Friday, June 6, 2014

Choosing a Person: Narrative Voice and Storytelling

Each time an author begins to write a new story or article, he or she must decide which voice in which to tell the story. Some of us fall into one of the decision, not truly understanding why one voice works or doesn’t work. But the decision of what voice to use can hurt or enhance your storytelling. The first step to getting first person, second person, and third person work for you is to understand what they are and do. Today I am going to explain some of the differences between them and ways they subtly affect the tone of a story.

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In first person books and stories, the main character tells the story to the audience using “I.” Since the main character is the narrator, these tend to be personal accounts from the main character’s point of view without the luxury of an external interpretation of the events.

This choice comes with limitations. The main character must always be present where the essential action takes place or hear about the events from someone else. The story comes to the audience through the filter of the narrating character. Also, the narrating character’s perceptions, prejudices, and interpretations of the events become as much of the story as the events themselves. Because of this, the main character’s reliability comes into play. Also, I have discovered, the main character needs to a descriptive/observant personality. Otherwise, the story will get dull fast.

Writing first person well can be a great challenge, but I am learning to enjoy it.


In second person, the narrator refers to the main character as “you” or uses an implied “you” like found in directions or recipes. This voice is difficult to use when writing a narrative. Personally I feel a bit like I am being lectured when I am reading second person for very long. However, second person works beautifully for articles or instructions.


In third person books and stories the narrator uses “he” and/or “she” to refer to the characters. As one of the most common voice choices for novel writing, it has become the almost universally accepted first choice. Third person allows the author to include description outside a single character’s perspective. The storytelling is not bound by the perceptions or biases of the characters.

When considering which voice to use, here are some things to consider.

Where is the action taking place?

If it is an internal conflict story, first person or third person might be best. They give the writer the ability to focus on the inner workings of the main character’s heart and mind, not the exterior description or action of the world outside of him or her. My first foray into first person was because most of my project would be focusing on the inner workings of my character’s minds.

However, if action moves the story forward, third person might be preferable to first person for descriptive and perspective reasons. Distance from the internal conflict of pain, exhaustion, and other physical and emotional turmoil of the main character will keep the story moving faster. Also, one can get away with more external description when not in only the main character’s head and worrying about how to block the next blow or plan their next move.

What is the purpose of your story?

Do you want to do an in-depth character study? Perhaps first person is best. Are you writing a historical novel and want to include tidbits of history along with the storyline? Then third person would probably be best.

Regardless of which you choose, make your choice work to enhance your storytelling.

If you want to learn more, I recommend getting a hold of a copy of Elements of Fiction Writing - Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. He does an excellent job of explaining the differences between the voices and how to use them to improve your writing.

What is your most comfortable narrative voice?

Rachel Rossano balances her time between the chaos of raising and homeschooling her three children and the world of drama and high adventure in her head. With her faithful husband and chief consulting editor by her side, she dreams of many more adventures to come. 

She also designs book covers. For examples of her work, visit her design page at or Facebook page at


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, Sarah. I am glad it helped. :)

  2. Yes, thank you! I always find the question of first, second, or third person interesting. My first two novels (about the same girl) I wrote in first person, and surprisingly, I found it easy. My next two are in third, and sometimes, as the author, I find the distance a little off-putting. But I think I like both equally, for different reasons. It's an interesting challenge, figuring out how to make my third-person protagonist feel as close to the reader as possible when the scenes call for it. Direct thoughts, for example, and indirect discourse. : ) Third person is great for action, as you said!


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