Finding the right voice and viewpoint can be tricky. Sometimes you have an instinctive sense of what point of view is right for the story; sometimes you have to try several out for size. Asking these questions might help:
- Can you hear a character’s voice when you think about your story? If you can, ask yourself if you are comfortable enough with that first person voice to sustain for the whole narrative. In Their Eyes were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston successfully brings alive Janie’s emotional journey and her world in Mississippi dialect.
- Will you be able to explore and establish your plot from the first person viewpoint? Remember our reader will only have access to information that your narrator has; the reader will see through their eyes, share their experiences. Great for Private Eyes with colourful slang like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe though sometimes the first person necessitates a clunky bit of plot exposition via a letter under the door or an anonymous phone call.
- Are there several important contrasting characters in the story? A novel can cope with more than one first person voice in separate chapters or parts. Martin Amis uses half a dozen very distinctive voices in London Fields; Paula Hawkins uses three in Girl on the Train but they all sound the same.
- Does your story demand a broad overview? An omniscient third person narrator can move from an aerial view of a city and a society to an ‘on the shoulder’, or even ‘in the head’, viewpoint from the perspective of a character. Perfect for a big story like Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of The Vanities.
- Is your narrator an observer or are they part of the action? A first person narrator can be a storyteller or a protagonist. A third person narrator can have personality too – think of Jane Austen’s wry humorous detachment as she describes middle-class Regency society. Take a tip from her and sneak a first person point of view into your third person narrative with a diary or letter, a useful device when a character needs an uninterrupted platform as Darcy does in his letter to Elizabeth or when a character needs to reveal the depths of their stupidity as Lydia does in her incredibly silly ‘I’ve eloped with Wickham what fun!’ letter.