Do-Re-Mi: Tips for Training Your Narrative Voice

Our Literary Devices Series delves into the wonderful world of writing techniques, to shine a light on some of the tools that have helped fashion the world’s most beloved works of literature and nonfiction.

Your narrative voice is the primary instrument with which to express yourself in your writing. And just like any classically trained vocalist, there are myriad benefits to discovering new  techniques and styles. So step out of your comfort zone, add to your literary arsenal, and hone your storytelling craft, starting with your options for narrative voice and a few ways you can optimize your choice of style.

There are four key types of narrative voice:

First Person

One who tells the story that is happening to them using the pronoun ‘I’. A first person narrator is limited to recounting their singular experience.

A strong first person narrative relies on successful characterization: the narrator’s thoughts, feelings, motivations, reactions, and memories must be consistent, believable, and sometimes surprising if the story is to be told well. This point of view is fertile ground for creating a vibrant narrative landscape, presenting the author with a unique opportunity to occupy and convey the inner workings of a singular mind and tell its story.

Challenges abound when writing in first person, not least because the author must convey all important information and events through that single character’s experience. Many authors remedy this by employing multiple first person narrators within one story, each relaying events from their personal point of view to create a fuller and more balanced sense of the plot—or indeed to complicate characters’ integrity and obscure the facts with contradicting information.

A great tool available to this narrative style is the unreliable narrator. There are many ways to create one—whose story might contradict belief or the reader’s factual knowledge of events; who may relay information that is inaccurate or incomplete in some way; or who presents events in a light favourable to them while discrediting another seemingly trustworthy source. The possibilities are broad and the boundaries only those of your imagination. A mind map is a great way to start forming the possible complexities of your narrator, or you might start by posing questions like these:

  1. Where does my narrator come from and what do they want to achieve?
  2. What are their values and can they be compromised?
  3. How lucid are they? What is their mental state? How does this inform their experience, and therefore the information relayed to the reader?
  4. How do they react internally to external events?
  5. Are they consistent in internal and external behaviours, or do their thoughts and actions contradict one another?
  6. Are they trustworthy? Can you believe what s(he) is telling the reader at all times?
  7. Do they have any speech impediments or tics? Will they be represented in the narration as well as the dialogue, sustaining the character voice?

Famous first person narrators: in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations Pip relays the story of his upbringing, mistaken in the identity of his anonymous benefactor; in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway tells his version of the events that rob him of his friend; in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Holden Caulfield vehemently criticizes the “phony” world around him while proclaiming himself a compulsive and elaborate liar; in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, we are taken on a search for answers to a family mystery by Oskar, a young boy with Aspergers syndrome.

First Person Plural

A story told from the collective ‘we’. This method can represent a single collective consciousness or experience, or the multiple experiences of single parties within a collective group.

They say three heads are better than one. Certainly the plural narrative voice can be a potent tool to convey a shared experience, especially when used by parties not traditionally afforded a voice: perhaps a person will ignore one cry, but they cannot ignore a thousand. This may be why first person plural has become an increasingly popular narrative form in recent years, as the internet unites disparate people with the sects and social networks they identify with, and broadens our shared social awareness.

Likely the greatest challenge inherent in this narrative style is faithfully representing of a group’s complex shared experience:

  1. Are you well positioned to speak for, or as, a group of people?
  2. If so, do you represent individuals within it? Whom?
  3. Why does this member’s voice take precedence over another’s?

As a comparatively unmapped pathway in the world of narrative fiction, the first person plural offers an exciting and unique voice full of unplumbed potential. It also demands a depth of knowledge and sensitivity to do the collective voice justice.

First person plural narrators: the deportees of Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen; the neighbourhood boys in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides; the Japanese mail order brides of Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic.

Second Person

Unusual in fiction writing, the second person narrator occupies a single character’s point of view while addressing the main character or reader as “you”.

The tone of direct address is a challenging one for fiction writers, and so is more commonly used in short stories or select passages rather than entire novels; however, it abounds in other genres: guide books, self-help books, DIY manuals, video games, blog posts, letters and advertisements are some of the types of writing written in this style.

As with single person plural, this vocal style is fraught with difficulty but ripe for exploration! One of the most effective means of employing this voice is by combining it with another: the epistolary voice—that is, using letters and other documents to tell the story. In this way, the reader becomes the recipient (or the interloper) of the narrator’s address of “you”.

Second person narrators can be found in: Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller; William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!; Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow; Annie Barrows’ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Third Person

The most common narrative convention in fiction, third person is told from a character outside of the story it’s telling. The narrator may have a name and character, but more often occupies an anonymous, unembodied, or ‘invisible’ role.

A third person narrator can be either objective or omniscient. If objective, the narrative relates events with no acknowledgement of characters’ emotional or internal experiences—no thoughts, feelings, or opinions are involved—as in newspaper articles and academic journals. If omniscient, the narrative voice is all-seeing and can tell the reader about any event, at any time, in any place. It can read characters’ minds and foretell events.

Another method common to third person narrative (though it can be applied to any voice discussed in this article) is stream of consciousness: a free-form genre that aims to represent genuine human experience faithfully and therefore erratically (ironically opposed to the genre of realism, which imposes a false though logical order upon events to present a clear and organized plot).

Famous titles: an omniscient narrator relates the experiential day of Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf; a chillingly objective narrator presents the dystopic world of George Orwell’s 1984; a benevolent but invisible narrator tells the many tales of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter; and an omniscient narrator comprehensively tells journalist Mikael Blomkvist’s and hacker Lisbeth Salander’s stories and the complex links between them in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books.  

Narrative voice is one of the most fascinating and diverse tools a writer has at their disposal, the limitations of which are confined only by the creator’s imagination. We encourage you to dive as deep as you’re willing to go and plumb the depths of this device’s potential—we’ve only scratched the surface!

Written & Edited by Kate Juniper, FriesenPress Editorial and Illustration Coordinator