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Who’s Telling the Story, Anyway?

April 28, 2009

When I started writing fiction I was almost solely dependent on the omniscient third person narrator. It’s become the de facto standard for most fiction because it unobtrusive and…well, because it’s easy. Easy is just a euphemism because no writing is easy, but of all available points of view it is the easiest to write. But in the ensuing years I’ve become enamored of some of the more entertaining points of view.

To be sure, the dispassionate third person POV has a strong place in fiction. In fact in the modern age one could argue that it’s hold on fiction is stronger than ever, because it’s the closest POV to what’s on TV—with no voice between the action and the reader.

But think about the answer to this question. When you listen to someone tell a story—a friend, a coworker, a comedian…—how much does the narrator matter? Is the story the same no matter who tells it? Of course it isn’t.

But if you decide to ditch the bland third person POV, you still have some strong choices.

Lively Third Person: This POV is still in the third person, it’s still someone not involved telling the story, but instead of a dispassionate retelling of events, the narrator brings some personality—some flash—to the story. While not limited to humorous fiction, many comic fiction writers have used this POV to great effect. In fact this one is a natural for humor because we’re used to hearing comedians tell stories.

First Person: In recent years this one has become a personal favorite. But it’s biggest plus is also it’s biggest minus—you have to get to know one character better than you have to know your other characters. You can’t just know the narrator well enough to write him into a few scenes. You have to be able to get into the character’s head for the entire story, bring his attitude, humor, fears, vocabulary to the narrative. If your have a strong, engaging character for your narrator it will solidify your story, but if you don’t know your character well enough, or if your character doesn’t measure up, your story will fall flat.

For many stories there won’t be just one right POV for your story, but choosing an engaging character to tell your story can certainly add a little zing to your story.

Dale lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with his fiancée and four step-children, and spends a good portion of his time trying to locate an absent muse. You can read about him, his family and his struggles at Rough Draft.
4 Comments
  1. April 28, 2009 5:11 am

    I’d like to think the character who originally comes to you is telling the story – regardless of the voice/POV you choose to tell the story in.

    Stepping out of the Third Person was a huge leap of faith for me last year, yet it is one I have come to relish. I love the intimacy and the trust the character has in letting you in that close.

    A few months ago Annie and I did a short story workshop. In it – surprise, surprise – we actually wrote, rather than just sat around talking about writing. The best exercise we did involved telling a short scene for a number of different perspectives using several different POV’s. It was suggested as a good exercise if you are blocked, not really sure which voice to use or having troubles with a particular scene. It’s great to ‘see’ things you hadn’t noticed before. It is also a fun way to ‘road test’ different POVs to what you would normally use.

  2. April 28, 2009 6:19 am

    First person is something I’ve begun to use more and more in flash fiction – I find it helps me make things more immediate. I’m starting to write most of my short stories in first person too, but haven’t yet tried to write anything longer in the first person.

    Seth Harwood’s “Jack Wakes Up” is in first person, and present tense too – it’s an unusual choice, but he pulls it off.

  3. April 28, 2009 6:23 am

    First person, present tense is a fantastic way to throw the reader directly into the plot. I used it in Demon Lover and had a moment towards the end where I realised I’d never finish the story if I continued to hold my breathe. If only writing were always that thrilling.

  4. April 28, 2009 10:44 am

    I’m currently in the process of planning what will hopefully be a longer piece of fiction, and I’m toying with the idea of using two different points for the story: mostly a third person but sometimes a first. Has anyone else done this? Is it a good idea or is it too confusing? What are the pitfalls of doing this?

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