Having established the nature of our narrator in part one, we must now understand how they are saying what they are saying. This is the voice of the narrator in question. Where before we spoke about what the perspective of the story is, this time we are focused on the way in which the story is communicated to the reader. First and Third person tend to fall into specific modes, while second person generally gets treated as the first two versions of third person.
The Narrator’s Voice – First Person
The most well known first person narrative voice seems to be the character voice. This is where we hear the narrator speaking to us as the audience. It does sort of appear in third person some, but the versions we are all familiar with are a solid part of the first person experience. Hearing the character’s voice as our narrator makes the situation immediately more relatable and adds a sense of intimacy with the story. If this narrator is directly connected to the plot, then they are referred to as a ‘viewpoint character’.
One of the variations of this character voice is the unreliable narrator. I would warn you in advance that this has to be handled skillfully and even then can cause a lot of frustration on the part of the reader. Generally, the author hints early on about the unreliable nature of the narration by making it clear the narrator isn’t being entirely open and honest or else has some issue such as strong bias, childishness or ignorance. The lack of ability to be certain if anything they say is true or false can create a sense of uncertainty and mystery to the events as they occur. A naive narrator may also be employed and is put to good effect in satires sometimes.
I offered the word of caution however, because if you are too subtle or fail to clarify early on that the narrator is unreliable, the audience can become agitated. One particularly noteworthy example of writing a great story that still manages to frustrate the reader is the Agatha Christie novel, The Murder of Roger Akroyd. The book is considered a cornerstone of mystery writing and one of the most influential crime novels ever written. With that said, its critics all universally felt betrayed by the unreliable narrator twist. They felt it was unfair to trick the reader in the manipulative manner employed. I am not saying don’t use this, just be aware of how you are using it.
Stream of Consciousness
Next in first person is the stream of consciousness. It is said that this style first appeared in the novel Ulysses, by James Joyce. The idea is to replicate the thought process of the character rather than just the things said and done. It is often marked by partial thoughts, personal motivations, inner monologues and things shown to the reader, but not to other characters.
Epistolary Narrative Voice
Try saying that term three times fast! More or less, it is a series of documents or letters compiled in such a way as to convey a plot. One could argue that it isn’t first person at all, but that the narrator is some unspoken person who collected the documents together. This can be very effective and has shown up in a number of famous works. Oddly, the majority of stories and novels I can think of using this method revolve around monsters. Dracula, Frankenstein and the Screwtape Letters all fall into this narrative mode.
The Narrator’s Voice – Third Person
This voice is spoken by an outside narrator, but focused on the thoughts, feelings and actions of a single individual at a time. Limited would include a single character for the entire narration, while subjective would involve multiple characters. This style has become popular in the last century or so, focusing in an ‘over the shoulder’ style of conveying events rather than more sweeping shows of events. It actually has a lot in common with first person variations, but without the ‘I’ statements. The author is describing things only as the character being followed experiences and understands them.
This voice is distanced from opinions, feelings and other human aspects in favor of an objective viewpoint. I know, the name is a dead giveaway right? It is most often employed when you want a completely unbias viewpoint for the story, though is also favored as the voice for non-fiction works. Newspapers, scientific journals and many biographies (some of which are arguably fiction anyway) all tend to favor this voice for obvious reasons. Inner thoughts aren’t shown at all unless they appear through actions or words. This can be a weakness, but is made up for with the strength of being able to show information that none of the characters would have access to.
By far, this is the most used viewpoint historically speaking. Everything that happens in the world is known to the narrator at any moment within the story. While it is very unlikely that the narrator is in any way unreliable, that doesn’t mean they don’t have opinions and viewpoints that they express through the story. This reliability on the part of the narrator is a strength in that it keeps readers from second-guessing where you don’t wish them to do so. It is also well fitting with epic and sweeping tales bigger than the characters it is following.
On the down side, it does place a distance between the reader and the characters within the work. Characterization can often be limited, especially with large numbers of characters to follow all at the same time. It can be hard to sympathize with or identify with the characters at times, so must be handled with care.
Universal omniscient is arguably a subset distinct from standard third person omniscient. Honestly I am not giving it a separated area because the distinction is pretty minor and to my mind, overlaps. The difference is that the narrator goes out of their way to mention things that none of the characters could know. This is done as a way to reinforce the concept that they are not connected to the story.
So while I did break things down between first and third, the lines aren’t always clear. Character voice shows up in limited/subjective fairly often for example. Sometimes the lines blur in ways people might not recognize and honestly, these are just helpful guidelines to keep your story consistent. Use them to stay in a single style through the whole work, but don’t be afraid to challenge what that particular voice means or how it is used. Next week, I will be wrapping up with a section on the Narrative Tense.