Varieties of narrative mode, point of view, and voice

by look i have opinions

Well, this is awkward. I’ve consulted a few good resources on fiction writing (classes, books, webpages) and they all say similar things about narrative mode and point of view and voice, things that strike me as totally inadequate, so I’m going to have to make this up as I go, all right?

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The available narrative modes are third person, second person, and first person. We can all agree on that, at least.

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Third-person narration can be written from any point of view, and this is where it gets tricky.

Objective third person is pretty straightforward. We can argue over what constitutes true objectivity, but in fiction, objective just means the point of view doesn’t seem to belong to any character or person, including the author.

What’s known as limited third-person narration is narration that adopts the point of view of just one character at a time. If it switches characters between scenes, I would still consider it limited.

Everything in between those two extremes seems to get labeled “omniscient.” That is, any narrative that switches from one character’s point of view to another’s within a single scene (or a single stretch of narration). I would call this multiple-viewpoint third-person narration.

Another thing that gets lumped into the “omniscient” bucket, despite being logically distinct, is narration where the narrator (who is not a character) expresses their own point of view—what I call opinionated third person. These days, opinionated third person seems best suited to humor, as in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

Though in older books like Middlemarch, it’s usually used more seriously:

Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion.

Multiple-viewpoint and opinionated often coexist in the same passage, which might explain why they get conflated into “omniscient.” (Ursula K. Le Guin prefers the term “involved narrator,” but I don’t think this clears up the logical problem.)

Another aspect of third-person point of view that gets called “omniscient” is the objective reporting of information unknown to the characters. Let’s call it intermittently objective, for lack of a better term. Intermittently objective point of view can coexist comfortably with multiple-viewpoint and opinionated (“They were happy, but little did they know that at that very moment, an asteroid was hurtling towards their planet—poor doomed fools!”).

Close third person seems logically to be a subset of third person limited. Closeness refers the degree to which the narrator gets enveloped in the character’s point of view. This often has something to do with voice, though it’s not just voice. It also has to do with the way the narrator comments on the character. If the narrator makes comments on the character’s point of view that could not be made from within it (for example, if the narrator points out the character is forgetting something, or describes the character as unselfaware or unselfconscious), that creates distance.

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First person minor blurs into opinionated third person. I’m not completely sure how.

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Point of view and voice are not the same thing.

In first person, point of view and voice tend to be very close to each other, even indistinguishable. But there can be a distinction; it’s especially marked in first-person stories of childhood narrated by adults, like “The Man of the World” and “The Laughing Man.” There, the voice unmistakably belongs to the adult, the point of view to the child.

When third-person narration adopts a character’s point of view, the voice is a very separate matter. The narration can take on aspects of the character’s voice or not.

The novel Midnight Cowboy sticks to its main character (Joe Buck) and gets inside no one’s head except his. It’s third-person limited, I think, but it’s not just third-person limited, and I’m not sure whether it qualifies as “close” or not. I think it’s third-person opinionated plus limited, which sounds like a contradiction. It also sounds incredibly difficult to do. Joe Buck is neither perceptive nor well-spoken nor very verbal. The narrator stands at a slight remove from him. He (the narrator—assuming he is a he) observes Joe’s mind and feelings, never explaining them frankly and omnisciently the way George Eliot would, but getting to the heart of things nonetheless. He narrates the nuttier aspects of Joe’s life with a gentle touch of irony but without condescension. The narrator’s voice occasionally borrows bits of Joe’s vocabulary and speech, but Joe’s voice never gets anywhere near taking over, because Joe is quite obviously incapable of speaking for himself. That must be why the narration works so well—the reader never has the slightest difficulty distinguishing Joe from the narrator.

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Second-person narration has its own problems that I’m going to have to save for another post.

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