Look who’s talking

By Joe Moore

I’m in a mentoring program helping unpublished writers tighten up their work and get it ready for submission. I also visit a few writers’ forums each week and contribute my two cents to the basic questions from writers just starting out. One of the topics that comes up often is narrative voice. So here are a few of my thoughts on the subject.

scream Although dialogue plays a critical role in fiction, having a story told completely with dialogue would be out of the ordinary if not downright creepy. No matter how many characters there are in a typical novel, there’s one that’s always there but is rarely thought of by the reader—the narrator. Sort of like the referee at a football game, the narrator’s job is to impart necessary information and, in general, keep order. Someone has to tell us about stuff like the time of day, the weather, the setting, physical descriptions, and the other things that the characters either don’t have time to tell us about or don’t know.

And just like the characters, the narrator—the author—has a voice or persona. Some authors like to be a part of the story and make themselves know through a distinct personality and attitude. Others prefer to remain distant and aloof, or completely transparent. One of the main things that determine the narrator’s voice is point of view.

Most stories are written in either first- or third-person. If it’s first-person, it’s usually subjective. Subjective POV tells the reader all the intimate details of the narrator—her thoughts, emotions, and reactions to what’s going on around her. There’s also first-person objective. This story technique tells us about what everyone did and said, but without any personal commentary. First-person narration is all about “I”. I read the book. I took a walk. I fell in love.

In between first- and third-person is a rare POV called second-person. You don’t see this technique used much, and when you do, it’s about as pleasant as standing in line for hours at the DMV. Second-person narration is all about “you”. You read the book. You took a walk. You fell in love.

Next comes third-person. There are a couple of third-person types starting with limited. As the term implies, this is a story technique told from a limited POV. It usually involves internal thoughts and feelings, and is the most popular narration style in commercial fiction.

We can also use third-person objective. The narrator tells the story with no emotional involvement or opinion. This is the transparent technique mentioned earlier. The interesting advantage of third-person objective is that the reader tends to inject more of his or her emotions into the story since the narrator does not.

Then there’s third-person omniscient. With this POV, the narrator pulls the camera back to see the bigger picture. He is god-like in his knowledge of everyone and everything. This POV works well when dealing with sweeping epic adventures that might span numerous generations or time periods. Unlike first-person subjective which is up close and intimate, third-person omniscient is distant, impersonal, and sometimes cold. The reader has to use his imagination more when it comes to emotions because there’s no one to help him along. Third-person narration is all about “he, she and they”. He read the book. She took a walk. They fell in love.

The other key element in determining narration and voice is verb tense. Most stories use the past tense. This is what most readers are comfortable with. The opposite of this would be the incredibly annoying and almost unreadable second-person present tense. If you’re interested in experimental, artsy writing and want to use this technique, make sure you’re independently wealthy first.

So who does the talking in your books? Does your narrator’s voice seem warm and fuzzy, cleaver and funny, or cold and distant? Do you stick with the norm of third-person past tense or do you like to venture into uncharted territory? And what type of narration do you enjoy reading?

8 thoughts on “Look who’s talking

  1. I’m writing in omniscient. While I find some books too distant and cold, not all omniscient is like this–depends a lot on how it’s written. One of the reasons I picked it was to help balance out the humor in the book.

    When I started looking for examples of omniscient to go by I was surprised to realize that many of my favorite books are in omniscient. The one I like the least is first, mainly because I’ve just seen too much of it lately.

    Linda Adams

  2. Joe, I love doing 1st Person in my Buchanan series, because of the whole Chandler tradition. When done well, it’s my favorite POV to read.

    When I do 3d I always use the “warm” mode. I want to acheive the same “intimacy” one gets with 1st, and I like that best in the novels I read. I admire the way Elmore Leonard can do that with disparte characters in the same novel, with a change of narrative voice for each.

  3. I’ve used first-person for PI novels, as it’s a tradition, and seems to work best. (Which is probably why it became a tradition.) I use third-person limited for most everything else, getting a glimpse inside the POV character’s head, though I’ll change POV throughout the the book to portray each scene through the eyes of the character best able to do it.

    I’ve used second person a couple of times, but only in flash fiction. Longer than that and it’s get annoying in a hurry.

    My reading preference? Whatever works best and is written well. Except for second person. That still gets annoying.

  4. I write mostly in first person, but I’ve done some short stories in third person limited. I read mostly crime fiction which is usually in one of those two POVs.

    I don’t think I’ve ever read anything in second person, but I have to agree it would be very annoying.

    I also HATE anything written in present tense. I’ve tried to read books written in present tense several times, but I can never get past the first chapter. It just seems pretentious to me–like the author is doing it just because he can. Books should read seamlessly, like they’ve written themselves. The author should be invisible. In present tense, I’m very aware that there’s a writer and he wants to annoy me.

  5. My next work will be in multi-person schizophrenic. Each POV will be presented in every sentence and identified by using a different font such as courier, arial bold, cutsie-girl-cursive and meta-flatulent bubble.

    It will read much like Rushdie’s Satanic Verses but maybe not as cohesive.

    Of course I will probably have to malign a major religion that gives death threats for doing so in order to guarantee sales of the book.

  6. Thanks everyone for your comments. Although I’ve never written in first-person, it’s on my to-do list for some future project. Basil, good luck with that maligning thing. 🙂

  7. My first novel was written in the limited third person POV, past tense. Now, with my WIP, I’m experiment with first person, present tense for scenes where the POV is from the main character, and third person present tense for all the other POVs.

    I first saw this switch between first and third person in a novel by Jed Rubenfeld, The Interpretation of Murder.

    If you want to see all POVs in one novel (and masterly done, I think), read “The Death of Artemio Cruz” by Carlos Fuentes. It has everything: past, present and future tense, and first, second, and third person. I read it in the original Spanish version, so I can’t attest to the quality of the English translations, but it would be worth looking at it.

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