A Confusion of Voices

First-person participant? First-person major participant? First-person reporting? Third-person dramatic? Third-person restricted omniscient? Or Third-person unrestricted omniscient?

These were offered to open a forum thread about the narrative voice you prefer to read. My first reaction was laughter. I just couldn’t help it. I’ve been immersed in fiction since I was old enough to hold a book and decipher those black marks on paper. And somehow, to my very deep embarrassment, I missed learning about narrative voices. After a few decades, I became, mostly on an unconscious level, aware of whether the writer’s use of the narrative voice helped or hindered the story. But it wasn’t until I got serious about my own writing that I started learning the names of the tools that writers use.

My education has advanced far enough, now, that I’m familiar with the idea of POV, of first-person and third-person voices, but my reaction to the above list was still laughter and a sense of disbelief. It seems that I’m still pig-ignorant. I didn’t take the courses or read the books that would have explained to me what those rather daunting terms mean, and told me when and how to put them into practice.

Most of what I know about writing, I’ve learned through osmosis, by reading the best, the worst, and everything in between. And learning to distinguish between them, and what makes the difference. I do seek advice, from books or articles, when I need more specific or formal knowledge. But most of what I know about writing comes from a deep sense of what’s right and wrong, what works and what doesn’t. And that comes from a life steeped in the written word.

Listing six narrative voices leaves me with the strong impression of someone who’s taken all the right courses, who may even have several degrees in writing. Someone who reads with those voices in mind, and assumes that other readers do the same. I strongly suspect that this well-educated person who knows the right names for things will do their writing with those right names firmly in mind. And all I can come up with to explain my discomfort is the phrase: rule-based creativity. Which is, of course, a paradox, a contradiction in terms.

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6 thoughts on “A Confusion of Voices

  1. I traditionally don’t give much thought to POV when writing or reading, just like I don’t identify all the parts of every sentence I read and write, I just do. I will say though that doing some more study into POV and narrative style did help me tighten up Measure of Devotion. What I really don’t like is how people will argue about what POV is in vogue right now and dismissing all other POVs and styles. Good writing is good writing, period.

  2. I don’t give the mechanics any thought either, unless I’m stuck because of my inadequate understanding of how to handle a problem. Then it’s time to hit the books and brush up. Understanding POV and what it does is necessary, but breaking it down into a set of precise rules is a creativity-killer.

  3. I find the above mentioned Forum thread funny,also, but for different reasons. It is not a question of which POV I prefer to read or write; it is a question of which POV is right for the story. Which character can relay the story with the best view point. This is a pre-writing consideration. Don’t even set pen to paper, until you got that figured out.

    But no, mixing POVs is a story-killer that snaps the reader right out of the scene.

    As for omnipresent point of view, that’s a bit out of vogue. The God’s eye POV, where the writer knows what everybody is doing and thinking all the time, is daunting and these kind of stories come in very thick books, like War and Peace. I won’t go there.

    And you are right. Academics do make is more complex that it really is, or rather, they add a lot of gobbledygook to make sound DEEEEP.

  4. The problem with discussions about subjects like POV is that they don’t take into account the difference between writers who are aware of POV and either know how to use it or are at least learning, and the writers who are completely ignorant of such a concept. For the latter, the rules are learning tools. For the rest, the rules are (or should be) guidelines.

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