Who’s telling your story?


Narrative voice

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As you probably already know, narrative voice is the voice in which your story is told. But even though most people already know that, my experience has been that most people will limit themselves to asking whether they should tell their story in first or third person, usually not understanding the variety of reasons why one would choose one or the other, or worse, not knowing that even once you have made that choice, there are many more questions to be asked.

A question of point of view

First, I should clarify the concept of the hero, or protagonist, versus the main character. Yes, they sometimes can be the same, but they definitely do not have to be. Take, for example, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is undeniably the hero of these adventures, isn’t he? But he is, also, definitely not the main character. Watson is the main character. The difference here, is that the hero is the person who moves the story forward, while the main character is the person whose point of view we follow. They can sometimes be the same person, but they really don’t need to be; in fact, in Sherlock Holmes, it wouldn’t have been wise to follow the hero’s point of view, because Holmes always knows all the answers right away, and, as the reader, so would we.

The distinction is very, very important because the very first step in making a decision about your narrator is to know who the main character is, or whose point of view you will be following.

Once you know who that is, it’s much easier to pick a type of narrator.

The first person

When choosing the first person, you are raising a few questions you need to answer that will determine language, verb tense and emotional detachment from the story.

First of all, when did the events of the story take place, in contrast to the telling of them? Is the person telling the events as they unfold, as is the case with stream of consciousness narration? Has it been a few decades, as is the case, for example, in Stand By Me? This will first determine your verb tense (which, obviously, should be past tense if your narrator is telling the story after it has taken place) but also your character’s emotional detachment and state of mind. It is possible that, if a long time has passed, your character is looking back on these events and marveling at his or her immaturity back then; and although they might recall how forceful the emotions they experienced were, they will be able to speak about them with a little more detachment and rationality if many decades have gone by.

Are they actually telling the story to someone, or are they just thinking or writing it for themselves? This is important because, as I have said when discussing dialogue, the language we use when speaking is not the same as when writing. Also, if your narrator is telling someone the story, they should address them in the narrative; it can become interesting for the reader to try and guess who the story is being told to.

If your character is writing down the story after the events, then what vehicle are they using? Are they writing letters, as in Ying Chen’s The Chinese Letter? Are they writing articles, like Watson does for Sherlock Holmes? Are they writing a journal? A confession? Every decision you make in this should have its purpose; in Sherlock Holmes, the story is written in the form of articles mainly because it was published in a newspaper, so even though most of the audience understood that it was fiction, doubt could conceivably be had; just think about the effect the radio drama of War of the Worlds had when it first aired on the radio. For the same effect of credibility, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is written as a collection of articles, letters, and many people’s journals. This makes it seem like someone gathered extensive data to piece together an incredible story. In a time when vampires were far from being commonplace in literature, this kind of construction of credibility helped the tale achieve its legendary status.

Another important question to ask, if your character is writing or telling the tale, is why. Why are they telling these people? Why at that time? Why not before, or after? What are they hoping to achieve in telling, or writing the tale? This might change the tone of the storytelling, for example, if the tale is a cautionary one, or if the confession is forced, or told from a character’s deathbed as the ultimate satisfaction of being certain to have gotten away with something.

With these questions in mind, one can start considering the different kinds of first-person narrations. Here are the most common ones:

– Detached autobiography: This is when the character is telling the story in a continual narrative, whether thought, written or spoken, some years after the events of the story.

Stream of consciousness: This is when we follow the character in his or her mind in the present, as the events are unfolding. The emotional reactions are at their strongest and most immediate, and this is part of the reason that makes this type of narration the most appropriate for maintaining suspense. Another reason is that, contrary to the detached autobiography, since this is set in the present, we do not know whether or not the character survives the story, whereas when the story is set in the past, we always subconsciously assume they do, because otherwise, how would they be telling the story? (Unless of course, they are a ghost, which has also been done, but then the problem is the same, because we become certain of their death instead of their survival).

Journal: This can be useful if you need to do a lot of introspection and self-exploration for your characters. A journal, being private, is a place where we naturally are inclined to discuss our deepest emotions and most intimate thoughts, and it can be used as a device or a vehicle to achieve this.

Letters: Some people wish to write in the first person, but wish to have more than one narrator. I find that an exchange of letters is the very best way to do this, because it is the most natural way of identifying your speaker at the beginning of each chapter, which is essential if you do not want both your narrators to be confused for one another.

The second person

Yes, there are books written in the second person. Do I recommend trying this? Well, it all depends; it is an exercise in style, and can only be done well with great difficulty, which absolutely does not mean you shouldn’t attempt it. Apart from the Choose your own adventure books, I have seen only two stories that succeeded at writing an intelligent and compelling second-person narratives. The first is Neil Gaiman’s Instructions, a short story which you can find here, told in the imperative, as instructions to the reader, as the title suggests. The other is Italo Calvino’s Se una notte d’inverno un viggiatore (If by a winter night a traveler) which actually makes the reader of the book its hero (a very interesting read!). Mostly, I just mentioned this because you should be aware that it exists.

The third person

This is the most commonly used type of narration, though I would daresay it is the most misunderstood. There, are, in fact, several different types of third person narration, and they should be understood if they are to be used efficiently.

Third person omniscient: This is the most widely used third person narrator. This narrator has a global view of the world, and like its name says, is aware of everything going on and what everyone is thinking. He is free to move in and out of the minds of various characters. If you have ever read “little did he know…” then you were dealing with an omniscient narrator. It’s by far the easiest narrator to use, but it’s also the easiest to misuse. When you write using this narrative voice, you have to be especially wary of doing head-hopping, or jumping from point of view to point of view without clearly informing the reader that you are doing so; you also run more risk of telling and not showing.

– Third person objective: This is exactly like third person omniscient, except for one major difference: this narrator has no access to the thoughts and emotions of ANY of your characters. They must get by and convey emotion by using only body language. Harder to do, but there is no danger of head hopping and telling when it comes to emotion.

Third person limited: This one is the third person narrator who is limited by your main character’s point of view. He knows only what the main character knows, and can read the mind of your main character and no other. What makes it essentially different than using the first person is that since your narrator is NOT your character, he is free to make observations about the way that your main character is acting, thinking or reacting. When used efficiently, this ability can make a story very interesting. Harry Potter is a good example of a third person limited narrator, because everything is seen through Harry’s eyes; even though we sometimes see things that are happening distantly, these things are always conveyed through dreams or visions that Harry is having. The only information we have at our disposal is what Harry sees, what he feels, and the only opinions we have are his, and no one else’s.

Third person episodically limited: This is similar to the third person limited, except that you may have many different points of view, which come into play when you change chapters or episodes. A good example of this is George R.R. Martin’s A song of ice and fire series.

Other considerations

Once you have decided what is best for your story, there are still more things to be considered. These are not great questions, but simply an example of the ways you can really have fun with narrative voice.

Give your narrator some personality. Obviously, if you are using a first-person narrator, then they already have their own personality, which is that of the main character. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done for a third-person narrator. In fact, there are some third-person narrator who are characters themselves; for example, the narrators in The Princess Bride are the grandfather, who is telling the story to his grandson, but by their interaction, they become themselves characters. Without needing to do this, you can give a personality to your third-person narrative voice; Douglas Adams has always been very good at doing this, and so is Terry Pratchett.

Once you’ve decided to give your third-person narrator a mind of their own, you can have fun with them. One way to do this is in having them occasionally interrupt the flow of the story to input their opinion, or simply some information. This is something that Douglas Adams did admirably in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by having the narrator be the Guide itself, and interrupt the story from time to time to provide information in a didactic and entertaining way.

Another way to have fun with personality is to make your narrator unreliable in some way. In the movie The Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human, this was done splendidly, by having a narrator who is obviously an alien explain the mating habits of humans in the style of a wildlife documentary, and, of course, getting everything wrong. When you choose to do this, it is imperative to give your reader the means to understand that the narrator is somehow unreliable!

Narrative voice is extremely important to your story; it is what is going to help you choose your words, and what makes up your style. It should be given careful thought and consideration, and not just picked by default because you need someone to tell your story and that’s it. As with everything else that is involved in writing a story, there is one golden rule that should not be ignored: HAVE FUN WITH IT!

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