In this supplemental we take a closer look at choosing your narrator. Let's keep it as painless as possible and dive right in to the different styles of overall narration to choose from.

There's a good reason Doyle chose Watson to narrate Sherlock Holmes' adventures


Third Person: The best according to writing teachers everywhere. The easiest for a reader to read and enjoy, think of it as how you'd tell a story about another friend. ("Then Suzie told the carnie to go fuck himself and dumped an ice cream cone down his pants while Jimmy and Tammy laughed their butts off"). The narrator has no body, does not interact with the characters, in fact the narrator is you. It's great because you as the narrator can see what everyone is doing, and narrate the antagonist's actions as well as protagonist's. You can also juggle multiple protagonists and antagonists.

First Person: The laziest and yet most fun choice for writers. While not as accessible for all readers (men can't always deal with a woman's P.O.V. for example), it's how you'd tell a story about yourself. ("So I was telling that story about Suzie and the carnie at the bar with Tony and the gang, when who walked in but the carnie! He comes running over to me shouting, so I dumped a beer down his pants and we laughed like hyenas"). The narrator acts like a blog of the protagonist's actions and is limited because unless we change chapters or sections and go to another P.O.V. the reader can only know what the protagonist knows. It's handy in mysteries.

Second Person: The hardest choice for writers, it's also most popular in children's shows and pop music...go figure. It's where the narrator may be a formless third-person entity, or a first-person protagonist, but they tell the story using the word "you" or intimating that they are speaking directly to you. ("You wouldn't be that stupid, would you, not like ol' Shannon who got arrested for assaulting that carnie with  deadly beer, now would ya?"). The master of the implied second-person narration is Toni Morrison (See The Bluest Eye for a soul-changing example), the master of "in your face" second person narration is Seasame Street.

Those are the three ways you can tell your story and you can see how they give you choices in whose story you tell. Oops, did I just make your head go BLAM!? Well, if we wrote only from the protagonist's P.O.V. literature would be a sad place.

It would encourage more of this crap


Take for example the novel that makes me swoon like a fangirl, The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway is our first-person narrator but the true protagonist, the one who completes 8 steps of the hero myth, is Jay Gatsby (he died at ordeal while waiting to seize the reward a.k.a Daisy). Here's where using a secondary protagonist or even a secondary character gets tricky. If you do, opt for first-person, second-person gets to be too children's TV show. When a character beaks that fourth wall it's always funny, or wacky. They try it in serious plays, and doesn't that just bore you to tears? So when using a secondary protagonist or secondary character to narrate, opt for first-person.

What if you have multiple protagonists, a la Song of Ice and Fire? Simple, third-person. No ifs, no ands, no buts. THIRD PERSON. Pretend you as the narrator have a camera and microphone flying over the shoulder of each protagonist. Remember you can only narrate what they see and feel, if you want to switch protagonists, make a chapter break or new chapter and switch vehicles. If you use second-person narration and you are not writing with an ironic-comedic note like Neil Gaiman or Douglas Adams might with multiple protagonists, I will find you and kill you. Unless what you're writing is intended for the crowd aged 5-8 in which case go nuts, but keep it short.

The true masters of second person narration. If you didn't watch this as a kid, don't attempt to write in that style


Most stories follow one main protagonist and the hardest choice is between third and first person narration. Even within second-person narration you find the choice comes down to this: floating omniscient narrator, or telling your story from inside a character's head? Let's look at the pros and cons more closely.

With first-person one drawback is also an advantage: you can only see/know what the narrator (typically the protagonist) knows. This is great when there are twists and turns or secrets you don't want your reader to know, such as in a mystery or horror. You can still do this with third person narration, but first helps you to focus and keeps sit simple. Particularly useful in mysteries, it gives you the thought process of the detective character. That protagonist must work differently than others, that's why they're the detective. If you want to elevate their god-like status a la Sherlock Holmes use a secondary protagonist like Dr. Watson to observe their strange ways. If you want to focus more on the mystery than the detective, let the detective narrate it.

Where is first person narration weakest? In category fiction with a sexual nature. Again it's not necessarily bad. It's limiting because it's often hard for men to read and get a woman's P.O.V. in, say, a romance novel. There's a hidden bonus. Know what the most popular fiction is in male prisons? Romance novels, which is great. Why? How better to get a rapist to empathize with his victims than to read what women fantasize about sexually and learn how they feel. It wasn't a magical cure-all but it did help. Getting most non-serial sadistic rapists to empathize is the single most important step in treatment. Outside of prison men are reticent to read this type of fiction because they feel it feminizes them, or makes them "gay." 

On the other side of the coin nothing annoys me more than reading a male-written sex scene. This has made me extremely reluctant to enter into a sexual relationship with a male author, it seems like none of them understand the concept of foreplay. Dudes, seriously, we don't like it because it's romantic, we like it because it's what gets us off. And we like before all that thrusting that works for you because when you're done, you're done, as in roll-over-go-to-sleep. I'm speaking in generalities, of course this isn't true for every woman, but when it comes to fiction I can't believe how often I see a nubile 18 year old have multiple orgasms solely from penetration with no foreplay beyond 30 seconds of kissing. Yeah, dude, keep living in that world. If she was 40 with a long sexual history maybe, but 18? Pardon me while I laugh to death. Takes me right out of the story, and that's one thing you don't want to do to your reader.

It boils down to first person narration making the reader identify with the narrator. There has to be a good reason for it: the mystery, the inner struggle, the bone-deep emotion...some abstract concept greater than the narrator that the reader can bond with. If you have that and the story benefits from limited perspective, by all means, use first person narration. Don't just do it because you're lazy, and the protagonist is you. If that's the case, scrap the story. Your protagonist is part of you, but so is the antagonist and every character. Don't write yourself in part and parcel of you get pure schlock.

Making yourself the protagonist and adding your own personal sexual fantasies is what turned decently mediocre paranormal-noir into unbearable porn


With third person you a few two pros: you can have multiple protagonists, you can alow the reader to neutrally observe the protagonist(s) without emotionally bonding, and you can show the good and bad of all characters. Third person is neutral, got that? If in third person you make moral judgments of your characters and relate them to the reader you're in second-person territory, so knock it off or just go and stick to second-person narration. This works great when you have a antihero protagonist and/or sympathetic antagonist. You want your reader to root for the protagonist, but do they have to be an Edgar Rice Burroughs perfect protagonist like Tarzan with no faults? Fuck no. Don't we all prefer the hero types with a touch of humanity? The tough girl who is commitment-phobic, the tough-guy with a gambling problem, the noble knight with a bad childhood, the destined queen with demons? Third person allows you to expose all the flaws and attributes of your protagonist and antagonist, and makes them more human and accessible to the reader. Best of all a neutral tone allows the reader to choose how they feel about your primary characters. That's why Darth Vader is so much more popular than Luke Skywalker. 

The cons are juggling how much information to show the reader, and also getting your reader to root for the protagonist. With this style of narration the primary characters' actions and dialogue become more important than their thoughts, so your protagonist has to work harder to earn the trust and respect of the reader. This means your protagonist better be rock-solid and fleshed out so real you think they're family. You also have to know how much background information to share. in a mystery, the bodiless narrator may know where the secret stash is hidden and maybe one or two secondary characters know, but the protagonist doesn't, so why doesn't the reader know? If they do, why doesn't the main protagonist? This is particularly tricky when the narration follows multiple characters. In that case your writing and organization has to be tight, air tight, and your word count is gonna be longer.

Third person is how you keep track of all this...and these are only 1/3 of all the total protagonists of the damn series


There is no right or wrong here. As with writing this is a step-by-step process. What kind of story is it? How many protagonists will you have? What underlying theme or moral lesson do you want to impart? What style is most comfortable for you to write in? Knowing what you now know, can you justify it?

There are some of you who need formulas, and I feel you. Just please use the following with this is mind: learn and memorize rules only so you can break them, and do it well. So here goes:

Use first person narration only when:
- You want to follow only one protagonist
- You are writing a mystery or horror
- You are writing a coming-of-age where the protagonists relationship with/understanding of the outside world changes over time
- You are writing a short story and have limited time to get your reader onto your protagonist's side
- You need to show your protagonist's thoughts more than their actions/dialogue

Use second person narration only when*:
- You want an ironic/comedic bent to the story
- You want to relate something and pinpoint it in the past, also making the reader doubt the veracity
- You are following one protagonist only with a first-person bent and want the reader to know things the protagonist doesn't
- You are following one protagonist and one antagonist only with a third-person bent and want the reader to know things they don't
* - never combine this with first or third, as in chapter one is second person and chapter two is first person. I will kill you.

Use third person narration only when:
- You have multiple protagonists to follow
- You have an anti-hero or sympathetic villain
- You have an epic adventure plot
- You are writing general fiction for the Oprah crowd
- Your story jumps around in time subtly

Mix first and third person narration when:
- You are writing a romance novel
- Your secondary protagonist is as important to the plot as your primary
- You want your reader to know things your protagonist doesn't, and has to discover
- You want to show the villain's P.O.V. without the protagonist knowing

Remember these rules are subject to change (except mixing second-person sections with blocks of first or third, don't do that EVER) and bending them or breaking them is part of what makes your voice your own. Think outside the box. Why not have your narrator lie? Ever think of that? Or try first person from the view point of someone with a grand secret that is the climax, and don;t reveal why it was hidden until the resolution. Get creative and make it your own, but keep in mind the general rules are there for a reason. let them guide you, not dictate your actions, and happy writing!

Creating characters is much more complex than you thought, but your reader will find it more rewarding