To totally steal from last week’s intro article to this topic:
“The narrator’s voice is your greatest asset– and your greatest drawback.”
– Orson Scott Card
Choosing the right narrative voice for your novel really comes down to the message you want to send to your reader. And the message will depend greatly on the POV you choose. Why? Because the character(s) you choose to tell the story are the characters your reader will sympathize with.
Where Do I Begin?
First off, weigh your POV options while you outline your story, not while you write it.
It helps if you write down the names of characters you feel would be fab candidates for your story’s POV, plus why they would frame your story’s narrative sensationally. In fact, why not try that right now?
Got that handy lil list o’ pretty possibilities all set? Awesome. Now, keep that list beside you while we dissect a simple story idea and see how selecting a POV and a narrative voice drastically changes the story’s message:
Danny Harrison’s twin brother Pete was shot to death by Benny Feng, notorious leader of the Black Tiger Gang. Danny’s dying father, John, looks to Danny to right the wrongs committed against their family.
We have three strong candidates here for POV options (even four candidates, if we want the option of a somber aftermath retelling from Pete’s past tense POV.)
POV #1: Last heir to the “throne” Danny Harrison is at a crossroads: fulfill family obligation? Or pursue personal ambitions?
POV #2: Gang leader Benny Feng is a criminal on the run: Was Benny just cementing his authority in a ruthless display of power? Or would he have lost a family member if he hadn’t pulled the trigger first? Or perhaps he lost many family members to the Harrison Gang and was taking his revenge.
POV #3: Patriarch John Harrison’s dying wish hangs in the balance: Was his beloved wife killed at the hands of the Black Tiger gang as well? Will he push tradition and loyalty onto his last son in a way he’ll regret?
First Person POV #1: Danny
If we make Danny the first person narrator, the reader sympathizes with Danny’s story. However, being a first-person narrator Danny, the protagonist, would have to be present for every scene vital to the story.
There are two possible plot options for POV Danny’s first-person story:
- A revenge story: Danny’s twin brother Pete is murdered after years of struggling for power against the Black Tiger gang. Now it’s up to Danny to avenge his lost brother and prove to his dying father that he can restore his family’s honor.
A fight for justice.
Fighting for justice in the name of family is the greatest honor.
- A coming-of-age story: Danny has long lived in the shadows of gang life. But after losing his twin brother Pete, Danny wants nothing more than to fulfil their dream of being the first in their family to graduate highschool and move out of the city for good. But will Danny defy his father’s last dying wish to avenge Pete? Or will he honor his brother’s memory by achieving the dream they always imagined together?
The challenging transformation into adulthood
You alone decide your future.
We follow a learning experience through First Person Danny’s POV and his POV alone. We want Danny to succeed, no matter his goal. The goal we choose for Danny, however, sends a unique message to the reader. Which one is more inviting to you, the writer? Which one would you feel confident sharing with the world? Which one would you wholly stand behind?
First Person POV #2 Benny Feng, First Person POV #3 John Harrison:
Go back to the last subheading and re-read the first paragraph, except replace Danny’s name with ‘Benny’ or ‘John’. You see, the same standard for first-person narrative is true for each character no matter who’s POV you would choose.
Now, what potential questions do we face if we dive into a first-person narrative from Benny’s POV?:
What did the Harrison family do to his family to make him pull the trigger on Pete? Was a loved one’s life at stake? Was Benny under obligation from a more powerful family member to kill Pete? Or did Benny pull the trigger out of self-defense because Pete attacked him first?
What potential questions do we face if we dive into a first-person narrative from John’s POV?:
What could John’s motives be? What could his desires be for his family members? Could his sons have misconceptions about his affections for them? Is he ignorant of the goals his sons have? Or was he just a bloodthirsty old man who incited the feud to begin with?
How is the Message Affected?
What message will the story send to the reader if we choose John or Benny as a first-person narrator instead? Is either message one we want to send to our reader? Each POV offers a satisfying amount of intrigue for the reader and a heaping amount of emotional investigation for you as a writer.
Clearly, each character in this story has a strong identity. They each have great potential to frame the story in a unique way. So, would the story’s message be stronger if we selected a third-person narrative instead and included multiple POVS instead of just one?
It could be. So how does the message change if we choose a third person narrator?
The Third Person Narrator:
A third person omniscient voice would include all three characters’ storylines- Danny, Benny, and John’s- from a distant, unemotional perspective. The story might almost sound like a police report since the narrator is privy to all the facts and events related to the story, but is emotionally detached to the details.
Since the third person omniscient voice is detached, even comedic, then the message would be more of a warning tale to readers. It might look something like this: “Violence is never the answer.”
A third person limited voice would include all three characters’ storylines, each with a deeply personal recounting of what happened. We would be inside each character’s head, witnessing the death of Pete from each character’s perspective, as if we were experiencing the event ourselves. This option would include delving into motives and personal goals, but lack understanding outside each character’s POV.
Since the third person limited voice is emotionally focused, even dramatic, then the message would ask the reader to do an honest self-examination. It might look something like this: “Your actions affect others”, or “Pride is before a crash.”
The Benefits of Each Narrative Option:
Clearly, there is much to be gained from each narrative option. It makes sense that the third person limited voice is the most commonly selected narrative voice in the writing community since it allows the reader to feel personally and emotionally involved in the story.
The “god-like” viewpoint of third-person omniscient narrator adds a great deal of dimension to the story, allowing readers to take sides, vote, and fall in love with your characters.
The first-person narrator pulls the reader through a consistent, singular strand. The reader experiences the plot from one precise POV. And, we follow that character down a trail of clues, we answer unanswered questions, and finally, we watch the character experience the benefits of growing pains.
So, selecting your narrative voice all comes down to two things:
- The message you want to send to your readers.
- Which characters’ POV would best frame, or encapsulate, the message you choose for your story.
Take a moment to consider your story’s message now. On the paper you pulled out before, write the message you want your story to convey. Then, consider which characters on your sheet of paper would best suit that message. If one character fully embodies that message, then the first-person narrator is right for you. If two or more characters are playing tug of war with your message, then consider the third person narrative options.
Let me know in the comments section below which story you’re outlining right now. Share the message you’ve come up with or the characters you’re hotly debating. I’d love to see where the potential lays in your novel!
Well friends, getting your narrative voice selected is just the first step. Especially if you’re participating in #NaNoWriMo17 (which has already started!) So, how can you totally win at NaNoWriMo this year? (Yes you still have time to participate!) Stay tuned for next week’s article “3 Tips to Help you Slam Dunk NaNoWriMo 2017” but for now, check out the NaNoWriMo kit below to help you get started on the path to success immediately:
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