In any work of fiction or creative non-fiction there is a narrative voice, a central consciousness to relate the parts that can’t be witnessed first hand through scene. This narrative voice is what we call Point of View or POV and who your narrator is will be one of the most important decisions you’ll make.
You have three choices:
Every story has a narrator even if the story is, according to Alice LaPlant, “ being told by an invisible and bodiless intelligence which never personally enters the story as a character, and which appears to be godlike in its scope of knowledge.” But please, don’t assume this voice is the author! When the author’s voice, or POV, enters the story, it’s called author intrusion—something we want to avoid. In fiction, the narrator is different from the author. The author writes the words but the narrator is the intelligence that is telling the story. The author controls the narrator, but that doesn’t make the author synonymous with the narrator.
There’s a big difference between a fiction narrator and a creative non-fiction narrator. In creative non-fiction, the author and the narrator are the same. No writing convention exists to differentiate these voices.
Think about it. If the narrator of your short story were I, the author, the work would be non-fiction!
The narrative is told by an actual character: I. That character can be a participant in the action or merely an observer of the action who tells about it, like Nick in the Great Gatsby. He was smitten with the glamorous Jay Gatsby next door and tells Gatsby’s and his cousin Daisy’s story. But ultimately the story is about Nick.
That’s the rub. The story is always about who we are primarily focused on. Even when there is a detached first person narrating, it’s going to be that person’s story. This is a convention you can count on.
Another first person option is the plural first person: We. This isn’t very common, but it isn’t unheard of either. Check out William Falkner’s A Rose for Emily.
Second person is complex and rare. The narrator is You. But the “you” is really “I”, usually because “you” has disassociated from the unpleasant thoughts of “I” as found in Jay McIrney’s Bright Lights, Big City. Another possibility is that you is really another character and the piece is a monolog addressed to someone. Or the you addresses the reader as in Lorrie Moore’s How to be a Writer.
Third Person is the most complex and requires a discussion in its own post. Tune back in next week to learn why the 3rd person isn’t a fixed voice, but a continuum of possible voices limited only by the number of authors using it.
Assignment: pick a story, your own or someone else’s. Identify the major characters. Who is the point of view character? Rewrite a scene from another POV in the first person. Is the story different? Is the meaning changed? Read your original and re-write in class.