Another important choice to make when crafting your story is how you want to tell it. The usual options, when we speak of voice are past, present, future; first person, second-person, third person (limited and omniscient). Now, you probably don’t see too many voices in the second person outside of “Chose your own adventure” or magazine quizzes. You may have a story that can be enhanced by those choices, but for the most part, first and third person are the better choices for telling most prose.
Past, Present, Future
Past tense seems to be the most used, and for good reason. Nothing sounds as commanding as telling someone what will happen, although I occasionally see works told in first person present, third person present isn’t as common, except perhaps in children’s stories.
Present Tense – I walk to the store.
Past Tense – I walked to the store.
Future Tense: I will walk to the store.
The change is subtle – the present tense is a little choppier; for the most part, the majority of English stories are told in the past tense, so for an English audience, past tense is probably the most neutral voice for you to assume. Present tense, even told in third-person, it still technically valid, but can sound odd to the audience. Is it technically wrong? No – might it make an editor throw it out because they don’t like that voice? Possibly. (They won’t admit to this, btw).
Third Person Present – Bob walks to the store.
Third Person Past – Bob walked to the store.
First Person vs. Third Person
First person is telling the story from a single character’s perspective, seen from their point of view (POV). If your main character is Bob, Bob narrates, “I woke up last Sunday and went to the store, where I saw an unfamiliar cat.” If the story is in the present tense, that means we’re with Bob as it’s happening. “I wake up – it’s Sunday. I roll out of bed and put on some shoes. I see a cat I don’t know as I walk to the store.” The plus to this is that it’s very intimate and you keep the focus on Bob – the narration can be more stylized depending on if Bob is a very rough-and-tumble character or he’s a stoic guy brief on words. The downside, is that you need to be consistent and tell the story from Bob’s point of view. If something interesting happens in the store while he’s in the parking lot – too bad, he missed it.
Third Person Limited
This is when you have a POV character, only that character’s view is included for that segment – that could be a scene, a chapter, or the entire novel, we’re following Bob but we’re not in Bob’s brain all the time
“Bob woke up on Sunday, he begrudgingly went to the store, his thoughts jarring from his list when he saw an unfamiliar cat on the sidewalk.” If he runs into Sally at the store, we can’t get into Sally’s head.
Third Person Omniscient
It’s hard to do this voice because true omniscience is hard. The argument I’ve heard against it is that by nature, humans like to pick out the story as to what’s going on. If you’re looking from the fly on the wall POV or even noting that Bob is going to the store, that isn’t true omniscience. I don’t want to get into arguments here, but I will say that I think it’s okay if you’re consistent.
“Bob walked to the store, thinking of his list of groceries, while the strange cat he stepped over twitched its tail, enjoying the sun.” From a limited POV, I would have to pick either the cat or Bob to focus on. Bob wouldn’t know for sure if the cat was enjoying the sun, in theory, it might be faking, or enjoying the mouse it’s digesting, or scheming about tripping Bob when he’s done shopping so he can lap up some spilled milk.
The fun thing I’ve brought out in writing’s group is that due to the nature of science-fiction and fantasy, the narrative choices of limited perspective gets more complicated once you introduce telepaths or omniscient god-like characters into the story. I’ll leave that to you to figure out, but keep in mind: Readers tend not to like head-hopping (Going from Bob’s POV, to Sally, to the cat’s). I’m not saying “No experimentation!” but instead, to tread carefully. It’s always better to side with the rules on style then break them, unless you know what you’re doing and why you’re breaking them. (Then you get to argue with your editor why you’re special, but that’s a topic for another day).
What to pick?
It depends on your story, your character, and how you want your story to feel. Keep in mind that I’m going to generalize – some authors use great omniscient voices and they can keep their characters at a distance very well, but for the most part the different story voices can relay distance from the narrator to the audience because of the choice of POV. If you take into consideration your novel as a product, you might be able to identify the voice that you think works best.
I usually find this the most intimate voice. It’s right in that character’s head – you are with Bob as he gets out of bed in the morning, mentally whining about why stores are open on Sunday. Thing is, you only see the world from Bob’s perspective. If a reader hates Bob, unless they love to hate him, they’re probably wishing for any perspective but his – and it’s made worse in first person because there is no escape from his thoughts. Also – think about your plot. Most people hate it if you change perspective away – unless it’s a new novel/part of a book, you start your story with Bob, you need to end it with him. Of course, you could switch over to Sally for Book 2 and the Cat for Book 3 if you so chose.
-You get close to the narrator
-You can utilize an unreliable narrator
-You don’t have to worry about other character’s perspectives and voices
-Readers easily slide into the narrative’s role
-Your character must appeal to the reader
-The plot is limited to what the narrator knows – sometimes, this voice falls victim to the “As you already know, Mr. Bond…. But what you don’t know is…” This is usually fine for the first book – but if you tell that story and want to tell more, the narrative sometimes becomes very limited. Sounds easy at first – but what are the odds that character is always present for what’s going down?
-The voice might not always work easily in a scene. Let’s pretend Bob’s a whimsical sort of fellow – he might sound strange relaying something that’s meant to sound tough and gritty.
– If it’s important to describe the narrator, it often sounds forced
Consider: Is there any chance my character might come across as whiny/annoying to the reader? Do they have an interesting perspective on the scene? Is there a reason I want to tell the story in the first-person? Also, your readers will get used to your first-person voice. If you write another story with a different first-person narrative, be sure to switch up your voice a little bit – that means, different word choices, different sentence lengths and complexity, make it sound like someone else is talking.
Third Person (limited):
This is my favorite to read. You get the perspective from a character, and you’re with them. This isn’t as biased as first person, but the tale is still told from a POV character.
-You can make the character a jerk and the reader won’t be forced to listen to all their thoughts
-We’re with that character and we still get perspective – you can be intimate with them, though it won’t feel as close as if you’re in the first person.
-You can accidently head-hop if you’re not careful
-If you are biased, it’s pretty obvious that the narration should be first-person.
Third Person Omniscient
-You get a wide perspective and can allow your readers to see things your characters can’t.
-You get a wide perspective. Hard to do effectively – which might not be so bad in smaller scenarios, but if you’ve got a full-scale battle going on and multiple characters running around, it might be hard to find a focus on that scene.
Sound good so far? Okay – this general-info post that you probably learned in gradeschool has a point. Now that we’re on the same page, here’s some homework:
Find a book you really like. Now, change the perspective – if it’s told from a character, change that character, or take something from the first person and tell it from the perspective of a third person limited. Notice how things change?
How would one character describe something vs. another person describing the same scene, the same actions? Some things are always going to remain the same – if I’m running through a soccer field and kick a goal, it sounds pretty straight forward – but it’s different from the perspective of the goalie vs. the goal kicker. Consider if you will, if the goalie’s hardcore and I’m super nervous. I might not describe myself because I’m not thinking of my golden locks blowing in the breeze, but the goalie might if he thinks the hair is strange/exotic/messy. If everyone is blonde, he might not care.
Remember: You don’t have to stick with it while you’re in the drafting process, but by story’s end, consider if you are happy with that voice and if it works.
Changing Voices: Letters, Chatting, etc.
One thing that you can change voice is when you see a character reading something to the audience, or going on their blog or into a chat room that you want to convey to your audience. Although I can’t remember any titles, I enjoyed a good number of kids books told in letter format, so if you wanted to, you could tell your entire story from your “Dear Diary” POV. You are entitled to incorporate a different voice if you are putting a letter into the story.
Bob almost tripped on the unfamiliar cat on his way to the store. When he got there, he saw a note on the door.
Bob, if you are reading this, you should know that the store is not in fact open on Sunday mornings. We do this every week. Come back at noon. ~Sally
P.S. – Have you seen my sister’s cat?
“How will I get my milk?” Bob wailed.
Next week, I’m going to discuss one of my favorite literary devices: Unreliable Narrators, as well as go on a little bit more about bias in voice, and how you can use it to enhance your prose, then we’ll be moving on into other aspects of style.