What to Use
There may be one very natural style of narration that comes to you or you may have tried many different approaches for different stories. I always write in the first person past tense. I have tried present tense and the third person for the sake of testing myself but it just didn’t flow as naturally for me.
For those of you unaware, first person is “I did this” and third person is “she/he did this”. First person sounds like you’re being spoken to directly by the narrator who tends to be the protagonist of the story, third person is more of an invisible narrator who isn’t involved in the story themselves – like they’re telling someone else’s story.
If you’re curious, the second person is “you did this”, but it doesn’t work for full length stories. It can for a short story or even a short section of a longer story but you cannot write a full length story in the second person alone, it just doesn’t work.
There are pros and cons of both, of course, it depends which would work best with your story. The first person allows a connection between the narrator and the reader but third person allows the reader to know things that the character does not. With first person, you discover as you go and you know as much as the narrator does so there isn’t any room for dramatic irony (unless you use two narrators). Third person has the advantage of jumping between characters, whereas first person can only really follow one character (again, unless you use multiple narrators).
Past and present tense also have their pros and cons. Past tense means the narrator can tell the reader things in hindsight and comment on them, whereas in the present tense you cannot possibly do this. Present tense is happening right now and as such has a very immediate feel. This does not mean you can’t get immediacy when using the past tense. For some reason, writing in the present tense doesn’t seem to come naturally. This is probably because we speak in the past tense the majority of the time, especially when telling a story. I suppose this transfers over to writing a story. Maybe that is the draw of using the present tense, it’s more unusual.
Again, if you’re curious, the future tense, like the second person, also doesn’t work. How can you tell a story if nothing has happened yet?
Whatever tense you use and whatever person, make sure you stick to it. That is the most important thing. You cannot switch between the two. You need consistency.
Don’t think picking one tense and person to write in is limiting. Even using first person past tense with every story I write, the ‘voices’ of my narrators are still very different as I like their personality to come across. For some it will seem as though they are just simply telling you a story but others will be speaking directly to you, imploring you to understand and asking you rhetorical questions. Some of my characters are a lot chattier than others in their narration and some are also more eloquent and poetic in their observation. This doesn’t apply to the third person, but I believe when writing in the first person it is a much more entertaining read when the narrator has a personality, rather than just simply telling you the story. If they’re just simply telling the story, ask yourself why you picked the first person and not the third person.
Asking yourself “why?” at any point, for any reason, is a very powerful tool when writing.
In short: pick the tense and person that makes most sense, stick to it and give your first person narrator a personality.
Try and write a short paragraph in the first person giving your character a 'voice' that is very much tyring to connect with the reader. Post them in the comments below and see if people can connect with your character in under a hundred words.