Friday, October 27, 2017

Which Point of View Should I Use? A Tour of First, Second, Third, and More

I often get this question in my classes:  what point of view is best for my book?  Who is best to tell this story?  What are the differences between first, second, third, and omniscient points of view?
 
There's an underlying confusion about "voice" and point of view in story, which I want to address first.   
 
Point of view in writing is not your belief about the topic, as it would be in conversation--your "point of view" in an argument, for example.  In writing, it refers to the position of the narrator in your story.  It's the narrative filter, in other words, the way readers will see your story, based on who is telling it.
 
Voice is different.  Narrative voice is more the tone of the person talking; while writer's voice is the overall style you are using.  Check out my blog post on voice for more information.
 
Point of view is actually easier to figure out, because you only have a few choices.  Here they are: 
 
First person:  When you write in first person, you use the pronoun "I" because I am telling the story.  Memoir is usually written in first person because you are the narrator--it's your story.  Fiction is often written in first person--especially first novels, because it's easier to get into the character's head.  First person only stays in that one person's head; it doesn't switch around unless you are using multiple first-person narrators.  Then, each chapter would have an "I" narrator but different ones.  That's complex, so unless you're really good at it, stick with one person for your first-person narrator.
 
First-person point of view is automatically prejudiced, or biased.  We only can see what this person can see.  It's not going to be the whole story, so it's up to the writer to reveal the unreliability of this narrator via setting, action, gestures, and sensory details that contradict the narrator's view of something.   
 
Unreliable narrators are legion in fiction.  A great example is Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, where the narrator is an alcoholic and possibly implicit in a crime.   
Examples of first-person narration:
 
I crossed the street when the light turned green, not caring about the angry drivers who swerved to avoid me.
 
It was years before my father acknowledged how much he missed me; I thought he never would.
 
I'm climbing the stairs, aware of noises in the attic, not sure what I'll find there. 
 
Second person:  Second person narration uses the pronoun "you"--and it's a tough point of view to sustain throughout a 250- to 300-page book.  Why?  Because it comes across as confrontational, in-your-face, and many readers get tired of it fast.  In short pieces, it works well.     
 
Examples of second-person narration:
 
You crossed the street when the light turned green, not caring about the angry drivers who swerved to avoid you.   
 
It was years before your father acknowledged how much he missed you; you thought he never would.
 
You're climbing the stairs, aware of noises in the attic, not sure what you'll find there.
 
Third person:  There are two kinds of third-person narration; one is used a lot, the other hardly ever today, except in academic writing.  The first is called "third person limited" and the "limited" means that it stays in one person's head.  It's a very common point of view in fiction, biography, and nonfiction.  It's not used in memoir.  The second is "third person omniscient" and the "omniscient" means we see all the characters' points of view.  Third omniscient is an old-fashioned style of narration.  It was common in novels thirty or forty years ago, but it's tricky to write successfully today because it gives such a distant feel to the narration--meaning, it's harder to get to know the individual characters when you're writing all of them at once.  It's used in academic writing just because of this distant feel.
 
Third limited can move around to different characters' heads, but it stays in that person's point of view exclusively while they are narrating.   
 
Examples of third-person-limited narration:
 
Jason crossed the street when the light turned green, not caring about the angry drivers who swerved to avoid him.   
 
It was years before Jason's father acknowledged how much he missed him; Jason thought he never would.
 
Jason's climbing the stairs, aware of noises in the attic, not sure what he'll find there.
 
Examples of third-person-omniscient narration:    
 
Jason and Maria crossed the street when the light turned green, not caring about the angry drivers who swerved to avoid them.   
 
It was years before their father acknowledged how much he missed them; they thought he never would.
 
Jason and Maria are climbing the stairs, aware of noises in the attic, not sure what they'll find there.
 
Some basic rules to keep your narrative point of view clean:
 
1.  Stick with one.  If you have multiple narrators, keep them all in first or third limited.  Switch at chapter breaks to be easiest on the reader.      
 
2.  Some writers love to break this rule, playing with one narrator in first-person and the other in third limited.  It's kind of in vogue right now, so if you're tempted, be sure your transitions are impeccable.  Otherwise, you'll lose the reader's trust early on.  Study books that do this well.   
 
3.  Avoid third omniscient unless you want an academic feel to your writing.  It's a lazy way to write, in my view.  It's often what we do when we are beginning, and after some feedback, we learn better and begin to rewrite in third limited.   If you really like the broader perspective and want to try it, experiment with third limited with multiple narrators first.  See if that gives you the broad reach you're after.  Or study writers who do this well.  
 
Here's a great article from The Write Place blog that gives more examples and details.  Your writing exercise this week is to read it then look at your own writing.  What point of view do you favor?  Why?  What might it be like to experiment with a different point of view?