The Point of Point of View
[box]Firsts in Fiction is back again! This week we ponder the point of point of view. Which is right for your story or novel? First person? Second person? Third person? Steve and I explore the issue in depth (probably a little more depth than is actually necessary). You can check out the show notes below, or stream the audio, or download the .mp3 here, or listen on Stitcher, or subscribe on iTunes. So many options! We like to make it easy for you to listen where you want.
We’re assuming you have a working knowledge of point of view. But we’re also assuming that, because you’re listening, you’d like a few tips on figuring out which is best for your story. The thing to keep in mind is this: point of view should be chosen deliberately. Too many people choose a particular point of view because it’s “easier” for them, or feels more “natural.” These are not bad reasons, but if they’re the only reasons, you may want to reconsider your POV. Ask yourself what you hope to accomplish in the story or novel. Then, ask yourself how you can best accomplish that. Really, it boils down to a matter of scope, voice, and personal preference. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. Try writing a few scenes in first, a few in third, maybe one in second. See how they sound. You might find that you like the flavor one particular POV offers.
By way of example, I had a story called The Mustang Prophet. It was a fun little piece about a reluctant prophet, a modern day Jonah, so to speak. I originally wrote it in third person limited, but then decided to change it to first. I liked the voice of the character, and I thought it’d create a closer connection between the reader and the prophet. Problem was, every time I started the story, the prophet wanted to tell a different story. To tell the story I wanted to, I had to do it in third person.
I’ll also mention the Hunger Games. If you’re like the rest of America, you loved the movies, and probably the books as well. Suzanne Collins writes in first person present tense, a trend that seems to be growing (especially in YA). The POV works well, as we get to know Katniss well, and we like her. However, toward the end of the third book, the action demanded a wider scope–something Collins couldn’t give it in first person POV. The result is an awkward, rather unsatisfying (to me, at least) scene near the end of the book (I won’t spoil it for you–you can read it and find out what I’m talking about).
While we’re on that note, first person POV is great for getting to know a single character. When done right, we can better experience the story. There’s a connection made between reader and narrator, and the use of the 1st person pronouns (I, me, my, mine, etc.) help to establish a more intimate connection. However, it does severely limit the scope of the story. This can be great for mysteries, where you naturally want to limit reader access to information.
It’s great for characters with unique perspectives on the world, with very clear, distinct voices. Think of Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfied. From the first line, we get a sense of his voice. He’s jaded, and has some angst issues, but his voice is fun to listen to.
First person also allows for us to use unreliable narrators. Think of Poe’s narrator in The Tell Tale Heart or The Cask of Amontillado. Both of the narrators are bent on revenge and murder, but you also get the sense they’re not playing with a full-deck. Any time our narrator is slightly crazy, or even biased, we have an unreliable narrator, which can be a lot of fun to read and to write.
First person narration can take several different shapes. It may be told in a dramatic monologue, as if they’re an actor on stage delivering a soliloquy to the audience.
It can bet told in letters. The Color Purple is told this way to great effect.
It can be told in a diary form. The heart-wrenching story Flowers for Algernon is told in a diary form.
It can be told as a detached autobiography. Think of The Wonder Years or How I Met Your Mother. Both feature voice-over narrations of characters who are looking back on particular events in their lives.
Lastly, 1st person narration can be told as a memoir or an observer of another character. The most obvious example would be The Great Gatsby, which is about Gatsby, but told from Nick’s perspective.
Second person is really an extension of first person, but with different pronouns. Instead of I, me, my, mine, etc., we use you, your, and yours, etc. Though it’s pretty uncommon (unless you read the Choose Your Own Adventure stories as a kid), it has a particular flavor I find enticing. I’m a sucker for second person short stories, when they’re done well. In particular, I like “How To” stories. These are typically told in the imperative form (Clean your room. Do the dishes). You can read a couple examples on my literary journal, The Citron Review (How to Hate Your Life and How To Get Arrested).
Third person limited is very much like first person, but again, it uses different pronouns (he, she, his, hers, him, etc.) It is still limited in scope, and only focuses on one character’s thoughts or feelings. Many novels are written in a type of serial third person limited. For example, Chapter One will be told from Bob’s perspective, and Chapter Two will be told from Sally’s. This allows you to follow more characters and widen the scope of the story. It makes for longer books and allows for the reader to hear more voices and form more relationships with characters. However, too many characters, and the reader can get lost. Also, if you have multiple character perspectives, they should sound different. The narration should have different voices for each character.
Third person omniscient allows the narrator to peek into any and all characters’ perspectives. Think. In all other points of view, the perspective is limited to one character at a time. However, in a true third person omniscient scene, we might get to know what all characters are thinking and feeling. Stephen King’s Under the Dome is told this way. Admittedly, it can get pretty confusing. Most editors don’t like it because of what they call “head-hopping.” By way of example, a third person omniscent scene may sound like this:
“I don’t think I want you doing that, Jim,” Bob said. His stomach growled, and he began to think how nice his steak would taste when he got home.
“I have to,” Jim said. He loved Jane and would never let her be hurt.
With these two arguing, Jane worried she wouldn’t make her hair appointment.
The cat meowed. These people talked too much. When would they shut up and feed her?
While omniscient increases the number of characters you can get close to, and widens the scope of the story, it can make for tough reading at times. If, however, you approach third person omniscient as a series of third person limited chapters as described above, you can avoid the awkward head-hopping and increase the scope of your novel. It can also help to increase tension. Imagine, if you will, a chapter in which we see the bad guy making a bomb, and then putting it under a school bus. In the next scene, we read from the perspective of a child getting on the bus. Now we have tension. Incredible tension.
Third person distant is not often used. It is sometimes called “eye of the camera” or “camera eye.” In this case, the narrator does not go into any character’s thoughts or feeling. Instead, the narrator tells the story as if observing it from a distant park bench. Hemingway and Carver utilized this perspective often to great effect. By avoiding characters’ interior monologues and emotions, it allows for greater subtlety, and helps avoid melodrama. That said, few people use distant these days. Most readers and editors prefer limited or first.
Consider the point of view in your story or novel. Is it working well for you? What kinds of problems might you run into? Would another point of view help to fix these problems?
Until next week, good writing.