At this point in the process of writing the novel the writer has his basic idea, the key character and possibly some secondary characters and is about to start plotting. But before he can do this there is an important decision to be made. How shall the writer tell his story - in first person narrative or third person narrative? This decision will have a profound effect on character, plot and the structure of the novel (i.e. the shape of the novel). It is important, therefore, that this be decided before any plotting is undertaken.
Let us look more closely at first person narrative. This is very often the choice of new writers. This appears to them to be a very natural way of telling a story.
"I was born at a very young age..."
At first glance first person narrative appears to give immediacy to the story, in the sense that it appears to bring writer and reader closer together. But consider. The tale that is being told by the first person narrator lies in the past - the events that the narrator is telling the reader about have already happened. No matter how exciting or suspenseful the yarn may be it is obvious that the narrator survived to tell the tale.
It is true the average reader may overlook this aspect, but there are more difficult aspects of first person narrative to face. In the first instance it limits the viewpoint of the narrator. The narrator can only tell the reader about the events in the story which he observed or heard himself or was told about. He cannot describe events happening elsewhere of which he has no knowledge.
Ah, you say, but he can switch to another character in the story and tell what happened from that new viewpoint. This is true , but this reveals a further difficulty. If first person narration is continued in this new viewpoint how can the writer distinguish between the different 'voices' of the characters when in first person narrative?
For a character to come live off the page he/she needs to be fully rounded. Unique patterns of speech, tone of voice and pitch should differ between characters so that the reader can have no doubt about who is speaking dialogue or who is the narrator in the next scene or chapter. These distinguishing traits must also appear in sections of exposition i.e. plain narration. This is difficult to achieve for an inexperienced writer.
However, the writer could use mixed narrative - some chapters in first person and others in third. There are no rules or conventions against this ploy. But the reader must be considered. It is imperative that the reader is not confused by constant shifts in the format of narrative. The successful novel is always a smooth read. Pace is important here, too, but that will be dealt with in a further article.
Let us consider third person narrative.
"Wendy clutched the collar of her coat more tightly around her neck. 'Come on, Jen,' she said impatiently. 'Hurry up or we'll miss the bus.' Without another glance at her companion she stepped out into the pouring rain..."
Third person narrative is a very useful tool. It readily distinguishes between characters and their traits. It facilitates dialogue. Also the events of the story are happening right before the readers' eyes. The reader is right at the character's elbow as events unfold. In other words, the reader 'lives' the events along with the characters.
Wendy may survive to the end of the novel or she may not. A note of caution here - if Wendy is the key character then she must survive - the key character and what happens to that character is the nub of the novel. Secondary characters can be killed off if the plot requires it even if they had a point-of-view in the past. Third person narrative can be considered less stilted than first person narrative with its limitations.
How to decide which narrative is suitable for your novel? Try this exercise. Write a short scene first in first person and then write the same scene again in third person.
Remember that the type of narration chosen will have an effect on your characters, the plotting and the structure of the novel.