We’ve talked about voice before, in an abstract sense, but today let’s take a look at one very specific aspect of it – personage. Or, in other words, what person your story is written in. What they are, strengths and weaknesses and why you might choose a specific viewpoint for a story are all things to consider.
So a quick overview of the three ‘persons’, or viewpoints, of storytelling. A first person story is told from the viewpoint of a person who actually takes part in the story. The narrator is a character, refers to his or herself as “I” and tells what he or she saw and heard from other people, or learned from inanimate sources or just plain guessed from thin air.
First person narrators are not always the most trustworthy of people. We can only know what they know.
A second person narrative is a story told about what you are doing. The author seeks to put you in the shoes of a character in the story, tells you what you’ve done and why you might have done it, and generally comes of as really stilted or stylized unless you’re really careful with it.
A third person narrative just talks about what’s going on. The person telling the story, if there can really be said to be a ‘person’ telling this story, plays no part in events and only reports what is going on. They may report just the events experienced by, and thoughts of, a handful of main characters (first person limited) or report all details going on in a scene and/or the narrative at large (first person omniscient).
Hopefully you already know what these viewpoints are or that’s enough for you to go on. If not, there’s a more detailed breakdown of these viewpoints here.
Now, why would you want to use a particular viewpoint?
Well, let’s start by dealing with the elephant in the room. If you’re going to use a second person viewpoint, the odds are you’re writing a Choose Your Own Adventure book or Half Asleep In Frog Pajamas. And someone’s already done one of those two options, so that leaves you with the adventure books.
Really, second person is a very limited voice, I haven’t seen it used effectively in serious storytelling before – excepting the frog pajamas – and I wouldn’t recommend your trying to crack the code now. Second person is a very effective way of communicating suggestions or instructions but there’s not been many really good uses of it in fiction. Feel free to disagree, but this author doesn’t think that will change any time soon.
First person, on the other hand, is incredibly flexible. First person stories are engaging, conversational and very interesting. They let the personality of the narrator come through very strongly, although this is a double edged sword because if your narrator is too disagreeable or just plain boring your readers could wind up disliking an otherwise serviceable story. First person stories also allow for a lot of narrative tricks on the part of the author. A first person narrator cannot (or at least should not) tell the audience anything the character doesn’t know. This lets the author build suspense by keeping information from the reader in a totally acceptable, believable way.
A story written in the first person makes the most out of its medium when it sticks with strong characters, fast moving plots and carefully controlled suspense. On the other hand, while a first person story can have more than one narrator, it has to be careful not to go overboard. Any more than two or possible three viewpoints to juggle and it might be better to go with something else.
A third person limited viewpoint lets the author spread his focus more without sacrificing the limited information of a first person voice. You can think of a third person limited narrator as someone who heard a bunch of stories from a group of people and wove their individual stories into a coherent whole. He’s still limited to knowing what the characters knew and thought, what they heard and said, but by smoothing over inconsistencies in their viewpoints and, more importantly, by toning down the personalities so they are less in your face, the third person narrator lets us focus more on what’s happening in the big picture.
The third person limited voice lets us hear a larger story in a more complete way without drowning us in a schizophrenia of different personalities and viewpoints. When written in a particularly Lemony style the narrator can even maintain a personality of its own.
Eventually a story reaches a scale where the audience cannot learn everything they need to know just by relying on a few voices. Then third person omniscient steps in. By the time you’re dealing with a third person omniscient narrator, facts, events and plot structure is starting to supersede the individual thoughts and characters in the story. While it’s still important that these characters be strong and interesting, you use this voice when their interestingness is secondary to the interesting nature of what is going on around them.
First person stories are very popular today for their experiential nature. They suck you in and drag you along like an enthusiastic friend dying to tell you all about the awesome thing that happened to them yesterday. It’s a particularly effective tool for engaging the short attention spans of some people in this day and age. (ASIDE: These people exist in all age groups, so that’s not a dig at the YA crowd. Although YA writers in particular seem to love first person narratives.) On the other hand, the personality of the narrator can become a distraction from the story at large.
Third person stories give the author more distance, making exposition easier to work into the story, but they can also be a crutch for much the same reasons. If you wind up telling more than you’re showing in your stories you may want to switch to writing in the first person for a while, just to hone your showing chops a little more.
Ultimately, the viewpoint you choose for your story should reflect the scale and nature of your story and your strengths as an author. You should probably experiment with all three (and by this I really mean first person and third person limited or omniscient since I can’t recommend second person under any known circumstances) for each story you attempt. Don’t get locked into thinking that a YA story has to be told in first person simply because so many successful young adult series use that viewpoint. Harry Potter is written entirely in third person, after all.
Most importantly, choose a viewpoint that lets you have the most fun. Because if you’re not enjoying your writing, your audience won’t be either.