Before you write word one, pick your storyteller
Some of us, myself often included, start writing a new story with little or no thought about who should be the voice, and how he, she, or it should speak. I tend to use first person only when I know there will be only one point-of-view character. Otherwise, my stories tend to be omniscient third-person narrators in the past tense. But different stories require different types of narration. And picking the right narrator before you begin writing may mean the difference between a mediocre story and a great one.
The choice of voice for a story usually starts out with one of two choices: First person (narrator says “I” or “we”) or third person (narrator says “he, she, they, it”). Having plural narrators is unusual, but it is a possible choice, if they can agree to tell a single story without arguing. You get a more consistent narrator from first person, but you run a higher risk readers won’t identify with him/her/it/them. You can do scenes without your main character for a nice variety with a third person narrator, you can get inside the thoughts and perceptions of more than one character, but you can’t play with the veracity of the narrator as much when the narrator is omniscient; there is a tacit contract that omniscience means absolute truth.
And it’s interesting choosing a first- or third-person narrator who is unreliable, either because the narrator doesn’t remember things well, or is prone to lying or embellishing facts. In such cases, you have to establish the fallibility of the narrator early enough so your audience knows to be suspicious. It’s especially good if you can familiarize the reader early on with the narrator’s tells (gestures, phrases) when lying, so they’re easier to spot. Otherwise, you have to work hard to show counter-evidence all the time.
You can also pick a narrator who has already experienced the whole story and is retelling it for the reader or some other audience. This too can be a first-person or third-person narrator, depending how central the narrator was to the action of the story. And in this case, unless your third-person, future-perspective narrator is a journalist or telepath, he/she/it cannot be omniscient. Such narrators tell a story from an outsider perspective, picking up whatever clues are there to discover motives for people’s actions.
Most often with a first-person narrator, and occasionally with a third-person narrator, you may choose to use the present tense instead of past tense. In that case, the narrator is telling events from a present perspective–it’s happening as it’s being told. The benefit of a present-tense narrative is that it makes the action more immediate and potentially heightens the suspense, but it is an infrequent enough choice, that some readers will bristle when they encounter it. And it doesn’t allow flashbacks and flashforwards as easily as third-person narration does.
Point of view
When you have a third-person omniscient narrator, you can get inside several characters’ heads. You can also have different first-person narrators, so that when you switch points of view, the “I” is a different person. You just have to make sure the reader knows you’re in a new character’s head, much more so than when you just change point of view. Consistency of narrative voice is a strong expectation among readers.
An underexplored facet of narrators is their appraisal of the characters and events they describe. An omniscient narrator doesn’t get this option very easily. The degree to which a narrator allows personal judgment to color how the story is told can make a narrator more distinctive. If they’re always trying to be fair to everyone and everything, narrators will be barely noticed, and the story will have to struggle on with only plot and description and character development to rely on. When the narrator is someone with an interesting voice and opinions, he/she/it garners more of the reader’s attention. Think of Elle in “Legally Blond” as an example.
There are a variety of potential narrators who aren’t even human. Imagine a story told by a house, or a dog, or a ghost. Nothing requires your narrator to be human, so consider that function as well. It may even be a point of suspense for the readers as they try to figure out what is telling the story.
If you enjoyed this post about choosing a narrator, you may be interested in past essays about writing craft, including The Value of Shock, Sneaky Exposition, The Prewriting Challenge, Editing Tips: Descriptions, Editing Tips: Dialogue, Editing Tips: Plots, Conversation/Character Starter, Potholes and Plotholes, Portraying the Other Gender, The Try-Fail Cycle, and Novelty and Comfort.