The narrative voice is the expression of the author on the page, delivered through story and characters.
A strong voice is what makes an author unique and helps their writing stand out from the crowd. A weak voice can make writing come across as derivative.
- Subjective (Limited) - Used in first-person or third-person point of view. Gets inside the head of only one character at a time, but can switch to a different character at a scene break or chapter break.
- Omniscient - All-knowing. Told by a narrator, using a consistent narrative voice, who can get inside everyone's head. Even knows things no one is present to witness.
- Objective - Completely external, can't get inside anyone's head. Sometimes called Camera-eye. Think newspaper article.
General Character voice
One of the most common narrative voices, used especially with first and third-person viewpoints is the character voice in which an actual conscious "person" is presented as the narrator.
In this situation, the narrator is no longer an unspecified entity, but rather, a more relatable, realistic human character who may or may not be involved in the actions of his or her story and who may or may not take a biased approach in the storytelling. If he or she is directly involved in the plot, this narrator is also called the viewpoint character. The viewpoint character is not necessarily the focal character: examples of supporting viewpoint characters include Doctor Watson, Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), and The Great Gatsby's Nick Carraway.
Also known as third-person limited. This is the character voice specific to third-person. This is when the narrator conveys the thoughts, feelings, opinions, etc. of, usually, one character at a time. It's as close to first-person that third-person gets.
When using third-person limited you should constantly reinforce the viewpoint through the character's senses, thoughts, emotions and intentions. The reader can only see what the character can see.
Sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell.
Bad: Bob entered the room. The floorboards creaked under his feet. There was an empty pizza box on the table. Its smell filled the room. He sat down and took a drink of orange juice. It was nice. A spider crawled up his back.
Good: Bob entered the room. He heard the floorboards creak under his feet. He could smell pizza and noticed the empty box on the table. He sat down and tasted the orange juice. Nice, he thought. Then he felt something crawling up his back.
This isn't a great sentence, but you get the idea. Note: the character can't see the spider.
- Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game
- A Song of Ice and Fire
- The Da Vinci Code
Historically, the third-person omniscient perspective has been the most commonly used. This is a tale told from the point of view of a storyteller who plays no part in the story but knows all the facts, including the characters' thoughts. It sometimes even takes a subjective approach.
One advantage of omniscience is that this mode enhances the truthfulness of the plot. The third-person omniscient narrator is the least capable of being unreliable—although the omniscient narrator can have its own personality, offering judgments and opinions on the behavior of the characters.
Aside from being truthful, the main advantage is that it is suited to telling huge, sweeping, epic stories, and/or complicated stories involving numerous characters.
The disadvantage is that it can create more distance between the audience and the story, and that—when used in conjunction with a sweeping, epic "cast of thousands" story—characterization is limited, which can reduce the reader's identification with or attachment to the characters.
- J. R. R. Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings
- Jurassic Park
- The English Patient
Less Common Voices
Third-person objective is preferred in most pieces that are deliberately trying to take a neutral or unbiased view, like in many newspaper articles.
It tells a story without describing any character's thoughts, opinions, or feelings; instead it gives an objective, unbiased point of view. This point of view can be described as a "fly on the wall" approach that can only record the observable actions, but does not interpret these actions or relay thoughts are going through the minds of the characters. The author can reveal information that not all or any of the characters may be aware of.
An unreliable narrator is a narrator whose credibility has been seriously compromised. This narrative mode is usually used to deceive the reader. Unreliable narrators are usually first-person narrators, but third-person narrators can also be unreliable.
Stream of consciousness is a narrative mode that seeks to portray an individual's point of view by giving the written equivalent of the character's thought processes, either in a loose interior monologue, or in connection to his or her actions.