Reading Your Characters’ Minds: Picking the Right Voice

Photo © 2007 Annemiek van der Kuil CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This is the third part in my series on narrative mode. I wrote about narrative voice briefly some months ago, in the context of narrative mode.

To review, narrative mode has three components:

  1. Person – First (“I”), second (“you”), or third (“he”).
  2. Tense – Past, present, or future.
  3. Voice – Objective, Limited, or Omniscient

(I’ll cite some examples of narrative mode in a later post.)

Narrative voice is not grammatical voice (i.e., active voice or passive voice), but a completely different animal. Narrative “voice” indicates what the narrator knows about the action in the story. Does the the narrator know only what he can observe (“objective voice”)? Or can he see into the thoughts of one (“limited voice”) or all (“omniscient voice”) of the characters?

Authors and literary analysts typically link narrative voice with narrative person. (See my previous post on person in narrative mode for more on first-person, third-person, and so forth.) But conceptually, at least from a writer’s perspective, voice is an independent concept, not really linked to person at all.

Limited to What?

Most modern novels are written in what I call “limited voice.” They’re either written in “first-person,” in a stream-of-consciousness style with personal thoughts thrown in. Or in “third-person limited,” where a disembodied, third-person narrator can see into the thoughts of one or more people. Some call this “third-person subjective,” and that’s okay, too. Then when the third-person narrator can see into only one of the characters thoughts, they call it “third-person limited” or “third-person intimate.”

All of the nomenclature aside, what it really boils down to, from a writer’s perspective, is one question: How much does the narrator know?

At the one extreme, we have the “objective” viewpoint, where the narrator only describes what he can see and sense, like the lens of a camera. In particular, he does not know what’s going on inside any of the characters minds, unless they make their thoughts and feelings known to him. Of course, the term objective is a bit of a misnomer. The narrator is not objective at all, because his narrative is filtered through his agenda. Yes, the narrator only describes what he actually witnesses, refusing to interject his own thoughts or interpretations, but he still filters the facts through the lens of his own perceptions, as we all do. This is something to keep in mind when you’re writing in objective voice, that your job as an author is not simply to relay the facts, as though you were filling out a report. Rather, your job is to relate the facts as they apply to the story you want to tell.

At the other extreme, we have the “omniscient” viewpoint, in which the narrator knows all. Third-person omniscient was very popular up until the 20’th century. Some analysts distinguish between “third-person omniscient,” where the narrator knows the thoughts of all the characters, and “universal omniscient,” where the narrator knows even things that the characters don’t know.

In between, many modern novels are written from a first-person or third-person narrator’s view, with the thoughts and feelings of one or two main characters revealed in the narration. Chick-lit, for example, is sometimes written in a conversational, first-person style, where the narrator puts her own spin on the story as she relates it to the reader. Similarly, romance is often written in third-person limited, where the narrator sees into the heroine’s or the hero’s mind, or both. In some of these novels, only one character is the center of each scene, and only her thoughts are included in the narrative, with some scenes centering around the heroine and others around the hero. In other romances, the narrator switches back and forth between seeing into the hero’s and heroine’s mind, as the conversation pingpongs back and forth between the two during a scene.

(I’m convinced that a great number of these novels are written in third-person limited so that the reader can feel a greater sympathy with the character, as with first-person narration, while still allowing the author to switch between the characters without changing narrators.)

Holly Lisle’s I See You, for example, which I recently read, focuses on either Dia or Brig in most scenes, relating the story third-person limited from her perspective. But certain key scenes Holly tells from the perspective of the villain, who is after Dia— one sick and scary dude. That’s part of the “suspense” in this paranormal romantic suspense novel.

Shedding the Labels

From my writer’s perspective, I find it much simpler if I shed the labels, all the distinctives literary analysts attach to various flavors of “third-person” point of view.

I simply ask the one overriding question: what does the narrator know? And then I stick with it. And as long as the story works, we can figure out later what to call it. (Consistency trumps convention.)

Does the narrator know the thoughts of any of the characters? If so, which characters? Does he know things that none of the characters know? Can he tell the future? If so, in what circumstances and manners will he divulge his knowledge?

Note that none of these questions necessarily are linked to third-person narration. In a paranormal story, theoretically, you could have a first-person narrator who is psychic, who writes about the thoughts and feelings of the other characters. I don’t know how well that would actually work, and I don’t have a specific story in mind, but there’s no fundamental reason to rule it out. After all, it’s your story; you should tell it as you think best.

One of the story ideas in my idea journal is a science-fiction tale involving a God-like character— literally, a character who created and manages the universe in which the other characters live. If I ever write this story, I’m sure his scenes will be written in first-person omniscient.

First-person objective could potentially be useful to tell a story from the perspective of a person with certain psychological or neurological disorders. Again, I don’t have a particular story in mind.

My point, as always, is that choosing a narrative mode is a creative choice. Any story you can tell in one narrative mode you can probably also tell in another. But one or the other might feel more awkward to you, depending on the requirements of your story. Don’t be afraid to break the mold if you think your story demands it.

Keep writing!
-TimK

About J. Timothy King
J. Timothy King

I'm the eldest of three siblings, a stay-at-home father of two daughters, the husband of a wonderful wife, and an indie author of life-expanding character fiction. When not writing, I read, watch old TV and movies, play bass guitar, and tend to my family in our Boston-area apartment.

Catch me on:  my web site Facebook Twitter 

Comments

Hi Timothy, Thank you for sharing what you know in your field. I just want to ask given all of these guidelines. Is it okay for a book to jump from one point of view to another? If yes what do you suggest to avoid confusion.?

Thank you very much and more power.

J. Timothy King

A tactic I developed a long time ago is to use anticipation to smooth character transitions, similar to what filmmakers do to make cuts between shots feel natural. We actually do this naturally, when we’re writing dialogue. And when the narrator can see into the characters’ minds, their thoughts become akin to dialogue, so i believe the same rules apply.

Hope this helps.
-TimK

Leave a comment