Writing Tip #7

January 15th, 2012

Choosing your narrative voice.

So you have a story idea–maybe even an outline–and you want to start writing. But just as your hands are descending on your keyboard, you stop, uncertain.  Do you want your protagonist to tell the story, in the first person?  Or do you want an omniscient third-person narrator?  Or maybe you want to switch between narrators, sometimes one character, sometimes another?  You could even try writing in the second person (“you walk up the stairs where you see someone you know” etc) but . . . nah, you’re probably not going to do that.  You’re creative but you’re not crazy.

Still, it’s tough choosing between that first person and third person voice.  How do you decide?

Ultimately it’s a personal, creative decision and there’s no right or wrong answer.  But I can tell you that I tend to lean toward the first-person narrator when I have a very strong protagonist, someone who’s going to be in every scene (that’s important) and who’s interesting and original enough to add zest to the narrative.  I happen to love telling the story from the main character’s point of view (as you’ve probably figured out if you’ve read more than a couple of my books), but it does limit you.  You can’t describe events that take place away from that character (unless she recounts it from hearsay) and you can’t give her knowledge she wouldn’t have.

A third-person narrator simplifies all that kind of stuff.  You can go anywhere, describe anything, fill in any information.  But you do lose some personality: an incorporeal narrator isn’t going to help flesh out a character.  And you still have decisions to make: can your narrator see into anyone’s mind?  Or still lean toward one character’s thoughts?  (Think Scarlett O’Hara in GWTH–third person narrative, but you only know what Scarlett’s thinking.) Or do you want to keep it simple, just describe what’s going on and let the characters’ dialogue and actions speak for themselves?  That limits you because you can’t describe what someone’s thinking, but there’s a creative purity to it that’s appealing.

One thing that really bumps me in a book is when a narrator switches points of view within one scene, so that just when you’re seeing the action through one character’s eyes, suddenly you know what another character’s thinking.  You need some rules about this.  I suppose you could just dip in and out of everyone’s mind, but then you lose a lot of mystery–you’re cheating if you can sometimes see everyone’s motives but then try to spring a surprise because it serves you better in another scene.

I got around that one in two of my novels by having a third-person narrator but switching which point of view you could see, depending on the scene.  So, for example, in Knitting Under the Influence, you could see into Sari’s mind when the story was about her, and Lucy’s when it was about her.  The confusion could have come when they were together, which they frequently were, but then I made a very deliberate choice whose point of view that scene would still be told from–it could vary between sections but never within a section.  If I started a section in Sari’s voice, then I wouldn’t suddenly switch over and say, “Lucy thought Sari was being annoying.”  That would have felt inconsistent to me.

In both Knitting Under the Influence and The Smart One and the Pretty One, I needed to serve more than one main character.  I could have switched the first person (i.e. had one character narrate a chapter then switch to another character’s voice for a different character, something plenty of authors do, to interesting effect), but I decided to use that third person voice to avoid confusion.  For all my other novels, I’ve used the first person–I just love slipping into someone else’s mind and telling the story the way she would.  It lets you think like your character for a while and that’s just fun.