Sunday Writing Discussion #10: Choosing the Right Point of View

Composing a work of fiction requires a dizzying number of choices. But it is also cool. The writer has total control and responsibility for the entire composition. A basic idea needs to be expanded into a plot sequence, characters must be created to tell the desired story in the best way possible, the setting needs to enhance the overall story, the conflict needs to make everything vibrate with tension, and the tone and theme must create subtle waves that move along the reader’s neural paths to stimulate further thought. So many things to consider. A basic aspect of writing a short story or novel is figuring out the right character to tell the story through and the right point of view to tell the story in.

We all derive our identity through the stories of ourselves. When we tell a personal anecdote to someone else we tell it in the first person point of view. For example:

“When we found our campsite, I pulled the car onto the paved pad. There was only a small clearing for me to set up the tent. The picnic table was near the fire ring. Everything was lush and green. I was so tired but I had to get the tent set up before I could make dinner and go to sleep.”

The first-person point of view expresses the personal point of view of the speaker or author. The pronouns used are I, me, mine, we, us, and our.

Often when people first undergo the metamorphosis into writers, they use the first person point of view. Their stories tend to be fantasies or “movies of the mind” that they transcribe. This is a great place to begin, but as a writer practices and advances their skills they begin to get a feel for all the artistic decisions that go into a composition. The more they write, the more aspects of writing they become aware of and how this influences who will be their point of view character and which point of view should be used.

Initially it is not unexpected that beginning writers create characters who are too powerful, too strong, and too much of a fantasy. These kinds of characters are called Mary Sues. A Mary Sue is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, who lacking any real flaws, and primarily functions as a wish-fulfilment fantasy for the author or readers. Mary Sues are usually thought of as characters whose positive aspects overwhelm their other traits. They don’t come off as authentic because they feel so one-dimensional. Often these characters kind of overwhelm the stories that they are placed in and subjugate the story to the character. The story must always come first. It is important to think through during the development of a story which characters might be likely to be in that setting, which of those characters might be best positioned to see the action of the story, what the psychological makeup and history of the point of view character might be that could best see and interpret the action of the story in a meaningful way, and what kind of character would be the one that readers could relate to most strongly. Sometimes it is necessary to keep adjusting the characters until the composition feels right. This is one of the really cool parts about writing because as authors we can do this.

Once the writer has a feel for which characters to use, they have to decide what point of view to tell the story in.

First person point of view is the second most prevalent point of view used in fiction. It traditionally is thought of as being more intimate and personal. J.D. Salinger used the first person point of view in his novel The Catcher in the Rye in this very traditional sense and fearless portrayed Holden Caufield in such a way that the book is beloved by many. Holden Caulfield is so authentic within the pages of the book that his story is a example of a coming of age, identity finding story.

This very personal type of story is not the only type of story that can be told through a first person point of view. If a writer thinks about the intimacy that can be established via the first person point of view, consciously uses the strengths of this point of view, and is creative, they can reinforce their themes in unexpected ways. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is also written in the first person point of view. In this case the story is about Humbert Humbert who becomes obsessed with Dolores Haze. She is twelve years old and when she becomes his stepdaughter, they have a sexual relationship. The first person point of view is disturbing and distancing rather than producing intimacy. Further, the narrator is an unreliable narrator and this compels the reader to analyze his words and be drawn further into the book. The first person point of view is used to brilliant effect to create ambiguities that make the book compelling.

There are limitations to think about before using the first person point of view. If a writer uses the first person point of view the natural expectation that most readers bring to this point of view is that the story is being told by a knowledgeable narrator who is past the events and relaying them after the fact. After years of conversation in which anecdotes are told in this manner, readers will bring this expectation to the text and the author either has to remain within the parameters of this context or clearly and strongly with intent and rationale deviate from this. First person perspective is also difficult in that the story is told from the point of view of only one character who cannot see everything that might influence the story and the narration must stay “in character” to maintain the illusion of the fiction. First person point of view is not as easy to create well crafted fiction in as one might first think.

Third person point of view is the most commonly used point of view. In the third-person point of view material is expressed from the point of view of a detached writer or characters within the story. Third-person pronouns include he, she, him, her, his, hers, they, them, their, and theirs. The third person point of view can be either a limited or omniscient point of view. A limited third person point of view follows the point of view of one character much like a camera on that character’s shoulder. The narrator reports the facts and interprets events from the perspective of the chosen single character. An omniscient third person point of view uses an all-knowing narrator who not only reports the facts but may also interpret events and relate the thoughts and feelings of any character.

The third person point of view is the most flexible point of view to write a piece of fiction in. Limited third person can be quite intimate and personal and allow the reader glimpses into the personality of the narrating character. If the third person limited point of view is chosen, it is very important to chose the most advantageous character to tell the story. The story will not be as intimate as if the story were told from first person point of view and this often implies a slightly less emphasis of characterizations to drive the story. The story may still be character driven but there will be more external action driving the plot rather than internal dialogue. As stated previously, the author needs to pick the right character. The narration still needs to stay within the characterization of that character also. For instance, if the story is about medieval times the limited third person narrator would not compare the speed of an arrow to a airplane because they would not know about airplanes.

Second person point of view is rarely used in fiction. It is used in letters, speeches, and directions. Second-person pronouns include you, your, and yours, and material expressed in the second-person point of view directly addresses the listener or reader.

If for some reason a story feels stuck, sometimes it is a useful exercise to either switch the point of view being used or tell the story from the point of view of a different character within the story. This can jog things and give insights that might help to move the story forward. Also just because a particular character was initially chosen to tell the story or the story started in first person point of view, does not mean that it has to stay the way it was begun. It might be a daunting prospect to completely rewrite a story, but this might be the action that makes the story better.

So many choices to craft a story, so many things to consider, so many bits to the overall composition! It is exhilarating! Have fun writing!