MIND MELD: Point of View in Genre Fiction (Part I of II)
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
In writing, point of View matters. So we asked a large handful of authors these questions:
Q: As you see it. What are the strengths and weaknesses, for character, worldbuilding and setting in using 1st or 3rd person (or even 2nd?) Omniscient or limited? And how about the time frame of the tense, past or present or even future?
What kinds of Point of view do you prefer to write in? What types of POV do you like to read?
As a reader, I’m up for anything. Just put me into someone else’s head, or at the very least transport me to their world, and I’m happy. And if something off-beat like second person is done well, as it is in John Scalzi’s Redshirts, briefly, I’ll even cheer. I also love epistolary POV tales–my favorite is Jack Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violence, with its hard edges and amazing degeneration of its protagonist’s voice.
I write in past and present tense, mostly in first and a close third omniscient point of view. I’m daunted by omniscient; I don’t mind admitting it. I have the idea that I ‘should’ learn to master this one day and perhaps I will, but I haven’t had a project that’s right for it yet and I haven’t had the space or inclination to say “What kind of project would rock in full-bore, hard-core, omniscient POV?”
My current project is a cascade of third person POV tales, set on a world called Stormwrack. I get to head-hop a lot: I hope, soon, to write something through the eyes of one of this universe’s most challenging, slippery characters. I’m daunted by that, too, but looking forward to the challenge.
Incredible stories, (i.e. those not easily believed, (i.e. most of speculative fiction)) should always be told in the first person. Always. Nothing convinces the reader quite as much as a personal account. In addition, giving your story a vernacular feel will increase confidence in your reader that your story is true. In real life when people relay experience they use the present tense. The writer interested in portraying reality does well to follow suit.
Compare and contrast the following examples.
“So I’m out on Route 26, heading for Monkeemania. This is, you know, last year, when Davy’s still around. And it’s so funfackingtastic because they’re all going to be there for the first time in what, fifteen, no sixteen, years? I mean, right? Anyways, I’m driving along and out the effing blue jumps this unbelievable six-foot, glaucous-sided moxy-eater. I’m serious! One of those slimy bastards from the Defunct Sybilant Galaxy, bifurcated knuckle wattles and shit. I slam on the brakes and the thing totally slimes into the cab and scarfs my left leg. I land ass over hubcaps in the ditch where I torch the fucker and crawl to the nearest ragpicker’s to call 911.”
Sounds real, doesn’t it? You don’t even question the veracity. Read back over it slowly. Did you catch that slip about the four Monkees? Everyone knows Mike never shows up at those reunion concerts, but you were totally fooled. You were right there in the moment with this lying, three-legged chucklehead.
Compare that to a more distant third person account of the same incident in past tense.
“Matt Strouthers was tooling along on Route 26 under the mistaken impression that in roughly twenty minutes to half an hour he’d be standing in MetLife, née Giants, Stadium along with 50,000 other screaming fans of Mike, Davy, Mickey, and Peter in the latest, most fabulous Monkeemania of all. It was October, 2011. The fall colors blazed in the rear-view mirror, the sun up front descended to the horizon.
Without warning his car met with an abrupt and resounding thud, skidded to the shoulder, and upended in the ditch. When Matt came to he saw splayed across the windshield the characteristic blue and green webbing of a glaucus-sided moxy-eater, enraged wattles distended and vibrating madly.
Shocked and certainly in awe, Matt’s brain found no purchase. He remained dumbfounded while the moxy-eater moved as quickly as its cytoplasm allowed. It reached a voluminous pseudopodium around the frame of the vehicle and through the window where it flailed in the air until it reached Matt’s shoulder. From there it slithered down his torso and engulfed his left leg, digesting it instantaneously.
The ensuing extreme pain woke Matt from his stupefaction. He screamed and scrabbled as best he could into the back seat and out the window. He landed on the ground and with a science fictional presence of mind, extracted the zippo from his remaining pocket, clicked it on, and tossed it to the inevitable puddle of gas while rolling to a safe, clear distance from which he watched as the truck, moxyeater, and tickets to Monkeemania he’d stupidly left on the dash, went up in flames.”
What a difference, eh? Added detail, while interesting and fun in a rather puerile way, add nothing to the believability of the story. They actually exacerbate the situation, tipping us off to the fact that the author is setting us up. The editorializing about the forgotten tickets serves as a good example. It’s clearly the proverbial precipitating event, awkwardly portrayed and highlighted to excess. We know those lost tickets are going to lead to Matt having to resolve some unfinished business from his misspent youth. The story writes itself from here. It’s a cheap gimmick intended to satisfy some atavistic writerly requirement our dogged author slavishly feels compelled to meet.
And what’s with the waxing poetic over the sunset. This is a Monkees fan: if it isn’t memorabilia, it won’t register on his retinas. Besides the sun is in the dashboard and he’s on his way to Giants Stadium. Where is he coming from, New York? There are no Monkees fans in New York. The whole thing is just wrong.
What’s worse is that we realize it from the very first line. Here we have a double entendre that wouldn’t be more obvious if it had a neon hand sign pointing to it with the words “literary device” attached and blinking strobically. “Mistaken impression?” There aren’t four Monkees, everyone gets that immediately. Beyond that, though, astute readers recognize the fact that Matt is not going to make it to the concert at all. Nothing says “action packed opening scene ahead, folks” more than the line about a mistaken impression. It fairly screams the fact that what follows is concocted from someone’s overactive imagination.
Writers, if you want the reader to believe your story, use the first person, present tense. Always.
Next up on Tips from the Accidental Galloping Story Doctor: Correct Usage of Distant Past Tense: How to use senility and acid flashback to add a more meaningful meaning to your prose.
A character who is very sharp, self-aware and, well, highly verbal, is probably going to create a first person POV, because their impressions and observations form much of the story. That’s why so many detective stories (in both mystery and SF/F) work well in first person voice– you’re following along with their deductions. Likewise, if you’re writing Noir, the internal voice is your strongest tool, and first person emphasizes that. The personality of the character fills the voice. For that reason, it’s both a lot of fun to use, and very difficult, unless you have a good grasp on your narrative character’s personality.
First person also gives you the opportunity to play with the unreliable narrator. You can lie to the reader, and be totally believable.
At the same time, first person limits what you can tell the reader, outside of what your narrator knows or observes. And that is the exact strength of the third person narrative.
Writing in the third person voice allows the writer to use multiple points of view to tell the story, creating a larger canvas. An epic fantasy or sprawling space opera covers more territory, where a first person voice would be constricting. This also gives you the option of a “tight” (limited) or “loose” (omniscient) third, adjusting how much information the reader (and characters) receive. When you factor in worldbuilding, where information has to be imparted to the reader but the characters would already know, third person makes it easier to slide that information into the story.
The loss, of course, is that sense of immediacy and personality. The writer has to use dialogue and description to convey a character’s emotional ‘feel.’
The second person narrative….well, it does a very specific thing very well (drawing the reader directly into the action), and that can create an effective story in trained hands – but it’s also the easiest to screw up, terminally.
As for the tense question… present tense leads to an immediacy and urgency in the story, a sense that the narrator, like the reader, has no idea what is going to happen. That works particularly well with the first person voice, where everything is tight-focused. An omniscient third person in the present tense would be a lot of work for not as much benefit, structurally. Past tense tends to be the storytelling default, mainly because it feels comfortable, the very ‘ordinariness” of it allowing the reader to concentrate on the action, rather than the tense. And, in contrast, future tense is so out of the ordinary, it stands up and calls attention to itself, away from the story itself. It’s good for ‘stunt’ writing, and short fiction where the writer is intentionally drawing the reader’s attention to the tense, but like second person narrative, it can fail more easily, and more spectacularly, than any other.
Of course, in the end, every writer works with the tools that best fit her hand.
Natania holds a BA in English/Writing from Loyola University Maryland and an MA in English with a concentration in medieval literature from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In her spare time she cooks, bakes, drinks coffee, crochets, plays music, and enjoys nature. She lives in North Carolina with her family. She can be found online at @NataniaBarron on Twitter and at NataniaBarron.com.
Finding the right point of view is a lot like auditioning for a character in a play or a movie. Regardless of your choice, you’re basically telling the same story at the larger level, but it’s the nuances that make a difference. Like casting the right actor, it can make or break the final product.
First person is often cited for being easier, if not the easiest. And when it comes to getting in the head of your main character, I think that’s by and large true. There’s intimacy there that’s just about impossible in any other approach. But what I find most frustrating about writing in the first person is that drawing other characters is more of a challenge, since you’re constantly forced to see them through the eyes of your narrator (unless your first person narrator can, in fact, get into the head of your other characters by some magic!). Everything becomes filtered. So, as a writer, you may know that one of your characters has a huge flaw, but your narrator doesn’t. They have to find that out. As a result, writing can suffer or it can soar. In my experience, first person is better for smaller scope. It starts to wear thin when there are dozens of characters and complex plots. The limitations weaken the structure of the whole. But it’s probably one of the strongest tense for getting a reader engaged. It reflects basic human conversation, one person telling another their own story.
Second person! In my reading, this has only worked a handful of times. Usually in long form it’s tougher than in short stories, and I think the biggest challenge is the technical skill it requires. It’s so, so easy to do it wrong when your narrator is center stage like that. Readers can get lost very, very quickly. What always comes to mind for me is Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney. I read that when I was far too young, and it gave me a very intimate view of drug addiction and the perils of living fast because of the second person perspective. The perspective rips you out of your current existence and plops you into someone else’s body, inhabiting their very lives (see what I did there?). Like a weird set of Google Glasses. In a way, I’d say that second person storytelling has found its niche in video games in the last decade, with titles like Mass Effect and Fallout plopping the player right into the midst of the story. Granted, there’s more agency than in literature, since the story lines are often flexible enough that the player gives flavor to the character and can alter the story depending on their choices. So, I guess it’s a little Choose Your Own Adventure, too. But I’ve never written in second person, and I don’t generally recommend it!
And then there’s third person, the old stand-by. Usually, this is where the “omniscient” and “limited” terms get thrown in, because they are flavors to the point of view, and very important to the writer’s goals. I tend to relate more to third person limited, especially if told closely. Though if you consider the George R. R. Martin approach, which skips around from character to character, as technically omniscient, then I can get on board with that. In this way it’s very episodic, much like a television series or a film. You get the whole 360, or at least it feels that way. Villains aren’t shrouded in mystery, heroes aren’t without flaws. Probably as an avid media absorber, it just makes sense to me. Other omniscient narratives always get a little under my skin — not to mention they feel hard to follow from a reader’s perspective when done sloppily. And head-hopping can be tedious. In addition, omniscient narratives (Martin included) always give a sense, to me anyway, that the writer is very present. I often feel as if they’re pulling the strings a little too tightly, trying to work all the angles and leaving very little for the reader to figure out. It can be successful, but sometimes it feels a little forced. Limited approaches mean that one particular character is central, and that is often quite helpful for readers — plus, it gives them some work to do by puzzling out the clues!
Worldbuilding is a totally separate issue. It’s got to be done, in any case, but the point of view presents challenges or benefits, depending. Third person? Fantastic for worldbuilding. You have full license to step back and admire the scenery. First person? You have to “be the writer” more often and explain things. To do that you have to find scenes that allow the space for it, and that can be difficult. Your character has to feel something for the world to make comment on it, and depending on your narrator, that’s easier said than done. I suppose with second person you’re allowed to get as detailed as you’d like. It’s full immersion!
Setting is, of course, connected to worldbuilding. If your setting is truly alien, unusual, and strange, a first person narrative might be useful but only if the narrator feels the same. Things your character may take for granted may be exciting for the reader, and therefore the difficulty is in conveying that through their eyes. Third person is typically safest for the truly curious, and China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station comes to mind of an example where it works very well. That said, if the setting is pretty standard (a typical medieval setting, an urban fantasy backdrop, a space station) the details aren’t so important, perhaps, and your choice is a little more open-ended.
Again, when it comes to tense it’s the choice of the writer, and every choice impacts the final product. Nothing I’m pointing out here is terribly groundbreaking. Various tenses effect the work differently. Present tense gives the reader a sense of being in the action; past gives a story-telling feeling; a retrospective (someone telling the story from the present time with knowledge of what happened every step along the way) generally feels safer, giving the reader a sense that eventually, things turn out okay. Or, in a dystopia, everything sucks now, just maybe a little less — or maybe a little more, and here’s why.
Personally, when I’m writing in first person I like to tell the story in the past tense, but with a main character who’s been through it. The main storyline tends to carry the center plot, but the narrator can, at will, backfill. In third person, you typically have to set up exposition a little more deftly, whether it’s through character interaction or the interference from the narrator.
I typically know before I start a novel what point of view I’m going to use, and it all goes back to character (which is where everything I write starts). If the story is truly one character’s story, I tend to lean more toward first person. I want to hear it in their words, and I adore wily unreliable narrators. But sometimes, that main character in the book wouldn’t write it down, wouldn’t necessarily “tell” the story like a first person perspective implies. In my novel Pilgrim of the Sky, I opted for third person limited, so that the reader could experience the strange things happening along with the heroine. Whenever I’ve written more traditional fantasy on the epic scale, I almost always opt for the George R. R. Martin approach. I find villains as endearing as protagonists, and just love an ensemble cast. But I think, within each “voice” of the story, there is a certain limitedness (i.e. the characters themselves aren’t aware of what’s going on apart from them) that I find more believable. It’s also no end of fun to write!
When Sherwood and I got together years ago to write Exordium—the rewrite of which I’m now struggling with—we started out in omniscient subjective third person: an all-knowing narrator who can go into any character’s head at any time. Not surprising, since Sherwood’s enthusiasm for 19th Century English novelists, who used this POV to such effect, had recently re-introduced me to them long after I bounced off Dickens and others in high school. Omniscient third, when done well, is an awesomely supple tool with which one can weave the most intricate tapestries of emotion and motivation. Done poorly, it induces the literary equivalent of seasickness.
We soon learned that the publishing zeitgeist had decreed that omniscient subjective third wouldn’t sell. Limited or tight subjective third person was the way to do it. Only one head per scene. It certainly imposed a different rhythm on the story, since the pieces we were dealing with were bigger. More importantly, as I’m now discovering in my struggle with the third book, it makes it harder to portray the intricate social and political maneuvering of Exordium. It’s like I imagine create lace with #13 knitting needles would be.
But I think limited third, in standard past-tense narration, turned out to be ideal for portraying the political and technological limits imposed by relativity on an interstellar polity, which are fundamental to the story.
In Exordium, an empire—the Panarchy—with FTL travel but but no FTL analogue of radio faces a vengeful enemy always “inside the information loop” because they now have FTL communications. One thing limited third past tense does really well is show the same action from multiple perspectives. Each scene, each frame of reference, happens in the past, and you can stack them as you will, within reason. Just as, in Exordium, a ship can attack a foe simultaneously from two or more vectors (a result of the interplay of FTL ship movements with light-speed weapons), a writer can attack critical events or even scenes from multiple perspectives.
We found we could more easily imply simultaneity—a real-time perception by the enemy but an after-the-fact one for the Panarchy—without having to be too specific, which meant we didn’t have to plot time as carefully as we might have otherwise. That was a Good Thing. As it was, it took me about four weeks to plot one space battle, trying to boil four dimensions down to multiple 2-D paper diagrams, and I still found some mistakes when it came time to rewrite that battle last year (no fan ever spotted them, not even the two who turned Exordium into a workable tactical board game). The same level of effort for every chapter of all five books would probably have left me in a corner playing with my lips.
I’ve also done some work, yet unpublished, in multiple first-person past tense. For me, that seems to require even bigger chunks than subjective third, and I tend to fall into a more conversational mode. Although you might think it intrinsically more intimate, first-person actually gives one more control over what John Gardner calls “psychic distance,” because the reader is generally more willing to accept the narrator’s choices of what to reveal, when to reveal it, and even whether or not to tell the truth. Hiding and delaying may be OK in subjective third, but lying will be perceived as a betrayal.
Speaking of intimacy, I‘ve always found a second-person POV odd, but Charles Stross showed me how intimate it can be in Rule 34, where I barely noticed it after the first few chapters established three different second-person narrations. It also looked to be excellent for world-building, which can be a weakness of subjective-third, which all too easily falls into “as you know, Bob.” For myself, I found world-building really easy in first-person, although too big an infodump can make the narrator seem garrulous, as well as slowing things down.
As for present tense, I still prefer it in small doses, as used by Dan Simmons in Ilium and Olympos. Used for the framework of an entire book, it all too often feels to me like a bad adaptation of a movie into a novel. Its cinematic immediacy just doesn’t sit right. I will admit that The Time Traveler’s Wife worked for me as far as Niffenegger’s use of present tense; what failed for me was the worldbuilding.
Point of view’s a trickster. Point of view’s like sleep learning: it whispers to you when you’re not even conscious of it. Without point of view there’s no satire, no irony, no sarcasm, no wit, no humour, no judgement. There’s a big difference between, “Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”, even though they’re both third person omniscient (the difference, of course, is narrative voice [which you also can't have without POV]).
Before I go any further, can I just deal with that third person omniscient for a second, before putting it aside? Because that’s what we’ve done, as a general rule, as writers in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. 3rd omni doesn’t sit well with us or our readers – not nearly as well as it did in the time of Austen, and not even as well as it did in the time of Heinlein – and even Heinlein was, as I think we’ll agree, using it consciously as a tool for its effect in a way Austen was not. So, in the interest of brevity (like that’s going to happen) I’m not going to talk about 3rd omni.
So that leaves us with first person, and third. Limited or omniscient?
I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like first person. Both to read and to write. The immediacy, the grittiness, the focus – all work to make the narrative alive and personal for the reader. Talk about making it easy to relate to the character – why it’s as if the action is all happening to me! As if I’m the one seeing it, doing it, feeling it. Wow. Can you imagine the impact? I won’t go into how the use of this POV grew out of the Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but think about the impact Shelley’s Frankenstein must have had. Not only 1st person, but which person? Think of some of Lovecraft’s or Poe’s stories, do you believe that they would have the impact they still have if they weren’t written in first person?
And don’t forget, a first person narrative immediately carries with it that most important feeling of verisimilitude – every word subliminally tells us that it must really have happened, after all, the guy it happened to is telling us the story.
So why aren’t all books written in first person, all the time? Well, for one, it’s limited. You can’t have a 1st omni – well you can, on the planet All Things are Possible you can have whatever you like – but readers aren’t going to find that subtly reassuring as they do 3rd omni, they’re going to find it insufferable. Imagine the Holmes stories being narrated by Sherlock (not just one story as an experiment, I mean all of them [if nothing else they'd be over pretty fast]). Imagine The Big Bang Theory as told entirely from the POV of Sheldon. Hilarious for an episode or two, cancellable as a permanent format.
And please note, that the Holmes stories are told in first person, but not by Sherlock. It’s Watson’s narrative voice that makes Holmes’ all-but-omniscience palatable to the modern reader. Oh, and by the way, doesn’t give away the story.
There’s a reason first person limited is most often used in crime fiction (or what we might call “discovery fiction”), now you know why. You get the immediacy, but without any giveaways, the reader only sees what the narrator sees, knows what the narrator knows. As a device, it’s perfect for unfolding the events of a discovery narrative.
So how do all these limitations work in F&SF? How do we manage to convey, for example, not our own world, or even the world of the late 19th century, but a world that doesn’t exist outside of the narrative? After all, just as you can’t have one character explain something to another character that both of them know perfectly well (“As you know, Bob, in our culture, marriage between persons of the opposite sex is forbidden, so even though we live together, we’re not actually married”), so too a character can’t explain it to herself. But by its own established conventions, 1st limited describes, in detail, what the narrator sees, feels, thinks – and anybody who knows Huckleberry Finn knows how 1st limited can be used to convey not only what the narrator sees, thinks, feels, but even what the narrator isn’t aware he’s seeing.
It’s subtle, it’s tricky. It’s easiest to do if your 1st limited character is a human stranger in a strange land. It takes a steady hand and a sharp eye to use an alien POV as your 1st limited, but when it works – to quote George Takei, “oh my.”
So I like 1st person as a reader and as a writer, but like most people nowadays what I use most often is 3rd limited – one narrator, and one narrative voice. I remember reading once that if you’re going to use third person limited as your POV, you might as well use first person and be done with it. It gives you all the limitations (the character can’t know what other people are thinking or doing; can’t know what’s happening elsewhere), without the advantages of immediacy, without all the subliminal connectivity.
So why do so many people use 3rd limited? Well, they don’t. Often what happens is there’s a little 3rd omni thrown in, usually at the beginning of new chapters or scenes, where you start off with a little intro and then zero in to the mind of the POV character. You’ll see the rest of that bit through that person’s eyes. But what happens more and more nowadays is that we don’t have just one POV character. We have a whole slew of 3rd limiteds, and we switch from person to person as we need to know things like, say, what the characters look like, what others are thinking, what’s going on in Rohan while Frodo’s in Mordor – that kind of thing. So, unlike with 3rd omni, we can learn things for ourselves, especially things like character, and unlike 1st, we can learn things even the main character doesn’t know – a great way to introduce some dramatic irony into the narrative. We can get whole new perspectives on the problems of the story.
And while story is king, perspective is everything.
Like many writers, I was an avid reader first, and I still am. Generally I don’t have a preference for any particular point of view when I’m reading – I usually only start to notice it if the writer has slipped up and shown me something the POV character couldn’t know, for example, or over-used “I” in first person.
But I do have one pet hate: omniscient. Beloved of the classics, I find omni POV spoils my immersion in and empathy with the characters. Each POV shift is like being yanked out of my armchair just when I’ve got comfy. Very occasionally an author can do it so naturally and transparently that I’ll happily play musical POV chairs for the duration of the book, but usually I cry foul and don’t read on. The story has to be damned compelling to overcome that.
But as a writer I’ve always favoured tight third person, past tense, with multiple viewpoint characters. I’ve never really given much thought to why; I just gravitated to it instinctively and stayed there because it felt comfortable for me and was the right fit for the kind of stories I was telling.
In tight third, I am close enough to get under a character’s skin, and multiple viewpoint characters enable the reader to see them as others do, creating fully rounded individuals. It also gives me the freedom to roam the world a bit more, as the protagonist doesn’t have to be there in every scene, and stuff can happen with him/her off-stage that builds tension, and by extension, reader empathy.
Some would argue that first person is the perfect POV in which to develop character because it is so intimate and allows for such forensic examination of motive and emotion. However, I find it restrictive: whilst the first-person lens focuses so well on the protagonist, like a magnifying glass it distorts and obscures the wider view. Other characters risk becoming two-dimensional, and you have only the protagonist’s perception of him/herself, unless you can pull off a mixture of first and third or otherwise convey the truth beneath the character’s self-delusions without ruining the reader’s immersion in them. In which case you’re probably a better writer than I’ll ever be.
As for world-building, well, until a few years ago I wasn’t even aware that world-building was a “thing” that we writers are supposed to “do” (spot the newbie). I kind of did it as I went, and my style in that regard hasn’t changed much. I have a basic framework in my head, but then the world evolves organically around the characters and from their interactions and reactions to it. I can cover a lot of world with multiple viewpoints, and provide a spectrum of responses to it, but possibly at the expense of a little of the immersive quality that can be achieved with a single, consistent POV.
I’ve only dabbled with first person narrative; I must be honest and say I’ve never felt completely at home with it. A friend who’s into astrology tells me that’s because I’m a Scorpio: we have deep secrets and tend to keep other people at arm’s length until we have resolved our trust issues, so she reckons if I write in first person it’s laying bare a little too much of my soul, and that’s why I shy away from it. Maybe she’s right!
Whatever POV mechanic is chosen, it should be connected to the characters that matter most to the story or have the highest emotional stakes in events. You want readers to see through the eyes and into the minds and hearts of the people who move the plot forward as much as possible.
I tend to switch between 3rd and 1st person perspective. To me, 1st person POV is the more difficult of the two and can lead to more pitfalls if not carefully employed.
With 3rd person POV, I enjoy the freedom to potentially jump around into numerous minds, seeing the story from a variety of angles and experiment with different character voices. It can add a lot of “flavor” to the story, either having characters converge from opposite ends of the same event(s) or following characters who are continents, worlds, or realities apart for much of the time. You can even get to expose the reader to the villain/antagonist’s perspective and flesh them out.
A big challenge with numerous 3rd person POVs is keeping the story in focus. How are all these disparate POVs going to come together by the end? Are they even connected to the same overall plot? If a POV character doesn’t end up affecting the others, even in some small-but-significant way, then what are they doing in the story in the first place?
With 1st person POV, you can get incredibly deep into their singular thoughts and emotions. But one of the biggest drawbacks of 1st is actually getting so caught up in their internal landscape that it slows the plot too much. A character just sitting around and musing for pages on end can make for a boring scene—which leads into another challenge with 1st person POV. If you’re locked into a single POV, that means everything that character encounters must be A. vital to the story and B. full of conflict and tension.
The biggest challenge I find in 1st person POV is “earning it.” The character must have a strong enough voice and must be fascinating enough to carry the whole story by themselves, in a fashion. If I write a story with a lackluster 1st person POV narrator, then I run a big risk of losing reader interest, even if the story itself is intriguing.
Honestly, I don’t feel I’m in a position to talk objectively about the merits of different point-of-view choices, since I haven’t tried most of them. My own experience has been that I choose PoV based on a mixture of instinct and personal preference, and any analysis of effectiveness comes after the fact.
For example, I’m not a big fan of present tense narration, either as a reader or writer, so whilst I’ve experimented with it to achieve a particular effect (e.g. to mimic the immediacy of a dream), it’s not something I’ve explored at book length. It suits some genres and some authors’ voices better than others, but for me it has too modern a feel for the fairly traditional kind of narrative I write.
As for the choice between 1st and 3rd, I’m happy to read either, but I prefer to write the latter. This may be because, whilst I mostly write male PoV characters out of preference, I perhaps have trouble making that final step of identification with them that would make 1st person feel natural to me. Also, all my novels so far have been multiple PoV, which lends itself well to 3rd person. Sure, there are novels in multiple 1st person or even a mix of 1st and 3rd, but it’s not often done – if it really fitted a given project rather than being a gimmick, I might give it a try, but that hasn’t cropped up so far.
So, what’s the attraction of 3rd person, apart from smooth handling of multiple PoV? For one thing, it allows me to play with “depth of penetration”. I can start a scene with what cinematographers call an establishing shot – a wide-angle view of the setting, to let the reader know where they are – and then zoom in to the PoV character for a more conventional 3rd-person limited view of the ensuing action. In 1st-person narrative you’re completely limited to what the PoV character knows and can perceive, which can be great for characterisation but is a little limiting on the exposition side; a variable 3rd-person narrative allows you to reveal facts of which the PoV is ignorant but which you need the reader to know. Of course you have to be careful not to zoom around too much, or the reader will get dizzy!
In effect, it gives me the many of the benefits of omniscient PoV whilst retaining the immediacy of 3rd person limited. The danger is that the narrator’s voice is an easy one for me to fall into and it can start to take over, and then you get too much distance from the characters. I try to counteract this by using sensory details and interior monologue to anchor the bulk of the scene in the character’s PoV, but I’m still experimenting with getting the balance right.
As for the more unusual choices – second person, future tense and so on – I reckon they’re rare for a reason. They’re hard to do well and their unfamiliarity makes them wearing at extended length, so they’re best suited to short stories and more experimental works. Me, I’m happy to stick to the tried and true PoVs that let the story dominate, rather than literary technique.
Note: Due to the large number of responses received, this Mind Meld is split into two parts. This is Part I – Part 2 will appear later today.
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