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How to Choose your Narrator

How to Choose your Narrator

first draft plotting prose Mar 13, 2024

Last December, I started rewriting a halfway-abandoned story. But when I reread it, I realized that something was off. I ended up changing the point of view, an enormous change, that would limit me and give me something new to work on. But why was this change so important? Why did I decide this?

The first, second, and third person seems like a grammatical matter, whereas in reality, it changes the whole point of view of your book and it's the first thing your reader will realize. The narrator you choose will change your story A LOT. And it's important you know what you're doing and what advantages and disadvantages it brings you, so you know what your weapons are before heading into battle.


A quick lesson on grammar


First person is me, me, me. Everything is about me here. If the first person were a character it would be Gina Linetti. I, me, myself, when it comes to singular. The pronoun we when it comes to plural. Whereas in the second person, the subject changes, and everything is about you. You, the observer, the audience, the spectator –not yourself as a person. Second person situates the action outside and is frequently used in games like choose your own adventure. Third person is everyone else, is other people. They, them, when plural. She, he, or it, when singular.



Why write a first-person narrative


If our narrator –the one that tells the story– is in first person, we –readers– are gonna perceive everything through this character's eyes. It might be the protagonist or not, on occasions, this is a character that is observing the story like a witness. An example of this is Watson from Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock is the real protagonist of the story, but the story is told by Watson and we observe the world through Watson's eyes, thoughts, and feelings. 

Books narrated in first person: The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Percy Jackson by Rick Riordan, and The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger.


When to use first-person narrative


This type of narrator will allow closeness with the reader, ergo, connection. It's easier to empathize with the one telling the story because we can see very closely how they feel. We understand their actions and we can see ourselves in them. There's a stronger connection when you know everything that's happening inside their head. But of course, this only works if the character is well built –full of flaws and strengths, things that make them human and relatable for the reader. 

ALSO: How to Write Relatable Characters

But unfortunately, we lose sight of all the other characters, what are they doing when our narrator is not in the scene? We don't know. How do they think, what do they feel? We don't know. 

This point of view is limited, it leaves many things behind, and the information provided is equal to what the character knows and chooses to share. Meaning that, for instance, if you have a lot of heavy worldbuilding, and so many things to tell to your readers, this might not be the right narrator. It's better to save it for a person who can see it all.

But even with this disadvantage, I still love a first-person narrator. It feels intimate. Like you're spying on someone's brain. 


Tones of the narrative


It's not the same if the narrator is telling the story from the present, as it happens, or telling a story that occurred in the past. In the first option, the narrative probably gets more descriptive and dynamic, as the reader is a company for the character. But when it comes to the past, there are a lot of things we can do. We can invoke memories. We can create a tone for our narrative that is nostalgic, sad, or regretful. These are very powerful things to add to our prose. These kinds of feelings will not only be a part of your character but a part of their voice, a tone that you can use as the author to indulge a response.



Even though every author has their own voice, we all should try to write different kinds of styles to accent that voice and that personal style. That's the way you also find out new things about yourself and discover what you like. The tone of a story –satirical, witty, funny, sad– is something that would give your work a lot of depth and will evoke different emotions, but also would let you experiment and have a lot of fun while you're at it. 


Third-person narrator


This is the most common form in all kinds of fiction, why? Because it lets you show the world you create with a wide length. It lets the readers know everything they need to know. We have different points of view, we can see what different characters are doing or thinking, and we can get a lot of description and information that they´re unaware of. This gives the reader an amazing advantage over the characters. 

ALSO: What the F is 'show not tell'?

For instance, you might know Jake Peralta is in love with Amy Santiago before she does. You can realize it even before he does. How did that happen? Cuz you have all the angles of the story, you follow the characters, their actions, their eyes, and you interpret things they don't even grasp. 


Would you rather be a ghost or a god?


There are two kinds of third-person narrators: the one I'm currently describing is more similar to watching a movie. You can see many characters at the same time, and follow them everywhere when they depart. 

This is an omniscient narrator, usually referred to as God itself talking. It's the one that sees it all. 

But there's also a third person that's stuck like a ghost with one of your characters and follows them around. 

This is a limited narrator, it's still a third person, grammatically speaking, but has a lot of first-person in it cuz it helps connect the audience better by knowing everything about our protagonist –how they feel, what they think.

When to use this person? When you want the reader to know more than the character, but not enough that they can't connect with your character. The reader knows everything about how your protagonist feels and thinks, even when they don't. 



An example of a limited narrator is the young adult fantasy novel: Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. Many books in this genre use the third-person point of view. 


Second-person narrator


The second-person narrator is one of the most difficult and unusual types of narration. In these stories, the “fourth wall” is broken, and you are the protagonist. You are inside the story, as someone narrates what is happening to you. An example of this is Blackbird by Anna Carey. 

It gives the reader a sense of playing a game, which could be fun to try. But it's also very imperative, it's like receiving orders from the author: You go to the kitchen, you open the fridge, you see a dead body inside.

It's kinda weird, isn't it? The disadvantage of the second person is that, beyond being a challenge, it doesn't create a connection with the reader. We know we're not a part of the story, even if we are being told so. The effect that is looking for doesn't really work, as it's really strange and sometimes irritable to be reading orders all the time.

ALSO: You Said, I Said, We All Said

The second person works on letters, on short stories maybe, but is definitely difficult to sustain in a novel. 


How to choose the right POV for your story


Here’s a list of what you should consider before writing. –But also, start writing! And see what comes naturally to you.

  • The genre you´re writing about. What is the conventional person? Do you want to do what is usual or get a little experimental with your narrative persona?
  • How much information are you going to give to the reader? Do you want them to know more or less than the characters themselves?
  • What about the distance? If your novel is emotionally strong, then you must pursue a strong reaction on your reader. A first-person point of view will help you gain that. But if you´re looking for a great connection between reader and character, and still want to be able to tell everything about the world you´re creating, then you can use a limited third person and the effect will be amazing. 
  • Do you want your readers to perceive your main character from outside, or inside their heads?


Figuring out these questions will help you decide which person to use. It seems like a simple choice, but it will define what you can and can't do. As we saw, every person has limitations and facilities. 

My best advice is that you try everything. You can choose one scene and write it from different perspectives. Once again: your protagonist is not always the right one to tell the story. Try on different characters and their respective voices. Try the first person and then rewrite the same paragraph in the third person. Experiment with the second person, too. Try, try, try.

And if you still don't know what to do, go with your gut.


Juliana Palermo
Written for The Plottery

Juliana Palermo lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She's 22 but hasn't learned how to do her taxes yet. She works as a freelance editor and book cover designer, but you will find her drinking coffee and daydreaming during working hours. She is currently writing her first fantasy novel. You can find her as @julippalermo both on Instagram and Twitter. 

If you need her, you can say her name three times in front of a mirror and she will appear with a cynical smile. But let me warn you, her jokes are not as funny as she promised, and if you invited her in, there's a chance she will never leave.



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