Hearing Voices: Which One Will You Choose for your Novel?

So you are going to write a novel. Will it be from the narrative point of view? Epistolary?  First person, third person or the seldom-used second person? Alternating viewpoints? Subjective or omniscient?

Whichever point of view you choose will make a big difference in the book you end up with. Different points of view allow for different things to happen and come attached with different sets of rules. In the next four blogs, we are going to look at various points of view and discuss their advantages and limitations.  Today, the first person.

the-first-person-point-of-viewFirst person is the I-voice. It is limited to what the narrator, the I, knows, experiences and feels: I put on my red pea coat and walk outside. It is dark and cold. I am feeling tired, but if I get to the office early, I can leave early to go to the dentist…

The narrator has to be a character in the story or an observer of the story. This narrator can be trustworthy or not. But he/she cannot see into other characters’ heads. Their thoughts are walled off except when they revealed by facial expression or gestures.  Plots of first person books can only unfold to the extent that the narrator is aware of them.

So when might you consider writing in the first person? Since everything has to be filtered through the eyes of the narrator in the first person voice, the narrator has to be in a position to know the action of the book first hand, or to learn it from another character. Since the narrator will be taking up a lot of space, it helps if she/he has a distinctive voice like Holden Caulfield in CATCHER IN THE RYE.

First-person narrators can also be relatively minor characters who observe and report on primary characters as in Emily Bronte’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS in which Lockwood pretty much records in his diary what Nelly Dean, a servant, about the goings-on at Wuthering Heights.

Once you have opted for a first person voice, then you have to decide:

1)   How the person is telling the story. Is it an interior monologue? A tale the narrator is telling to someone else? A letter or series of e mail messages? A dramatic monologue? Something the narrator is sitting down to write?

2)   Past or present tense. Is the story ongoing? Did it already happen?

3)   Is your narrator reliable? Beginning writers should probably always use a first person narrator who is telling the truth. To adopt a narrator who isn’t factual is to add a whole level of complexity to the writing of the story.

4)   Voice. How does your narrator talk or write? This is the hardest part of writing in the first person. It can be very difficult to separate your voice as the writer from the voice of your character. Yet, book narrators speak in very different ways from our own narrative voices. Writers of successful first person narration do not just pour out what’s in their heads. Try it some time, and see if you produce great prose or if it is just annoying. The truth is that characters in books do not write or speak the way people do in life. You will find that developing a first person voice takes considerable working and reworking. You will want to consider your character’s regional and social background. You will want to choose your first person narrators words carefully.