Sometimes you start a novel and the voice is so clear you don’t have to think about the point-of-view. And sometimes it’s a struggle to figure out how the story should be told, by whom. From the detective’s point-of-view? From the killer’s? Over the victim’s shoulder?
I’ve changed the point-of-view (POV) no less than five times in my current manuscript: first I wrote it in 1st person, then 3rd person, then 1st person, 3rd person, 1st person. So much switching back and forth, it begs the question of whether the novel works at all. But in the process, I’ve learned a lot about what the different points-of-view can and can’t do.
No, I’m not offering a how-to on choosing the right point-of-view for your work. There are too many factors, most of them dependent on what you want—for the story, for your readers, for yourself.
Instead, I want to share what I’ve learned about point-of-view—what each type gives and what it takes away—in the hope that it will help you if you ever get stuck the way I was.
Authors often divide up between those who prefer writing in 1st person, and those who do best with 3rd person. Personally, I like 1st person, not just because it’s closer to how people think and talk, but also because it gives me a chance to exercise the frustrated actor inside me. (The one that keeps wanting to do long monologues.)
Use 1st person POV if:
- You need a more dynamic voice. If you’re a good actor, or just have a great ear for the way people speak, narrating your story from the point-of-view of a character can lead you to a richer, more convincing voice.
- You want sharper descriptions and impressions. In 1st person POV the narrator is a character (maybe unseen, but still a character). That means everything is seen through her/his perspective, and this provides a ready framework for relating scenes, characters, thoughts, emotions. After all, a ball-turret gunner’s description of the ground will be very different from a ballet dancer’s.
- You need more play or tension. Who or what the narrator is matters in 1st person POV. He/she can be reliable or unreliable, alive or dead, part of the story or outside the story. It could be a dog or a dragon, a word, even a singularity before the Big Bang. These choices often can turn a familiar story into something original and powerful.
Avoid 1st person POV if:
- You have trouble with a limited perspective. The reader can only see and hear what the narrator sees and hears. If the narrator wasn’t part of an important scene, then you have to find a way to get that information to him/her. Some authors enjoy the challenge. Some hate it.
- Your main character is too limited. In 1st person POV, if your main character is narrating and he/she is not particularly eloquent, smart or insightful, then your story is going to suffer. Choose your narrator wisely, find ways to make the narrator’s limitations add to the story, or just use a different POV.
- Your character tends toward suffering and self-examination. Even the worst suffering can sound whiny and annoying when recounted by the sufferer him/herself (as most therapists would tell you, if they could). The challenge is to find ways for the narrator to tell his/her story without sounding too self-absorbed. It’s a tight line, and if you’re having a lot of trouble already, 1st person is not going to make it better.
WARNING: If you choose this POV, expect agents to reply with “Hey guess what? The 80s called. Jay McInerney wants his novel back.” Yes, Mr. McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City is the most famous example of a novel written in 2nd person—so famous that it’s almost impossible to use this POV anymore. That being said, there are some distinct advantages to the 2nd person POV.
Use 2nd person if:
- You need a sense of alienation or detachment. Nothing says emotional distance like a character talking about himself as if he’s another person. It could be a serious mental health issue or just someone who’s overly introspective. Either way, 2nd person delivers.
- You want a wry, witty tone. If the narrator is talking about himself, the 2nd person POV encourages a lot of self-deprecating humor. If the narrator is talking to/about someone else, the POV gives an immediate sense of familiarity—“I know you…”—and all the humor and contempt that comes with that familiarity.
- You want your character under the microscope. It’s almost a given that beginning a sentence with you means critical observations are about to follow. A good author can use the 2nd person POV to delve deeper into a character’s problems than is possible with a 1st person POV.
Avoid 2nd person if:
- Your narrator is already unsympathetic. If the narrator sounds too distant and critical, the reader may get turned off. Writing in 2nd person will only make this worse, not better.
- Your narrator’s humor is off-putting. Wry tone and self-deprecating humor can quickly devolve into annoying sarcasm. Try a different POV if you find yourself falling into this trap.
- Your narrator is too self-absorbed. A narrator who keeps himself/herself under the microscope will seem self-absorbed. A narrator who keeps someone else under the microscope will sound cruel or obsessed. Either way, you’ve lost your reader. 3rd person is the best remedy for this situation.
The Victorians loved 3rd person-omniscient! Were they addicted to playing God or just frustrated by the slow progress of voyeuristic technologies like spy-cams and Skype? Who knows. The POV is not as popular now, but it still opens up huge avenues for creativity when it’s done right.
Use 3rd person-omniscient if:
- You need an unlimited perspective. This POV allows you to go inside your characters’ heads, peek into their bedrooms and bathhouses, hover over their dungeons and deathbeds, even lie down in their coffins. And no one will ask how you got there.
- You want your own voice. This POV allows you to use whatever voice you want. You can sound like someone’s kindly grandmother knitting out a story, you can sound like Henry James dissecting all of society, or you can sound like yourself doing whatever you do.
- You have a complex chronology. 3rd person-omniscient lets you treat time like a pack of cards. Flip forward, backward, shuffle, spread, deal. You’re not bound by a character’s perspective, and you have the freedom to go back into the past or far ahead into the future—without a souped-up Delorean.
Avoid 3rd person-omniscient if:
- You need more structure and direction. All that freedom in tone, perspective, time, etc. can make it difficult to tell a story. Where do you start? Where do you stop? What kind of voice should you use? Like the Bound Man, you may find that too much freedom makes you flop like a fish.
- You’re easily side-tracked. If you can’t resist a good line or plot twist, this POV could turn your 400 page opus into 20% digression, 30% back-story, 15% sub-sub-plots, and 10% shameless riffing. You can’t just kill all your darlings when writing in 3rd person omniscient. You have to kill their extended families, too.
The hybrid of the POV world, offering a combination of 1st person structure and 3rd person-omniscient freedom. Hard-core 1st person and 3rd person-omniscient writers will often find the solution to their problems in this POV—maybe because it’s not that big a stretch but different enough that it can transform a story.
Use 3rd person-limited if:
- Your main character feels unsympathetic in 1st or 2nd person. Having someone else relate a character’s troubles to us makes those troubles sound less self-pitying, more genuine. That, in turn, makes the character seem more sympathetic. 3rd person-omniscient will also fix this problem.
- You want some freedom but not too much. This POV gives you the narrative freedom of 3rd person-omniscient with the guiding limitations of a 1st person perspective. For many writers, it’s a comfortable combination of structure and exploration.
- You’re a lousy actor but you need a limited POV. A true 1st person narrative requires a good ear for voices. If you don’t have that, but still want a 1st person type perspective, use 3rd person-limited. It’s what it was invented for.
Avoid 3rd person-limited if:
- One of the other POVs works better for you. Sounds obvious, right? But there aren’t any strong reasons to avoid 3rd person-limited. The main question is, Does your novel shine best in this POV, or would 1st, 2nd or 3rd person-omniscient give you the push you need to get beyond adequate?
That’s all I’ve got for now. How about the rest of you? Got any secrets to share about point-of-view? Which one do you prefer? Which one do you hate?
Originally posted by the author on BeyondTheMargins.com.