Identifying Narrative Voice

Ah, narrative voice.

It can be tricky. Identifying the point of view in a novel can be somewhat confusing. It doesn't have to be, though! With this handy little guide, we'll help you detect first, second, and third person as simply as possible.

Using the first lines of famous novels, it's time to spot the differences between the different narrative voices. Let's start from, well, the beginning.

First Person

First, second, and third person are all a type of grammatical person. To identify which one is used, you have to find the pronouns in the sentence.

In the following sentence, the pronouns "my" and "I" indicate that the person is speaking in the first person:

"In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since."

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

In the first person, the speaker is speaking about himself or herself. Simple, right?

The above example is one of the first-person subjective case, meaning it refers to the subject who performs the action. "I" is used for a singular subject, and "we" is used for more than one subject, including the speaker.

There are three cases in total; along with the subjective case, there are also the objective case and the possessive case. The objective case uses the pronoun "me" or "us" to denote the objects of the sentence that receive the action.

"Call me Ishmael."

—Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Finally, there is the possessive case: "my, mine, ours," which indicates, of course, possession.

"Lolita, light of my live, fire of my loins."

—Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

These are all examples of the first-person point of view.

Second Person

"You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler."

—Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

What is this strange narrative voice? Though second-person point of view isn't as popular as the others, it does crop up from time to time, so let's review it. In the second-person point of view, the subjective and objective cases take the same pronoun, "you," and the pronoun is the same for singular and plural subjects alike. Neat, huh?

The possessive case simply uses "yours," making the second-person point of view simple to identify. Easy as pie!

Third Person

The third-person point of view is used when the subject is being spoken about. This point of view is a little trickier because it introduces gender into the mix. The feminine subjective singular case is "she," the masculine subjective singular case is "he," and the neuter subjective singular case is "it." When pluralizing, the pronoun is "they," regardless of gender.

Phew! It sounds scary, but it doesn't have to be. To replace the noun with the pronoun "he" or "she," you must be very certain of the subject's gender. Here are some examples:

"Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself."

—Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

"When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin."

—Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

With the objective case, "him" (masculine), "hers" (feminine), "it" (neuter), and "them" (plural) are used. The third-person plural, "they" and "theirs," are used to refer to a group of individuals that does not include the speaker. Finally, the possessive case for the third-person narrative voice is "his," "hers," "its," and "theirs."

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

It is important to note that the narrative voice does not include dialogue. A third-person point of view in a novel might read like so:

"Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. 'Stop!' cried the groaning old man at last, 'Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree.'"

—Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans

Even though the pronoun "I" is used within the dialogue, this is still considered to be in the third-person point of view, as the narrative voice uses third-person pronouns (in this quote, "his").

Trickier Examples

But wait! What about instances where there is no pronoun or the subject doesn't seem to appear in the sentence? Sometimes, it's trickier than usual to identify the point of view.

"A screaming comes across the sky."

—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

There are no pronouns in this sentence, but if we continue to read, it becomes clear that the novel employs the third-person perspective, as evidenced by the use of the pronoun "he":

"It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now. It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it's all theatre. There are no lights inside the cars. No lights anywhere. Above him lift girders old as an iron queen, and glass somewhere far above that would let the light of day through. But it's night. He's afraid of the way the glass will fall—soon—it will be a spectacle: the fall of a crystal palace."

Taking a heftier sample from the text will help clear confusion. While we've used first lines to demonstrate the narrative voice, make sure you take a sample larger than a single line, as it's easy to be duped. Another example:

"They're out there."

—Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Though the only pronoun that appears in the sentence is "they," which implies a third-person point of view, this novel actually uses the first-person point of view, and the subject doesn't actually appear in the sentence. Also, make sure you take samples from multiple points in the text. Some novels change points of view throughout.

"This is the story of a lover's triangle, I suppose you'd say—Arnie Cunningham, Leigh Cabot, and, of course, Christine. But I want you to understand that Christine was there first."

—Stephen King, Christine

While good ol' Stephen King here begins his novel in the first-person point of view, the story is in three parts, and the middle part is in the third-person point of view. Oy vey! But don't worry; by paying attention to the pronouns, you can identify narrative voice easily.

In Short

  • If the text uses "I," "we," "me," "us," "my," "mine," or "ours" as pronouns, then you have a first-person point of view.
  • If it uses "you," "your," or "yours" as pronouns, then you have a second-person point of view.
  • If it uses "he," she," "it," "they," "him," "hers," "them," "their," "his," "its," or "theirs" as pronouns, then you have a third-person point of view.

And remember, don't include dialogue in your detective work.

This SlideShare can be a great resource to help you remember how to identify narrative voice:

Employing Narrative Voice

Now that you know how narrative voice works and can identify the different points of view, you'd like to write a famous first line of your own. But what point of view should you use? Does it even really matter?

We're here to tell you that it absolutely matters. There are important considerations to be made when deciding on your point of view. Get your pencils ready, because one of these is perfect to tell your story. Maybe your very own first line will be famous one day.

First Person

When writing in the first-person point of view, there are a few considerations that are important. First, how is this story being told? Is this being written down or told aloud? Is this meant to be a private telling or public? This will affect the tone and the language of your piece.

It is also important to consider how much time has passed between events. If the events are happening right now, there will probably be a larger emotional reaction from the narrator. But if the events of the story have occurred in the past, your narrator may be more objective.

In addition, you must decide who is telling the story. I know, I know, but bear with me—we’re almost through. Will your protagonist be telling the story, or will a witness tell the story? Perhaps the events happened a long time ago, and the story is being retold. So many decisions to make!

Every choice has implications. Allowing your protagonist to tell the story gives more intimacy between reader and character. It might also allow you to play with an unreliable narrator. If a witness tells the story, you could argue that the witness is more objective (or less, in the case of poor Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby). If an impartial member is retelling the story, it's possible that the narration is more reliable.

So, what do you think? Lots to consider, right? Well, don't choose this point of view just yet—we still have two more to play with.

Second Person

The second-person point of view is by far the least common, but when used correctly, it can have a great effect.

This narrative voice is often used for your protagonist to speak to an earlier (or younger) version of himself or herself. It's difficult to pull off because, often, it's unclear to the reader whom the writer is addressing.

You can also use this point of view to speak directly to the reader, as illustrated by Calvino in the aforementioned example.

If you make it very clear from the beginning whom the narrator is addressing, it is possible to pull off the second person. So don't discount it from the get-go. However, it's not just a gimmick, so a lot of deliberation is necessary.

Third Person

Here it is, at last. The Big Kahuna. The third-person point of view dominates most popular and contemporary literature. That's because it's so diverse, and there are so many ways to play with it. Let's take a look.

There are three main types of third-person point of view: limited, objective, and omniscient. The limited point of view is arguably the most popular. We're allowed a close look into a single character, which often links the reader to your protagonist.

It's fun to play with because you can manipulate the distance a bit. A close third-person limited point of view looks into the thoughts and feelings of only a single character. Many novels step back from this to allow for a wider scope. It's all about distance.

So if we're linking to a single character, don't tell us how another one is feeling. Stepping back every now and again to examine another character distances us from the protagonist, which can be used advantageously. A lot to consider . . .

The objective point of view is when the narrator tells you what the narrator sees and hears without describing the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist.

I bet you can guess what's coming next!

Ah, the omniscient point of view, hammered into the brains of students everywhere. It is, of course, the all-knowing narrator. This narrator knows everything about everyone (it's like the Gretchen Weiners of narrators). But don't be fooled. What your teachers didn't tell you is that not everything has to be shared. Just because this narrator knows everything doesn't mean the narrator is not selective about the information garnered.

See? Things just got more interesting.

Having Fun with It

Most fun of all? You can play with the tone and voice of your narrator in any of the third-person points of view. It doesn't have to be linked to your character's voice, or yours, at all. Maybe your narrator is sarcastic or pities your main character. Maybe he or she is really tired and doesn't even want to be telling this story. Or maybe the narrator of the story was secretly the villain all along (dun, dun, dun . . .).

It's entertaining, right? Have fun with it!

In Summary

Not to be the soccer mom handing out popsicles because "all the kids are the most valuable players," but each point of view has its own strengths to be used for different advantages. That said, they also still have limitations. Sorry, Timmy, but you cannot score a goal from across the field just yet.

Taking all this knowledge into consideration, we want to see those brains storming away! Putting a pen to paper to try all the different narrative voices is the best way to see which one will work for you. All you need to do now is give it a shot.

Conclusion

Whew! Don't you feel better now? You know everything there is to know about narrative voice. You can identify all the different points of view by identifying pronouns outside dialogue. And you know the advantages and disadvantages of each grammatical person, so you can employ your very own point of view.

Now all that's left to do is to write your famous first line. Something with a nice ring to it, like, "It was a pleasure to burn." Wait . . . I think that one's taken. Sorry about that, Mr. Bradbury.

Header image source: Yastremska/BigStockPhoto.com


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