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A Look At Points Of View

library with grey sea by Jeremy MirandaWhat point of view to write from is one of the most significant decisions a writer can make about their work, yet with so many aspects of writing craft to consider, characterisation, plotting, pacing, it often gets regulated to the background after a quick, early decision. Giving a little thought to what point of view best suits your story can save a lot of time and trouble down the road. Many writers don’t even consider the options, only ever writing in one style and playing to their strengths. Now there’s nothing wrong with that idea, but it can be limiting, and some stories are more suited to one style or another. A good understating of the different possibilities and what their strengths are can help a writer to make their choice.

First Person

First person is from the “I” perspective where the narrator is part of the action and speaks from within the story. Everything in the text comes from that character’s own experience and nothing can be described that is not known to the character. This style is the “close up” view of the story world, it brings a sense of immediacy and intensity when the character is in the thick of it and helps the reader to immerse themselves in the writing.

day six by ohsostarryeyedWith a direct link to the protagonist, using the first person view is a great way to explore character, providing instant access to thoughts and feelings. This method also provides a number of opportunities in terms of narrative, a common technique is that of the unreliable narrator. With the reader’s view limited to what the protagonist perceives and how they tell it, the flow of information can be easily directed, and the manner in which it is revealed can be used to make the reader doubt the truth of it.

First person narration is quite versatile, but it does lend itself to certain types of stories. Tales from the horror genre are well suited to first person as it puts the reader within the character’s perspective, letting them share every moment of tension and fear. The first person also makes it easy to convey the character’s feelings and evoke a sense of terror in the protagonist. Many of Lovecraft’s stories use this style, drawing out moments of horror, or surprising the reader with a moment of grim realisation. Mystery/detective stories are another good choice, the limited view means the reader will only know what the character does and allow the author to tease out the plot. And lastly there are good, old fashioned action thrillers, the immediacy of the writing gets the heart pounding in those fight scenes and the narrative style helps us to root for the protagonist.

The first person can also be effective if the author wants to make a stylistic choice with their narrative, taking advantage of its nature. Some books cast a child as their main character – using a narrow first person view, combined with the limited understanding of a child can make for an interesting narrative as the reader can know more than the character and have a better understanding of events. The first person offers many possibilities, and used skilfully it can work in a variety of stories, but it’s best when the author has a single protagonist and a tight view storyline to work with.

Second Person

Complicity (cover)The second person is rarely used in contemporary fiction, it speaks to the reader directly as a list of instructions: “you walk through the door and sit.” This method can encourage the reader to imagine themselves as part of the story, but you are unlikely to use this point of view except to accomplish a specific purpose. Ian Bank’s novel Complicity has sections where the second person is used for the actions of a serial killer, though the reader only finds that out later. The moment of discovery and the use of the second person makes those chapters all the more sinister for how they involve the reader in such grim work. The second person is difficult to use and sustain over time, but its unique style can help deliver different and original stories.

Third Person

Third person probably has the most potential for variety in terms of perspective. It can range from wide, fully omniscient view to a close limited third person view through one or more protagonists. It can be the voice of a narrator telling the story, or it can be sunk into the mind of one of the characters. The third person story sets the reader as an observer, it acknowledges they are separate from the book and works to make them feel engaged, it tells them “he did this.”

Hidden Empire (cover)The third person can be set to almost any kind of story, but selecting the best subtype can be tricky. Having a good idea of your novel and what you want it to include will help to make the decision. For example, if you’re writing a sci-fi with a lot of big battles in space then a more omniscient view might be preferable than a close up of one character, unless you want to describe all those pretty space battles by reporting from a view screen or looking out the window. However, the versatility of third person can be useful here, Kevin J. Anderson’s Seven Suns Saga divides its chapters between a group of protagonists written with a loose third person focus and a view that is capable of darting around the outer hulls of ships before drawing back to the chapter’s POV character. So long as the writing is skilful and the narrative is consistent the reader will accept the style for your story.

Your writing style might lean more towards a strong authorial voice, a good conversational tone that narrates the story can be used to make the reader feel comfortable and draw them into the tale. Terry Pratchett’s writing style in Discworld is a fantastic example, with its witty descriptions, jokes and footnotes that give a strong sense of the narrator without detracting from the story. Obviously this is good for a comedy, but a strong narrative voice can work for other genres, even serious dramas/thrillers can benefit from a stern authority describing a tale and judging the characters for their actions along with the reader. It opens up possibilities of trying to get the reader to agree or disagree with the narrator, one might try making a character do something manipulative and harsh while the narrator speaks approvingly or vice versa.

R is for Reading by NilanjaThe third person point of view is very adaptable to a writer’s style, very flexible in terms of storytelling. While it can be bent to anything the third person is better suited to the larger stories, the bigger plots and backdrops. Whether you choose a close or full omniscient view this style of storytelling can allow for a fuller exploration of the narrative.

This article hardly covers all the different possibilities regarding point of view, and there are no iron rules for what you can accomplish with them. That tight view character in a sci-fi story can be great, but you might have to work a little harder with them. Think about what you want from the story, think about how you want the reader to see your world, look at the writing from a new angle.

Title image by ohsostarryeyed.

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