Narrative Points of View and Voices

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur adipiscing elit placerat maecenas sit.

Among the first things we do once we've decided to write a story, and that comes before obsessing over the names of the main characters, or whether Prince George is going to have blue or green eyes, is choosing a point of view, or in short- who is going to tell the story. I say the first thing, since- while in the case of names we can simply change them mid-story and substitute the old ones, changing the point of view would mean one thing- re-writing everything.

What point of view you're going to choose depends heavily on :

  • How much do you want the reader to know about a character or an event;
  • What distance do you want to put between the reader and the narrative ;
    and of course-
  • how "reliable" the chosen voice is.
    There are a couple of main types of point of view writers use, a few less popular-especially in recent years, and one that's – if you ask me- quite experimental, but we'll discuss all of them in more detail below.
    First-Person Point of View
    If you choose the first-person point of view, that means you're going to use I and we, us, our/ ourselves pronouns.
    That point of view is the most personal one and the distance between the narrator and the reader is quite short, as it leaves us with the feeling and impression the character's talking to us and we see the world through their eyes.
    A beautiful example of First POV narrative is from Crush by Richard Siken :
    For a while, I thought I was the dragon.
    I guess I can tell you that now. And, for a while, I thought I was
    the princess,
    cotton candy pink, sitting there in my room, in the tower of the castle,
    young and beautiful and in love and waiting for you with
    but the princess looks into her mirror and only sees the princess,
    while I'm out here, slogging through the mud, breathing fire,
    and getting stabbed to death.
    Okay, so I'm the dragon. Big deal.
    You still get to be the hero.
    So, if we go back to our prince George (we've decided to go with green eyes in the meantime), the narration would pretty much go like this :
    "I wasn't sure why I was invited to the dinner- it's not like she'd need my presence here, but no matter what I thought, I couldn't argue my invitation. I leaned back in my seat and tried not to flinch visibly- the injury on my shoulder was much more serious than I thought and I wasn't looking forward to meeting the Queen in private after the feast was over. "
    The first-person point of view is primarily used in YA fiction and poetry. It's generally avoided in fantasy because the perspective it gives is quite limited and fantasy's famous for world-building and multiple plot lines, but we'll get back to fantasy later.
    There are exceptions, of course- such as The Hunger Games or the Song of Achilles where that voice works quite well for the narration and in the case of the latter makes the death of Achilles devastating, even though we all know how the story ends.
    The Fault in Our Stars and The Perks of Being a Wallflower are also good reference examples of YA novels, written in that point of view.
    There are two types of First Person POV- reliable/ unreliable First POV.
    As I mentioned, the distance between the narrative voice and the reader is quite small and we're easily tricked into believing the narrator in whatever they have to tell us. It's also quite subjective.
    It's up to you as the writer whether you want your narrator to be trustworthy or not. Our prince George seems to dislike the Queen, but how do we know if she's that hateful?
    Alternating first-person narrations is something authors occasionally use in those cases- they switch between a few of their main characters' first POVs to develop the story and to make it more evident that one of their characters' point of view cannot be trusted.
    Second Person Point of View
    Pronouns used are You, Your, Yourself;
    It's my favorite point of view, and it's the one generally avoided for longer works because it's quite difficult to maintain. It also gets quite tedious after a while and it's preferred for poetry or short stories mainly.
    With Second person POV we don't substitute he/she/it with you, but rather- we speak to our character.
    An example of the Second person POV book (and that's the most quoted one in any article on Narrative Points of View you decide to open) is Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney.
    Poets use it occasionally and it sounds like :
    A man walks into a bar and says:
    Take my wife–please.
    So you do.
    You take her out into the rain and you fall in love with her
    and she leaves you and you're desolate.
    You're on your back in your undershirt, a broken man
    on an ugly bedspread, staring at the water stains
    on the ceiling.

    (Richard Siken, Boot Theory)
    Now, if we go back to our story, Prince George's evening would probably look like this (I've never read a fantasy in 2nd person POV, but we might try) :
    "You relax your elbow on the armrest and your back sinks in the soft furniture. The feeling of comfort is so tempting that it lulls you into thinking your injury's not that serious. Comfort also makes you distracted and prevents you from seeing the bigger issue- which is: you're alone in the land of enemies, disguised as friends and their queen is watching you from the other side of the dinner table. "
    Third Person Point of View and Consistency of Voice
    The pronouns generally used in that POV are :
    He/ she / it
    It is the most commonly used one, it's the one I use primarily and most of the authors I can think of.
    The Third POV is divided roughly into :
  • Limited Omniscience- the narrator knows everything about the way a character feels,

what they see and what they think. But again- that's a single character POV.

If we choose the most common Third Person POV- telling the story from the main character's point of you, we'd have :

"George looked around and all he could see were unfamiliar faces. His eyes traveled down the beautiful dresses the women were wearing, then they moved to the intricate designs of the men's clothing- so different from his own and what his men used to wear in peace and on the battlefield. "

This narration allows for adding details, without making the story overly descriptive. The disadvantage of this voice is that you (and the reader) have only the perspective of the character involved in the action from whose eyes we observe everything.

What's important here is to choose wisely whose character's perspective you're going to write from.

Dan Brown says in one of his creative writing classes that we should always choose the character who has the most to lose.

For romance stories, that's usually the character who's most invested in the love interest.

  • Deep Point of View is occasionally put into a different section from Limited
    It's pretty much the same as the one we just discussed, the only difference is we dig deeper into the character's head. Most writers remove words like "said, "thought" "know" "see" to shorten the distance between the reader and the character further.
    I tend to write that way occasionally, and I'm trying to get to know the characters better, but with the deep point of view, there's always the risk of "telling" too much. It might work for some stories, it may not for others- again, it's up to you and depends heavily on your relationship with the characters.
  • Multiple POV in Third Person Narration
    As promised- we get back to fantasy.
    I notice recently most fantasy books are written in Multiple 3rd person POVs. The reason behind this is fantasy usually has many characters and many plotlines, and by choosing this perspective, you don't have the limitations of what only one character sees.
    What I can advise here is to try to create a different voice for each character whose POV you write from and don't switch the perspectives mid-sentence, or on the same page.
    Game of Thrones is the most popular example of this narration and each chapter is told from a different character's perspective.
  • Omniscient POV - I call it God's point of view, the "know it all". It's very typical for

classical literature where the narrator knows what everyone is thinking, how they feel, and what they're going to do. It's always left me with the impression I'm just a mere spectator of a play that's being staged in front of me. Let's try it with our story:

"George tasted the sweet wine and it instantly inspired memories that brought him back to his homeland. He fixed his eyes on the dark liquid and his mind trailed- he couldn't even recognize the man who was looking back at him from the reflection.

The Queen watched him stare at his golden glass and wondered what could have caused her guest distress. He most likely was unaccustomed to the taste, so she waved a hand at the nearest slave to serve something else.

The slave walked over, and thought nervously that if the Queen was calling him, that meant he'd done something wrong."

The disadvantage that comes with the omniscient voice is it might start looking like head-hopping and it very often does- errors normally occur with the use of third-person omniscient. Points of view are like tenses, we don't use them simultaneously in a single sentence.

If I was to give a piece of advice, it would be :

Try to be consistent and in only one head at a time. If you've chosen the Multiple POV narration, don't mix different points of view in the same scene, or chapter.

If you must necessarily have a single chapter with more than one narrator, try to indicate the change of voice somehow with the breaking of the scene, for example, or something similar. The shifting third-person method is great but only for different chapters or scenes.

I've decided to mention Stream of Consciousness as a way of describing voice, as it differs from the interior monologue.

By definition, Stream of Consciousness is is a method of narration that describes happenings in the flow of thoughts in the minds of the characters. The technique generally gives readers the impression they're in the minds of the characters.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf was written in the stream of consciousness method (James Joyce was another writer, famous for his Stream of Consciousness works).

It sounds like :

"How fresh, how calm, stiller than this, of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as I then was) solemn, feeling as I did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen …"

(Virginia Woolf)

Maybe you could try to write or George's POV in the stream of consciousness just to see where it would take you, as with that method, there are a lot of possibilities to explore, because of the creative freedom it gives.

Whatever perspective you choose to go with, there's no "best recipe" or a creative writing course on "which voice is the right one", just the way there's no right or wrong in literature and art in general.

Each POV gives the reader a different experience, but I'd say it also gives you- the writer -a different perspective.

You sometimes get to know your characters differently, depending on how you "chose" to communicate with them and vice versa.

"And by the way, everything in life is writable if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."

-Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath.

That's often easier said than done, but as I like to say- it's sometimes not so much what you write, or how, but the fact you are writing. There are so many books and courses on creative writing that I could drown if I decided to swim against the current of names and suggestions.

Then again- there's no "my way or the highway" and what works for me, may not work for you or someone else.

I'll list below a few books I've found helpful in terms of tips on points of view, but those are simply a suggestion.

Good luck with your next/first/ future story and don't ever be afraid to explore and experiment.

  1. Creative Writing, Linda Anderson- the book is divided into sections with explanations, many examples, and what I liked most about it- different exercises after each chapter.
  2. Emotion Amplifies- A writer's guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi- if I have to be honest, all the books from the series are great, each focusing on different topics and they give many examples and explanations, some parts are also examining the topics form a psychological point of view. There's something for anyone.
  3. Reading Like a Writer- Francine Prose
  4. On Writing by Stephen King- I know you've seen that one everywhere, but I think Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury is Way better and more straight to the point.

Literary Devices. Net is a page that has definititons and exaples of all literary terms for anyone, who might be interested.