As we know, readers can be some of the most opinionated people on the planet and when they don’t like something, they’re not afraid to say so. Just look at me; all I do is complain about things I don’t like in books.
But the most interesting argumentative book opinion I’ve come across is that of the author’s narrative voice and how people can either feel very strongly about the choice or feel nothing at all.
So what is a narrative voice? Essentially, it’s the perspective or point of view (POV) that the author chooses to tell the story from. There are three different types of POV: first person, where the character speaks to the reader themselves; second person, where the narrator is speaking to the character as they tell the story; and third person, where a third party narrator tells the reader the story. Second person, being the most obscure in my opinion, is relatively unpopular and isn’t featured quite as much as first and third person typically are, which is why I won’t be focusing on that narrative today.
And that leaves us with first person and third person. But how do you know when to use what narrative? That’s the real question and honestly, it depends on who you ask. In my experience, what makes the most sense when it comes to narrative voice is that authors should use third person for fantasy or sci-fi stories, or anything related to that world, and first person should be solely reserved for contemporary stories.
I feel like with a contemporary story, especially for a romantic contemporary, you want to be in the character’s mindset and understand how their thought process works as a way to understand whatever feelings they could be feeling. You want to see the way characters think and discover their inner monologues in contemporary universes, but not so much with fantasy or sci-fi universes. Does that mean that all first person contemporaries are perfect? No. I’ve also found that if a contemporary is written in first person, it has to have at least a dual POV narrative because that’s the only way a reader will get the whole story. If a first person narrative is being told by one character, the reader will be forced to trust them to tell the story the way it needs to be told, yet constantly wonder what other characters are thinking, especially in romances. Like ok, it’s great that Person A is falling in love with Person B, but how is Person B processing their feelings? We can’t know that if they don’t get a chance to tell their story. A first person narrative is the best way for a reader to relate to a contemporary story, but sometimes having just one narrative first person voice isn’t enough.
On the flip side, a weakness I’ve found in reading first person fantasies is that when the author spends too much time focusing on the character and their thoughts, they don’t spend enough time on the world building aspect of the story, something that fantasy books need to be successful. For example, when I read From Blood and Ash by Jennifer L. Armentrout earlier this year, I had the biggest struggle trying to establish what kind of world this story was set in because Armentrout didn’t world build the way a fantasy book needed her to, in addition to writing a first person narrative, a voice that was completely wrong for this story, proving that both of those things combined did not work. In comparison, a book like The Last Magician by Lisa Maxwell or The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi or A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab, all written in third person, had pretty stellar world building because that was what the authors appeared to be focused on. When writing in third person, the author has a bit more liberty in venturing out into multiple character POVs and established a well rounded world, but first person can really restrict that and that’s why a first person fantasy story can be a struggle to understand.
To me, first person narrative translates to a character driven story and that’s essentially what contemporary books are all about. But a fantasy book is one of the strongest forms of escapism and the last thing a reader wants is to escape into someone else’s mind, doing nothing but reminding them of their own. When a story focuses on an epic fantasy world or a crazy sci-fi/paranormal adventure, the narrative voices need to be as objective as possible to really allow the reader to get lost in it, but a human-to-human story needs that first person voice as a bridge between reader and character.
At the end of the day, even though I have my own beliefs of what narrative fits what story, there’ll never be a right answer. There are countless successful fantasy books with first person narratives and endless contemporaries with third person narrators that simply work. There is no science or statistics or concrete research that I know of to truly suggest which voice works best when; it’s all just plain old personal preference. And that’s why this will always be such a struggle. I can say that I know the secret to narrative voices, but I really don’t.
Except for second person narratives. Those never work and should be tossed in the garbage forever.