When I’m writing I always think long and hard about whether to use a first or third person narrative because it has such a big impact on the story. But the other thing to consider carefully is tense, i.e. whether you write in the past or the present and I think the two things need to be considered together.
First person narrators are good for creating a strong voice. It’s usually the case that novels narrated in the first person have a single narrator and hence a single point of view (POV), such as To Kill a Mockingbird, but this isn’t always the case.
Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier is a wonderful example of how to use multiple first person narrators. She just labels each chapter with the name of the POV character so you know who’s talking.
Third person narration is a good choice when you want to use different POVs, but it must be done in a controlled fashion, preferably with section or even chapter breaks between one POV character and another. I can’t stand narratives that flit about between different POVs because it’s jarring for the reader and makes the author look as if they’re out of control.
And now we come to the thorny issue of tense.
From a recent discussion on Goodreads it’s clear that some people loathe the use of the present tense in a novel. Personally I think it’s a matter of adjusting to it and it’s just one aspect of an author’s “voice.” And it’s not such a modern phenomenon either. Bleak House by Charles Dickens alternates chapters between third person present tense and first person past tense:
I had never heard my mama spoken of. I had never heard of my papa either, but I felt more interested about my mama. (Bleak House, chapter 3)
Choice of tense matters a lot if you have a first person narrator because of the perspective that a first person narrator can bring. Crucially, a first person narrator who uses the past tense has lived to tell the tale. They know what is going to happen. In effect, such a narrator exists in two places at once – they are both the character in the story and the person sitting down afterwards and saying, “Listen, this is what happened to me.” So a first person narrator using the past tense can, and I think should, tell the story with the benefit of hindsight and a sense of perspective. By revealing things that are going to happen in the story, the first person narrator can build suspense from the start. This is done very effectively in the opening sentences of Helen Grant’s novels, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden and The Glass Demon.
But if you don’t want your first person narrator to tell the story with the benefit of hindsight and would rather they were as much in the dark as the reader, then I think it’s preferable to use the present tense. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a great example of first person present tense narration.
So, if you’re a writer, do you agonize over POV and tense? And as a reader, does the present tense put you off? I’d love to hear your thoughts.