There are many decisions to make when it comes to starting a new piece of writing. Deciding on who is going to tell your story, and how, can massively impact how your work is received. Understanding the effects of the different Narrative Points of View (POV) can transform your writing, so today, we're looking at how you can use the power of each narrative style to work for you.
The 3 Main Narrative Styles
First Person (I, Me, My)
Definition: a character narrates the story from their own perspective. They can only express the events of the novel from their own point of view and only have knowledge of the things they have experienced or learned from other characters.
First person narration typically works well when your focus is on one ‘important’ person's story. That's why it remains popular in contemporary YA fiction, with heroes such as Katniss Everdeen.
Most impactful when the protagonist's emotional journey is key to hooking the reader
Creates intimacy between the character and the reader
Enables the reader to access the character's thoughts, emotions and opinions
Generates a subjective, narrow view of your story world – good for unreliable narrators
Can be more immersive if the character's voice is strong
Difficult to dramatise scenes where the narrator isn't present
Characters must be interesting and convincing, to keep the reader engaged
When to use:
If you want your reader to trust your protagonist, identify with them and truly experience the drama with them, this is probably your go-to.
Additionally, first person narration can be a powerful tool if you're hoping to use deception and lead readers astray – as in the crime, thriller or mystery genres. The intimate view narrows the reader's ability to see the story objectively, which means we're more inclined to take what the character says as truth... even when it's not.
Third Person Objective (He, She, They, It)
Definition: the narrator acts as a floating camera, observing your characters and events. It doesn't express any thoughts or emotions and only reports on sensory details – what can be seen, heard or smelt by any observer. There is no direct address to the reader, or to the thoughts and emotions of the characters.
In modern literature, this viewpoint is typically blended with third person subjective (below). It's ideal for getting a birdseye view of your story.
Most impactful when managing multiple plotlines and characters
Grants the reader access to all the unfolding drama / events, regardless of who is present
Invites the reader to interpret events objectively, allowing for a more active reading experience
Can also create mystery and tension as readers can't directly access a character's thoughts, knowledge and motivations
Can restrict the emotional connection between readers and characters
Difficult to portray information that can't be understood through action or dialogue
Can make the writing feel description-heavy, which can slow the pace
When to use:
If your story is quite action / event heavy, or you prefer to shift the reader's insight from one area or perspective of your story to another, or you want your readers to maintain an objective view, this may be useful. However, it is rare for modern literature to use this style of narration alone.
Third Person Subjective / Limited (He, She, They, It)
Definition: the story is told only through one viewpoint character's perspective at a time. Unlike third person objective, the reader has access to the thoughts and feelings of the viewpoint character. The narrative is written in the character's voice but still maintains the observational flexibility of third person.
This style can be blended with third person objective. If you prefer to use a more objective style, you might insert the characters thoughts and feelings in italics or quote marks. If you prefer a more subjective style, you won't need to separate direct thoughts as the whole narrative is written from the direct perspective of the character.
Most impactful for characters with strong voices but where some level of wider knowledge or objectivity for the reader is preferable – for example, child protagonists
Can still create intimacy between characters and the readers (though less than first person)
Useful for exploring viewpoints and voices of more than one character, while using the same narrative style
Highly flexible, allowing the reader to shift between actively experiencing and interpreting events
Tricky to maintain cohesion and consistency if exploring multiple viewpoints
Difficult to know which character's viewpoint creates the best effect during a scene
Tricky to balance the objective narration with the subjective voice of the viewpoint character
When to use:
When used with balance, this style is ideal for exploration. This could be exploring multiple character perspectives in the fantasy genre, or for divulging into character psyche and morals in the thriller / ghost story.
A Note on Tenses
Present or Past?
There is one key difference in the use of tense: distance.
Present tense has the power to amp up the drama, tension and action in your prose. As it occurs in the moment, present tense heightens the feeling that we are experiencing the scene as it happens, with our characters. This will also help your reader to feel more connected to your character – where you might have chosen overall objectivity with third person, you could use present tense to inject some intimacy.
Past tense has the power to offer character responses to the past and foreshadowing. So, if you want your narrator to be more reflective or make connections between different events over time, you might prefer to use past tense. Do be aware though, past tense can take away the drama through distance, and if you're using first person, we'll already know they are going to survive to tell the tale.
The main thing to remember in your decision making is that there's no real right or wrong answer in writing. What works for one author might not work for you. So, as long as you know the intentions of your work and your strengths, you can select the narrative style that feels right to you.
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