Points of View

Most people who read or write much probably already know this, but it’s worth delineating.

First person is from the point of view of “I”. Sample sentence: I left the room, glancing back at the tattered mess I’d left behind me.

When should a writer use first person? Well, the advantage of it is a sense of immediacy, of intimate contact with the character, of traveling just behind the character’s eyes. It can enhance characterization, especially when the writer really wants to focus on the one person’s viewpoint. And it can be very entertaining to play tricks with it, and have a non-viewpoint character be just as important. A good example of that is PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels, wherein the first person viewpoint character is something of a featherhead, and the reader spends most of the time knowing more about what’s going on than the character himself does.

There are disadvantages to first person as well. For one, you lose a little bit of suspense in some respects: you know (unless you’re prepared to be very tricky indeed) that the character lives through all this. That just means the writer has to put the suspense somewhere else. For another disadvantage, it is more difficult when the work is in first person to break away from that person’s viewpoint and show what’s happening in another character’s life when the main char isn’t around. This can bog down a story sometimes. And, of course, it makes initial description difficult, as it’s hard to find a natural way to make the narrator stop and tell you what he looks like. There’s always the old mirror trick, of course, but it’s a cliche.

Second person is from the point of view of “you”. Sample sentence: You gaze out the window, wondering how your old friend is doing today and whether she ever thinks about you.

It’s rarely used in fiction, almost never for novels. It’s even more restrictive than first person. Many, I would feel justified in saying most, readers don’t like the feeling of being told what they’re seeing and doing. For me, it smacks of role playing games, where the GM might tell you what you see around you, and of internet chat, which has its own bizarre grammar. But it doesn’t ring true for fiction. There are some stories that use it, mostly short stories, but I can’t think of one off the top of my head.

Third person is from the point of view of “he” or “she”. Sample sentence: She swung her sword, almost taking off the top of the instructor’s head, and then fell back, aghast, at the stream of curses out of his mouth.

This is by far the most common viewpoint for fiction. One advantage is that it’s versatile. It allows for the writer to jump from one viewpoint to another, thereby weaving separate strands of story from characters far away from one another (I think George RR Martin is the worst offender–joke) or for one strong viewpoint to stand out throughout the story. Another advantage is that the writer is able to manage all his characters, godlike, without being constrained to keep any of them alive or able to tell the story. And it meets the reader’s expectations.

It’s certainly possible to break a reader’s expectations without ruining the story. A second person viewpoint can do that, if you’re skilled. But don’t ever forget that the writer and the story are only one half of the equation. The reader is doing just as much imaginative work as the writer, and fulfilling the other half. Without one another, there is no story. So meeting their expectations, at least in the structure and basic tools of the work, can make it easier. That doesn’t mean the writer has to be formulaic, or repeat herself. And it doesn’t mean the reader has to put up with overly artsy, tricksy, oh-look-how-skilled-I-am pretentiousness, either. There’s a very broad, fertile middle ground. That’s where most fiction is sown.

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