After writing five novels all in the first person (or six if you include Gooseberry’s next outing which is coming on apace) I’m considering stepping out of my comfort zone to try a different narrative voice. I have a title; I have a tentative cover that needs a bit of tweaking. I have a time and place and setting: a small township on the shores of Lake Taupo in the North Island of New Zealand, one year after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. At this point the children of British immigrants still think of Britain as “Home”—whether or not they’ve ever seen it, or are ever likely to see it again. I have a cast of characters, some of the plot, and now all I need is narrative voice.
You may be wondering what a narrative voice is, and why it matters. At the simplest level, it’s about who’s telling the story. With the first-person, it’s your character who’s doing the narrating, and everything comes from her or his point of view, as in: “I was banging away at the keyboard, treating it like an old-fashioned typewriter, when suddenly there came a knock at the door. The woman who stood there eyed me sullenly, almost as if challenging me to read what was on her mind. ‘Change a twenty for two tens?’ she eventually asked, holding out a crisp, new note.”
If you’ve ever read a good first-person, you’ll know there’s no better way of getting to know the narrator’s character. You get to see the world as they see it. You are literally inside their mind. The challenge for the writer is that you have only one single voice carry an entire novel. The narrator cannot know what anyone else is thinking, and ways must be found for them to be present at every significant event—not always an easy task! A slight spin on this straight-out first-person is to have two narrators, each taking turns—great for thrillers where you get to see inside the mind of the detective and the killer alternately.
In the third-person, it’s you, the writer, who’s narrating—literally telling a story—so you’re no longer tied to just one person’s experiences or thoughts. You can have two or more points of view. For example: “Michael was banging away at his keyboard, treating it like an old-fashioned typewriter, when suddenly there came a knock at his door. The woman who stood there eyed him sullenly, making him feel nervous. So this is what a writer looks like, she thought to herself, disappointed by his shabby appearance and ungainly manner. ‘Change a twenty for two tens?’ she asked, though she was reluctant to, holding out a crisp, new note.” See? The world suddenly opens up to you!
There are still rules to abide by if you expect it to work. The fewer points of view there are, the more immersive the experience will be. Each different POV should be separated where it changes—at least by a sentence and preferably by a paragraph, if not by an entire section of a chapter. For example, “So this is what a writer looks like” would function better as a new paragraph. In addition to signalling who is speaking, you also need to signal whose point of view it has changed to. Consider: with “‘Change a twenty for two tens?’ she asked, though she was reluctant to,” we’re still seeing it from the woman’s POV. Were it to read, “‘Change a twenty for two tens?’ she asked, though it seemed to him she was reluctant to,” then we’ve reverted to Michael’s POV (and once again this deserves a new paragraph to demonstrate the change). Get this even a little bit wrong, and your readers will puzzle over your mistake, often sensing there’s something wrong without being able to pinpoint why.
I have seen the author Lionel Shriver argue the case for a second-person narrator, as in: “You were banging away at your keyboard, treating it like an old-fashioned typewriter, when suddenly there came a knock at your door.” I recall she said she used this voice in We Need to Talk About Kevin, but, as I haven’t read it, please don’t quote me on that. Myself, I’m not convinced. If you think about it, you are not the one telling the story. It’s being told—not exactly to you, but at you—by a third person, in what could easily turn into a very blaming sort of way.
Ruling that voice out, it leaves me with the choice of dividing the narration between two first-person narrators or branching out into the liberating (and, for me, somewhat terrifying) third-person narration. Perhaps I should never have let myself get so comfortable with the first-person narrative in the first place!
Finally, if I’ve whetted your appetite, as a small token of my thanks for taking the trouble to find this page, I’d like to offer you a 50% discount off the list price of Big Bona Ogles, Boy! (Send for Octavius Guy 3), with its fully-immersive first-person narrator! Purchase it at Smashwords.com and, when it comes time to pay, use coupon code: EH28B. This offer is available until September 30th, 2017.