Last Monday, in my post about Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, I mentioned a challenge with first person point of view (POV). The truth, though, is that all points of view have disadvantages and advantages. Sometimes it can be difficult to determine which point of view is best for a story, so with that in mind, today, let’s look at the reasons to choose or avoid certain points of view.
Before we begin, let’s take a look at what point of view is. In its most essential form, point of view is simply the voice a story is told in. Sometimes this is a particular character or set of characters. Sometimes it’s the voice of a narrator who never actually plays a role in the story, kind of like a storyteller spinning tales before a campfire. The point of view, or narrator, can know everything or know only some of the information about the story and its characters. It can take on any tone from the lyrical to the sarcastic to the humorous.
To choose the point of view for a story, an author must first pick from the three main branches: first person, second person, and third person.
First Person Point of View
This is the point of view using “I,” “me,” and “my,” literally the first person pronouns, hence the name of this POV. Most of the time, a story in first person POV is told only from one character’s perspective. However, there are rare occasions where an author chooses to use multiple characters. Sometimes this means sharing both characters’ experiences through first person, and sometimes only one of the characters uses first person and the other another type of POV. I wouldn’t encourage anyone toward either of those options, however, as they’re difficult to write and sell, and the first one, where multiple characters use first person POV, can be very confusing to readers.
That aside, there certainly are advantages to choosing first person POV. It allows for the closest a reader can get to a character’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, perspectives, and experiences. For stories that hinge on an internal change in a character, first person POV can be quite handy. It’s also useful for stories where the author wants to keep information from the reader, like in a mystery. And for stories that focus on a single character’s life, it’s ideal.
The biggest disadvantage to this POV is that it’s very limited. The story must be told from a specific character’s perspective, and if a scene occurs where the POV character doesn’t do much, the tension suffers. It can also leave an author in quite a bind if they need to show something or reveal information that the POV character doesn’t know or isn’t present to witness.
Choose the first person POV if you want to tell an intimate story, keep things from the reader, and especially if the story is about one person.
Second Person Point of View
This POV uses the second person pronouns of “you” and “your.” It’s fairly rare. It can be awkward to read and write and is still experimental. However, an author with skill, finesse, and the right story can pull it off.
Unfortunately, as I’ve seen so little of this point of view, I can’t claim any expertise on it. If you want to consider this POV, read as much of it as you can to discover the ins and outs of writing it.
Third Person Point of View
This is by far the most versatile POV, which is probably why it’s so common. It tells the story through third person pronouns like “he,” “she,” “his,” and “her.” It’s ideal for stories that need to be told from more than one characters’ perspective. However, it is also the most distant POV and cannot reach the quite as intimate a feel as first person POV.
However, as third person POV is so versatile, there are ways to alter the closeness of the narrator to the story and thus how deeply readers experience what the characters undergo. Third person POV spans the spectrum from omniscient to close. This can give the impression of an all-knowing narrator or experiencing the story only through the eyes of a single character, one small step removed from first person POV. And it can fall anywhere in between.
The disadvantages of third person POV are the advantages of first. An author can’t get as intimate a feel, though they can get close. Also, it’s easier to get carried away in third person POV and make a story excessively complex or get muddled in the telling of it. First person makes it easier to stay focused, though that doesn’t mean a writer is immune to unnecessary tangents and literary wanderings.
Choosing a point of view is one of the first crucial steps in storytelling. It certainly isn’t the first, but it should be made early on. Otherwise, changing it to another takes a lot of work. On the other hand, if you get halfway or farther through a story, even all the way through, and decide the POV isn’t right, it isn’t too late to change it. Ultimately, a story should be told from the perspective that best suits it. Sometimes a writer knows which instinctively, and sometimes it’s a carefully considered choice. If all else fails, however, and you’re still uncertain which way to go, try writing a small section from different points of view and see which fits best.
After you decide which POV is best, then you can select elements of POV like tone and voice. Or you can allow these subtler elements to flavor the story naturally, only perfecting and illuminating them during revision. In fact, past choosing whether to write in first, second, or third person, don’t stress out over the rest. Let your muse, subconscious, or whatever else you like to call it, spin the story. You can tighten and mend during edits.