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First or third person? How do I choose a narrative voice?

This is a great question, because the narrative voice you choose informs so much of your story. One way to determine the most appropriate voice is to ask yourself a few questions about narrative distance. How closely do you want to enter the thoughts of your characters? If you were to turn your story into a movie, how closely would the camera situate itself in the scene? Would it focus mostly on one character’s experience, or would it travel from one character to another?

It’s helpful to think about whether your story could benefit from including the insights of more than one character. Is the story more gripping if the reader can only see through the eyes of your main character, or would multiple perspectives serve the story?

Should the reader know how the main character interprets his or her environment, or does the story require the broader awareness achieved with third person? There can be a big difference in these two points of view. Third person is good when the information the reader needs to know differs from the information the main character knows/is aware of/cares about.

Even if you feel you want to focus mostly on your main character, third person can sometimes provide a more complete picture by including the main character’s appearance or mannerisms—information the character wouldn’t naturally be aware of enough to share. But first person is the way to go if the reader should only be privy to the main character’s direct experience.

If you’re considering first person, will the main character’s voice carry through the entire story? Is it a compelling worldview? Decide whether the story benefits from the inner life of the main character being shared or being left a mystery. Is the heart of the story in the main character’s mind, or in the main character’s environment? It may be time consuming, but a great exercise is to write the story both ways to realize which angle is most compelling.

Originally published with The Loft Literary Center.


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