How do you decide who’s going to tell the story? Often older fiction—works written before the twentieth century—uses the omniscient voice: the narrator tells the events, introduces the characters, recounts dialogue and all the details, but the narrator is not a character in the story. This narrator seems dated now, although it’s certainly still used.
One of the most famous opening lines of a novel is an example of this voice:
“All happy families are alike, but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.” ANNA KARENIN by Leo Tolstoy.
We are in the hands of a narrator who looks on from outside, telling us the story but not involved.
The most common narrative voice in contemporary fiction is that of limited omniscience. The third-person voice is often associated with a character in the story who can only know the thoughts of some characters and may not know what happened when he or she is not present. Often that narrative voice switches from one character to another, so the reader can be filled in on what the main character has no way of knowing.
Probably the second most commonly used narrative voice is first person singular, usually the point of view of the main character. This works well for the unreliable narrator, someone who wants to keep the reader in the dark.
Second person isn’t used very often, but there are a few. I read BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY by Jay McInerney, a popular novel in the eighties, and found the second person voice annoying. And of course, the reason was that the character was annoying. I kept wanting to shake him or knock him over the head.
First person plural, the narrative “we”, also isn’t often used. It works for groups of people telling a story. I read THE LADIES AUXILIARY by Tova Mirvis years ago. It’s narrated by a group of Jewish women in a southern city, an unnamed Atlanta. The voice worked well as the group narrated and judged the behavior of the protagonist.
My preference in reading—and in writing—is the third person narrator. My Florida series mysteries are written in third person, the voice of Detective Andi Battaglia, but there are occasional switches to other third person narrators. This is the most comfortable narrative voice for me. It gives me the freedom to tell the story from Andi’s point of view, but to include incidents that Andi wouldn’t have any way of knowing.
My standalone mystery, PSYCHIC DAMAGE, is also written in third person, but in that book, everything is seen from the point of view of Eva Stuart and told in her voice.
I find first person singular useful for writing mysteries in the voice of an unreliable narrator who tells only what the narrator wants the reader to know. This has the effect of giving the reader a possibly distorted or untrue version of the actions.
What about other writers? Do you write in first or third? Or do you experiment with second person? I’ve never tried that myself. I’d like to read your comments.