ‘thought’, ‘wondered’) to put you into the mind of the character. Also note the subtle shift in language from the author/narrator’s voice to the characters: ‘work sucked’ rather than ‘a bad day at the office’. And the additional aside: ‘It was alright for him.’ These act as further glimpses into the character’s mind, rather than information relayed by an unknown, all-seeing narrator. There is also less telling and more showing how the character is feeling.

As you can see, deep third person can feel very similar to first person (replace the third person pronouns for first person). But whereas the first person narrator is conscious of telling a story (see Catcher in the Rye example), a third person narrator is not. Therefore it provides fewer opportunities to be unreliable — the narrator is capable of deceiving themselves, but not the reader. However, one of the disadvantages of deep third person is it can be gruelling to be so close to the character. Sometimes authors pull out and retreat to a more detached limited third person to give the reader some respite.

Multiple deep third person POV allows the reader to glimpse into the head and experiences of different characters by using scene / chapter breaks. However, ‘head hopping’ between different characters can sometimes confuse the reader, and the author must ensure the voices are unique and distinguishable.

 

Of course you are not restricted to just one type of POV in your novel — short stories are best restricted. Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore switches between the first person and third person narration of two different characters in alternate chapters; and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest contains a multitude of different narrative devices throughout.

Summary

Deciding on a narrative technique depends on what you are trying to achieve and the story want to tell.

If you want a close intimate connection between narrator and reader then first person or deep third person are best suited. The former is more intimate and allows you to experiment with the idea of an unreliable narrator, while the latter will provide more distance. Both of these will require more showing than telling as the reader is experiencing events as the narrator is.

If you want to remain distant, allowing the narrator to relay the events of the story in a fairly unobtrusive way then limited third person is best suited. Because it is restricted to one person’s view at a time and does not immerse the reader in the way deep third person does, it can be easier on the reader and feel less emotional and gruelling.

If you will be describing complex events, or sweeping, panoramic views, then you may want to consider an omniscient third person POV. It will allow you to relay events and information that the characters will be unaware of, with access to all characters in a godlike manner. It maintains distance more than the other techniques. And the narrator/author’s voice can be used to add irony by providing additional commentary that the characters would be unaware of.

Second person has perhaps the most limited use. It can seem almost intrusive, like the narrator is breathing down the readers neck, almost dictating their actions and turning the reader into a puppet protagonist. However, it provides a more unique narrative if it can be sustained.

© 2017 The Wasted Love Song

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11 Replies to “Whose Voice Is It Anyway?”

  1. loved reading this and learnt so much. thank you David. i feel if it is something really personal I want to write about, I automatically go into third person narrative. like I need to look from the outside in and see what other’s are seeing not my perspective only.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you found it helpful. That’s interesting you should say that you choose 3rd person for something personal. I suppose sometimes it’s more comfortable to get some distance. It’s actually quite an interesting exercise writing about yourself in the 3rd person. As you say, it makes you a little more objective.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome. I guess most of the time, unless it’s deliberately self-conscious, the technique shouldn’t be intrusive anyway. And like you say, the reader should be swept along by the story. Thanks for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post David. Funny, anything I’ve read that gives an example of 2nd person has always used ‘bright lights big city’…maybe not many examples -or good examples- out there? I really love your writing style in both fiction and non fiction 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, glad you found it useful. I don’t think I’ve read anything in 2nd person — that I remember — and had to Google an example, McInerney’s book was what mostly came up 🙂 I believe another well-known one is Italo Calvino’s ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’.

      Like

    1. Yes. I forgot about that one, I think it might be a plural version of 1st. I would imagine it would difficult to sustain. Though I did read of one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s stories written in that POV but can’t recall which one.

      Liked by 1 person

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