Monday, January 12, 2009

And Yet Another Voice

After discussing some of the problems with the first person narrator, I realized I’ve taken one tool away and given nothing back. As a remedy, this post will contain further information on other narrative voice choices, their strengths and even some of their weaknesses.

Many books have been written on viewpoint and voice, a very complex subject. Basically, however, there are three commonly used narrative view-points (POV’s) in most modern commercial fiction novels. They are first person, third person omniscient, and third person, limited omniscient.

The first person narrator, already discussed in other posts, is still widely used. However, one should choose first person not out of ignorance of other, possibly better, narrative viewpoints but with the knowledge that it’s the best choice for that particular story.

Third person omniscient, a favorite 19th century POV, fell out of popularity as readers became more sophisticated and began challenging this all knowing, all seeing voice which readers recognized as the author’s. In commercial fiction, authorial intrusion should be avoided at all costs as modern readers want their stories told from a character’s viewpoint only.

One place the omniscient viewpoint works very well is in novel openings, where this narrative voice gives the reader a wide-angle lens view that can then be narrowed down to focus in on a single character by switching to limited omniscient. Steven King, in fact, uses this device in many of his novels. However, if this technique is used in the opening, there cannot be anther switch back to omniscient later in the novel. Once in limited, the author must stay in limited for the rest of the story.

The most widely used point of view in 21st century literature is, of course, third person, limited omniscient multiple viewpoint. This point of view’s ease of use, not only gives the writer the closeness of the first person narrator, it also gives many options not available in the other narrative forms. For one thing, if you can imagine yourself inside the character in this viewpoint—seeing, smelling, hearing, and touching everything he or she sees, smells, hears, or touches, you can create a realm which is so real and so comfortable that your reader actually becomes the main character. This kind of escapism is what fiction is all about. The writer can also, instead of your reader having to sense everything through the main character’s senses, he or she can switch characters and show his or her reader what other character are feeling too, something that’s not impossible, but extremely difficult to do in first person.

Now you have other POVs to study and use in the creation of your stories. Writing is a process that began when we were young children, verbally telling stories to ourselves, something infants, old people and blogger do frequently. Then we hang it all out there and begin writing into this vacuum called a blog. We never know until someone comments if anyone actually reads our stuff, but write on we must. Hope this small journey into point of view does more than confuse. If there is a question, please don’t hesitate to comment.


Scott Jensen said...

It seems what you're describing as "third person, limited omniscient" is actually simply what I'd call "multiple first person". No all-seeing, all-knowing "God" perspective but "simply" the author jumping from one first-person perspective to the next to give multiple first-person perspectives on the same story. Maybe an introduction by God but that's about it for omniscience. The author acting as simply a mind-reader of his story's main characters. In fact, I don't see any "third person" in what you're describing. Third person to me is a impartial bystander. A sort of an invisible ghost observing and reporting on a story's main characters minus any mind-reading ability.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

No, Scott, this isn't true with third person, limited omniscient. The a character (the main character in the single point of view and many in the multiple version) is or are the actual narrators and the narration is in past tense. For instance in first person, I am doing or I am seeing something, the limited would be he or she saw something or did something--past tense. Limited only means that the narration is limited to one character at a time. More examples coming in next comment.

What your seeing is the omniscient point of view--the invisible, all knowing and seeing who is reporting on all that's happening and, of course, that's actually the author. More later.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Scott, here’s another way to think of it: In the first-person perspective, the narrator is relating what’s happening using I or me when speaking of him or herself, or he, she, we, us ect, when speaking of others.

In the third-person, limited omniscient viewpoint, the narrator assumes the third person perspective as he, she or it.

An example of the first person and third person limited omniscient would be:

First person: I was going to work when, in my rear-view mirror, I spotted a man reading a book while driving. When I slowed at the next light, the guy behind me didn’t and crashed into my car.

Third person, limited: He was on his way to work when, in his rear-view mirror, he spotted a man reading a book while driving. When he slowed at the next light, the guy behind him didn’t and crashed into his car.

There have been instances where authors have written in first person, multiple viewpoints but, as you can imagine, it is very difficult. About the only place the change could be made in first person without confusing the reader would be at chapter ends, whereas, in the limited viewpoint, the narrator change can be made within the same paragraph, if it’s done correctly.

In English grammar, the verb changes when the subject of the verb changes from I, through you, to he she or it as can illustrated in conjugating the verb “to be.” I am (first person) you are (second person) he, she or it is (third person).

Scott Jensen said...

You wrote:

"in the limited viewpoint, the narrator change can be made within the same paragraph, if it’s done correctly."

Please give an example of this. That would seem to be very confusing to the reader. Yes, I saw you said "if it's done correctly", but still.

And I was going to follow the above with a comment about the narration always being in the past tense when present tense might better served action and momentum. However, when I tried to give an example of narration done in past tense and another done in present tense, I couldn't do anything but past tense. *LOL* This is why narration has the "God" feel to it, I guess.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

I'll see if I can find some examples of both, Scott.

Anonymous said...

Just one word:


wisconsinwriter said...

As a reader it's my opinion that the first-person style appears far too much, particularly in short stories. As a new but unpublished writer of novels AND short stories, I have no special interest in writing anything in this fashion. Granted it does have its place like everything else, but I seem to see this first-person storytelling used so FREQUENTLY, and for me it gets tiresome. But again, it's only one person's viewpoint. This type of writing must sell or I wouldn't see it as much as I do, so that side should be addressed as well. Still, I personally don't care much for it.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Somehow I knew it would be only a matter of time before someone brought up Twilight as a successful first person novel.

I've read Twilight and it's not too bad. However, I wouldn't call it a literary masterpiece either. Have you read any of the reviews?

For instance this from Kirkus: "This is far from perfect: Edward's portrayal as monstrous tragic hero is overly Byronic, and Bella's appeal is based on magic rather than character."

From Booklist: "There are some flaws here--a plot that could have been tightened, an overreliance on adjectives and adverbs to bolster dialogue--"

In my opinion, the author got lucky. She wrote a young adult novel and it sold extremely well because youths fell in love with the LOVE story, not the writing. It surely didn't sell because of writing technique or literary merit.

This would could been a much better novel, in my opinion, if had been written in third person limited omniscient and in two points of view--Bella's and Edward's. The author's lack of writing skill is obvious on very page, for gosh sakes.

"However, one should choose first person not out of ignorance of other, possibly better, narrative viewpoints but with the knowledge that it’s the best choice for that particular story."

Stephenie Meyer fits this statement exactly--new writer who wrote in first person because this point of view came to her naturally. If you'll read her interviews right after Twilight became a best seller, she admits that she just sat down and wrote the book.

Also, we really don't know how much work her editor did on this novel, do we? All we see, or will ever see, is the finished product.

Anonymous said...


Your points about Twilight and Ms. Meyer are well taken.

In the end, though, the real test is whether or not an author produces a work people want to read and that is certainly the case with Twilight.

For myself,I'm having my own issues with first person. I'm working on my second novel - - a story that is better told in first person, and I can really see the problems inherent in that POV.

I'm much more comfortable with third person and telling a story in first person is a real challenge for me. I'm giving it about 20,000 words and if I don't like what I'm reading, it's getting scrapped in favor of third person.

BTW I agree with your last paragraph or so about Meyer.

- - Anon. 14/1/09 6:56PM

Usman said...

Thanks for starting this debate.

The POV issue is one that gives me some of my biggest moments of doubt when I start a novel.

Personally, I enjoy both first, third limited or omni.

I'd like to ask you this: how should an author decide on POV when he starts a novel? Are there any pointers? I know there are no rules, perhaps instinct; but are there any pointers, any warning signs to heed?
The question arose when you said that TWILIGHT would have been better in third. What POV suits what types of stories?
Great blog btw.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...


Who narrates a novel is a decision that should be made long before one sits down to write. As was stated in "And Yet Another Voice" the limited omniscient narrator is the most popular point of view used in modern literature. It is also the most versatile because it gives the writer the same closeness as first person, but just as easily allows the story to be told from any distance and in multiple viewpoints.

Some stories, especially short stories, work better in first person, but the short story writer has many voices that don't work well in longer fiction.

The best advice I can give any writer is to learn all you can about point of view, then test drive an assortment of narrative choices and narrators before making the final and best choice for story and reader.

Leon Basin said...

Good voice though!:)

Scott Jensen said...

A well-chosen first-person voice used by a current bestselling series is the Sookie Stackhouse series by veteran author Charlaine Harris and which a HBO series is being based on.

I think the author's choice was partially based on her decision to use first-person to slowly reveal a hidden world. The story told from a singularity. A very rare telepath. And choosing a telepath is a very interesting way to tell a story. It is almost a cheat. It allows the author to have the narrator be partially omniscient. Being able to tell the reader what other characters around her are thinking ... which normally is the province of a God narrator.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

You bring up some very good points, Scott. As stated in our post on first person, IF and author is aware of other narrative voices and chooses first person because this point of view, among all other possible choices, gives the author the story he or she wants to tell, then definitely using first person is a wise choice. However, if a writer only uses first person because her or she are not aware of any other points of view, then many times it’s not the best choice.

As far as choosing a telepath as a way to tell her story, this is not a new device. It’s actually almost cliché. Let’s see, we’ve had ghosts, dogs, cats, aliens and probably even other telepaths in the past used as narrators. As far using the omniscient…”which is usually the providence of God.” This point of view was used almost exclusively in the 19th century when readers bestowed on authors (the actual omniscient narrator) that trust because authors were considered gifted, highly educated and, as far as readers where concerned, all-knowing.

As readers become more educated and writers became less sophisticated, granting all seeing, all knowing status to authors was taken away and the exclusive use of the omniscient voice died the death of disuse as other, more reader acceptable points of view became popular.

As stated, fiction isn’t static. Fiction is vibrant, forever growing and changing and those who don’t adapt to change find their choices limited.

Ravenscroft said...

The most common failure of first-person (1P) narrative, especially among beginners, is that it doesn't take many pages before they start longing for omniscience.

I'm browsing along on a manuscript &, in the middle of a chapter or a page or a paragraph or even a sentence, suddenly the POV consciousness has become detached & is drifting freely around the room! Not even a clean jump to another POV (much less 1P), but that weird shock of being cut loose from all moorings.

And more often than not the loosed Sentience is suddenly able to read minds, see all that has happened in the dim past, & predict the future.

I won't even get started on the second-person present-tense omniscient, because the mere thought of it makes my eyeteeth itch.

Joseph said...

I am an unpublished writer for now, and I find writing in first person present tense to be the most challenging. I believe that a person goes through their life as such, and meets life and it's highs and lows, at random. Of course you can make plans, but you never know what awaits around the next corner.
When I read, I want to be in the authors head. I want to go for the ride, and see it for my self.

Jump on this any way you see fit.

Joey P