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I’m in a mentoring program helping unpublished writers tighten up their work and get it ready for submission.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.
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?