Narrative Voice

By Joe Moore

A few weeks ago, I blogged about POV shifting and what’s called “head hopping”. To carry on with the topic of POV, I want to dig into a common topic discussed at workshops and critique group: narrative voice. Narrative voice determines how the narrator tells a story. Often it’s the voice of a character, less often, an unseen voice. The narrative voice is what provides background information, insight, or describes the actions and reactions taking place in a scene. Before a writer sets out to tell a story, she must choose which narrative voice to use. Here is a basic list and comparison of the different choices and why one might be more adventitious that the other in a particular project.

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. 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 mundane 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 known 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 protagonist—her thoughts, emotions, and reactions to what’s going on around her. There’s also first-person objective. This story telling technique tells us about what everyone did and said, but without any personal commentary, mainly because the narrator doesn’t know the thoughts of the other characters, only their actions and reactions. 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 is 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 and have no interest in actually selling copies of your book.

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?


shield-cover-smallComing soon:THE SHIELD by Sholes & Moore

“THE SHIELD rocks on all cylinders.” – James Rollins, New York Times bestselling author of THE EYE OF GOD.

18 thoughts on “Narrative Voice

  1. Good thoughts, Joe. I’m all for a strong narrative voice. If I’m doing 3d Person, I want the narration to sound like the POV character’s own thoughts. Elmore Leonard was a master of this. Whenever he switched POVs, the narrative style would switch with it.

  2. My PI stories are first person; it’s kind of a tradition, and it works well for those kinds of stories.

    Other novels have been multi-POV form what I think of as “close third person,” which I believe is the same as “limited.” The reader is in a character’s head, essentially eavesdropping on his or her thoughts and observations. Never more than one per scene, though, unless I clearly mark the change with a line space.

  3. I love writing a deeper narrative in the voice of my character, whether in 3rd or 1st POV. I’ve combined first & third to allow for the intimacy of first, yet retain the flexibility in plotting mystery elements that I can get from third.

    Your post reminded me of one of my dav books, THE BOOK THIEF, where the omniscient narrator is Death. Very effective use of craft.

  4. I wrote the first book in my current series in 1st person subjective because the story demanded it. I then switched to 3rd person for the other books, again because the stories demanded it. 3rd person definitely gives more range to the stories in terms of exploring different characters’ POVs, including the bad guys.

  5. I’ve experiment with a few different POVs for my novels but often for YA 1st person is needed. Typically is a close 3rd person for my mysteries – it’s also, I find, the least cumbersome. I still hope though that my characters’ voices come through (dialogue is really what shows this I believe).

  6. I’m not sure why, but I almost never even think about POV consciously. I just start writing. I’m sure that certain aspects of my writing suffers because of it – this was a great rundown of the options. Keeping it for reference! 🙂

  7. Like linewordletter said, it is easy to not pay attention to POV. When I don’t, I find my narrative wanders from 3rd limited to 3rd omni.

    I’m doing the preliminary editing on my WIP (before it goes to Jodie for a real edit) and i’m finding a number of these errors.

  8. I stick with limited third person viewpoint in Marla’s sassy tone for my Bad Hair Day series. Her wry outlook on life brings humor to the stories. I would also be comfortable writing in first person, and I have done multiple viewpoints in my romances. What really bothers me is writers who hop between first and third person in the same book. I find that too jarring to get immersed in the story.

  9. I write third-person omniscient almost exclusively, since I write historical and tend to have ensemble casts. It’s what I’m most familiar with reading. I’ve never gotten the criticism that this POV is distant and impersonal. For me, it’s the most deeply personal and emotional POV possible, since you get to know all the characters, their thoughts, and their feelings, instead of having a story dictated by only one person. Of course, one should stay away from the old-fashioned God mode, where an author casts judgment on characters, essentially tells the reader how to feel with manipulative prose, or gives away the ending or pivotal plot developments (coughthebookthiefcough).

  10. Joe–Thanks for another highly useful post–and thank you (again) for the great post of April 16 (“Getting over the block”). I keep that one handy, to keep me on the straight and narrow.
    Your summary of POV approaches made me think of a book I read long ago. It’s the only second-person, present tense narrative I can remember: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. It was a best seller in the 80s (I think), but I absolutely agree with you: anyone who wants to try that approach had better own a publishing company, or have an uncle in the business.

  11. I’m most comfortable with 3rd person limited. I used to head hop quite a bit until it was pointed out to me. I had no idea what it was and became frustrated. Now I have a greater appreciation for these differences.

    I’ve been experimenting with past and present in short pieces, but I’m sticking with past.

  12. I’ve done books in most the common POVs and once mixed first and third. But I am most comfortable, as a writer, in intimate third. I like the story being filtered through my character(s)’s pysche and feelings. I think it makes for a stronger attachment for the reader, as well, to the protag. As a reader, I’m not fussy about what the POV is…as long as the writer is in full control and has made the POV choice that best services the story.

  13. Thank you everyone for expressing your ideas, comments and techniques. Three books ago, my co-writer and I switched from all third person to a mix of first and third, first on our protag’s chapter’s and third on all others. It gives us a method to further the reader’s connection with the story and our characters. Again, thanks to all for chiming in.

  14. I usually write in first, but I’m trying third, limited out and really liking it. It’s what I began writing but I was told that I had a better first person voice. I think it was because I didn’t know my craft well and now that I’ve learned more, third fits better.

  15. I use first person with third person limited in different chapters to show my antagonist. I personally believe there is no better POV in thrillers. It gives a sense of urgency like no other POV, in my opinion. I also enjoy reading 1st with 3rd alternating POVs, a technique used by many successful authors, including James Patterson– whom I adore.

  16. My favorite narrative voice is that used in Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy. It’s 1st person, full of Machiavellian wit and profound insight. A joy to read.

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