Who’s Speaking, Please?

By Lu Anne Stewart

As writers, one of the very first choices that confronts us as we begin to write any piece of fiction is to answer this simple question: who is speaking?  Just who, exactly, is telling this story to the reader?

It’s a pretty big choice to have to make on page one, staring at the expanse of white across a blank computer screen. Nobody wants to get 300 pages into writing a novel and then realize, gee, this would work a heck of a lot better if I switched the whole thing from first person point of view to omniscient!

Struggling with this decision over the years, I’ve found that it goes beyond just picking a point of view. Imagine a story about a 14-year-old girl told in the first person. From what vantage point is she narrating? Is she still 14, with the voice and world view of a young girl? Or is she reflecting back on the events of the story 10 years later, or 40? And which choice allows you to tell this tale in the most compelling way? Author Alice Sebold solved this dilemma brilliantly in The Lovely Bones as her young narrator, tragically murdered at age 14, observed everything from her perch in heaven!

When I first started writing fiction, I found that all of my protagonists sounded exactly like me – no matter whether they were narrating the story or I was channeling their thoughts in third person. They all had a certain sing-song, smart-alecky voice that I remember using in freshman year creative writing.

Then I had a revelation.

I was developing an idea for a short story about a middle-aged man who owned a palm tree farm in rural Florida, and I decided to write it with him as the narrator in first person. As a woman writer, it was the first time I’d tried to write in a man’s voice. What I found is that writing as Jim the palm tree grower forced me to dig deeper into his unique character, thinking about the tone and rhythm of his voice, what he had lived through, how he laughed and what made him lose his temper, what memories were important to him.

As I wrote, I could hear Jim’s voice clearly in my head. The story flowed and the college girl voice that had dogged my earlier writing was gone. I think it’s no coincidence that this story, The Sway of Palms, was the first one I ever got published.

Whenever I read novels, I find a wonky kind of delight in analyzing how the author has used point of view. My favorite example is the wonderful novel Snow by Nobel-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk.  About two-thirds of the way through the book (modest spoiler alert here) something startling happens. The narrator (whom I’d assumed to this point was just a third-person omniscient voice of the author) suddenly is revealed as an actual character in the story. What?? Then Pamuk gives us the fascinating experience of going back and seeing how that character came to know about all of the events he has been narrating. Definitely a “wow” achievement in creative point of view.

As for me, choosing a point of view was unusually easy for the novel I’m working on now. Digging is the story of an idealistic young reporter in the late 1970s who uncovers a mystery in a small town. My reporter heroine, Meg Sullivan, is a trained observer and writer. By having her tell the story in first person, I can let the reader hear her voice and how she processes what she is seeing and discovering. The point of view will help reveal what kind of journalist and person she is. As I sit down at the computer each time, I listen for Meg’s voice to guide me.

How about you? As a writer or a reader, do you have a favorite point of view for a story?  Do you have a favorite book in which the voice of the narrator particularly charmed or captivated you?



8 thoughts on “Who’s Speaking, Please?

  1. Lu Anne – As you say, point of view is critical as is finding the right voice – I am just at the point where I need to find the voice for a key male character in my novel. I read an article about point of view recently that suggested writing a page of dialogue for each of the main characters in your story to make sure each was distinguisable, realistic and true to the rest of their character traits. Is that something you have tried when planning your stories?
    All the best Isabel

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s interesting, Isabel. I haven’t tried that technique but it sounds good. I try to visualize the character, like they are in a movie in my head. I read recently that you only need a handful of traits to fix a character in the mind of the reader – they will fill in the rest themselves. But I know other writers who write pages of character development. So many different ways to go! Good luck with your character!


  2. Hi Lu Anne

    Great post. I was thinking about what you said about Orhan Pamuk and his creative way of putting the narrator into the story. It made me think of John Le Carré’s The Tailor of Panama. There is a point quite early on when the main character and the British agent talk about something and reveal that they both know something that we the reader doesn’t. It was a lovely reading moment when I found myself saying, “hey, hang on, let me in on the secret”. I had to work a little harder to find out what it was they knew, and in that moment I was sucked into the story.


    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Lu Anne, Great post!
    It got me thinking as I’ve really struggled with the narrator question in the novel I’m working on now. I’ve changed my mind so many times and each time it wasn’t better, just different, so I started over – again – and I think I’ve finally found the voice I’m looking for (as well as adding a second narrator). I wish it hadn’t taken me so long and I wish I could try to come up with something that helps me decide on this whole narrator thing before I get bogged down in chopping and changing. I’ve yet to figure out what that is. Deana


  4. LuAnne, as usual, your insights are great to hear! Where can I read The Sway of The Palms, by the way, I want to hear Jim’s voice! In my own writing, I’ve done point-of-view trials early in the process to see what felt most right to me, a few pages of narrative or dialogue in first, third, omniscent, with different characters and then let it simmer on my creative backburner until the “aha!” moment comes. Meg’s voice sounds wonderful, as a former newspaper reporter –alongside you, one of my favorite editors of all time!–can’t wait until this novel is ready for its audience. Good luck! Amy


    1. Thanks, Amy! I love your idea of writing in different points of view to see which works best. As for The Sway of Palms, the last time I tried to find the link I couldn’t call it up, but I think in my files I have the actual URL so I will try to find and send. Things on the Internet live forever, right? Worst case, I can email to you.


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