One of the most significant factors in a reader’s experience of a story is the point of view from which it is told. That is, whose senses readers are going to be asked to experience the story through, whose head they’re going to be in, whose voice will dominate the conversation.
There are four basic points-of-view that, in a real sense, occupy points along a continuum of proximity to the major characters, the events in the story and the reader.
- First person (I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me)
- Second person (You laughed, you cried, it became a part of you)
- Third person—intimate (He laughed, he cried, it became a part of him)
- Omniscient Narrator (He laughed, she cried, it became a part of them)
#2 is rarely used. My experience of reading second person narration is that it throws me out of the story and seems unnatural—a sort of faux way of getting the reader to relate to the main character. I’ve seen it most often in short fiction and it can be used to interesting effect, but it’s tricky.
#1 and #3 are the most common POVs these days in genre fiction. Both give the reader a seat close to the heart of the character, but first person often comes more naturally to a writer because it’s the way most people tend to tell anecdotes and stories from real life.
#4 was more common once-upon-a-time than it is now. While it distances readers from individual characters’ emotions and interior thoughts, it gives them a better appreciation of what’s really going on in a story. It’s the birds-eye view. Specifically, it gives the reader knowledge about the goings-on that the characters don’t have. This also means it can make it harder to create real suspense or hide information from the reader in a natural way, which can lead to readerly frustration. (At least it frustrates the heck out of me when I know a writer is intentionally and baldly hiding stuff that the narrator should know.)
How does a writer decide which POV to use? I think it depends on whether there is any sort of mystery at the heart of the story or whether there is a particular sort of atmosphere the writer wants to evoke.
Let me illustrate.
It’s match point, centre court, Wimbledon. Federer versus Djokovic (whom Federer is beating handily in my fantasy match).
Where is the best place from which to watch the game?
Well, you might think in the middle of the stands (omniscient POV), just high enough that you can see every inch of the court, the white lines, every twitch, every smash, every lunge.
But this is an entirely external view—unless you’re planning on following the ball back and forth to get each player’s reaction (more on that next time). The fact is, the most exciting place to EXPERIENCE the action is behind the baseline, waiting for that ball to rocket at you at 120 miles an hour or so. In other words, first person or third person, intimate.
Can you see every inch of the court, every twitch? No, but if your story isn’t about seeing, but rather about feeling, then being in the skin of a player on the court is the most exciting way to witness or experience the action. It also allows you to give the reader an intimate sense of what the POV character sees of and thinks about the other character.
In the genres that I write, I am most likely to choose first or third person (intimate) POV. Which POV I choose, at this point in my writing life, often comes down to instinct and how strongly the character’s voice is in my head. Some characters simply seem to insist on telling the story themselves in their voice. A case in point is my pint-sized wizard, Taco Delmar, in Taco Del & the Fabled Tree of Destiny. I did not make a conscious decision to tell his story from the first person POV. From where I sat, it seemed he had made that choice for me.
Likewise my Asian-American detective Gina Miyoko. When I put pen to paper, her voice came out. When an agent commented to me that a lot of editors didn’t like first person narratives, I tried writing Gina’s voice in the third person. It simply didn’t work.
I rely heavily on my instincts for these choices, but for writers who don’t—especially new writers just getting their sea legs, as it were—I think it’s a good idea to base a POV decision on what you want to get out of the story.
I mentioned mystery as an element. This does not just pertain to mystery or detective fiction. In any story in which the writer is revealing things about the characters and plot over the course of the book, mystery is an element. So, most genre fiction is going to have some element of unknown things the revelation of which are critical to the reader’s enjoyment. One temptation to many novice writers, I’ve found, is to dump information on the reader in lumps rather than revealing it in natural ways. Choosing first or third person POVs can help with this. If you constrain yourself to what your POV character sees, hears, feels, and knows, then you have a framework in which you will have to figure out how, when, and why to reveal plot or character information to the reader through the character’s senses.
That framework limits what a writer can do. How a writer reacts to those limitations can make or break a story.
Next time, I’d like to talk about “head-hopping” or what happens when a writer can’t figure out how to work within the limitations of the POV they’ve chosen, or try to cover all the bases at once.