Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Getting Perspective

Point of view, or the perspective(s) writers use to tell a story, comes in three main categories:

1. First person (the story is told from the perspective of I or We):

I grabbed Marcia's arm. "What was that about my wallpaper?"

2. Second person (the story is told from the perspective of You), generally in present tense:

You grab Marcia's arm and demand she repeat the crack she made about your wallpaper.

3. Third person (the story is told from the perspective of He, She, It or Them):

John grabbed Marcia's arm. "What's wrong with my wallpaper?"

Some authors use first or third POV only no matter what they write; others switch between first and third. Very few writers trifle with second person, the least-used and most difficult POV category, for various/obvious reasons. First, it's freaking hard to write in the past or present you form with sounding like a motivational seminar speaker's index cards: "After you make $5000.00 in your first week selling our Herbiagra Manhood Enhancement Product, you can start planning your retirement!"

I'm a switch-hitter when it comes to POV; I like first and third and will write whatever feels right for the story (and often I will change POV to suit the length of the story; the original short stories for the Darkyn novels were mainly written in first person, but all of the novel-length versions are in third.) I don't mess with second person in fiction, but I do employ it sometimes here on the blog.

For me second person seems far more intimate than first person, which is another reason I handle it like nitro. It's one thing to invite the reader into my fictional character's head with a first person perspective, and quite another to attempt to get into the reader's very real head by using second. You'd better know what you're talking about before you make that leap. While second person is just as effective when I'm serious as it is when I'm not, the form demands a certain degree of confidence and knowledge. Otherwise I'm not going to get into the reader's head, I'm going to be jumping over it, stomping on it, or kicking them in it.

When you consider which POV to use for your fiction, first look at the demands of the genre that best fits your story. Traditional romances are almost always told in third person; P.I. crime fiction stories are usually presented in first. SF/F waffles depending on what the current trends are (all the urban fantasy I've read lately has been written in first person, while all the traditional fantasy is still in third.) This is not to say you have to write only in those POVs, just be aware that the more popular a POV is in any given genre, the harder it's going to be to sell an editor a story with a different perspective.

Also, don't fall for what the POV snobs say about the different forms. I keep reading this one about how beginning writers mostly use first person because it's easier. Please. I didn't write a novel in first person until I'd first written 28 in third person (and wouldn't you know it, the first book I wrote in first person is the first one I sold.) While I love using first person for short stories, I still think a novel-length story is way easier to write in third.

If you're not sure which POV to use for your story, try writing a scene from first person, and then write it again in third. One of them will feel or sound more right than the other. But if for some reason they don't, have someone else read both scenes and ask them which is more engaging.

Finally, don't be afraid to experiment. You may not have much practice writing in more than one of the POV categories, but trying out different forms increases your range, and may provide you with a better connection to your reader. And if you don't want that, you definitely need to work on your POV.

Related Links:

Men with Pens' article Fiction Writing -- What's Your Point of View?

Two Heads Aren't Always Better than One by Robert J. Sawyer

Over at The M Factor, Mary Morel has a good article on how POV affects communication, and also provides a link to a Customer Focus Calculator that can read your website or blog and give you percentages on how customer-focused/self-focused your text is.


  1. Also the ever-popular omniscient can be useful. *g* Third is way easier than first for a novel. Gives many more options. But sometimes first just works and you have to go with the limitations.

    I think it'd be fun to do something short and experimental in 2nd but a whole book of it would be hard to take as a writer, let alone reader.

  2. Anonymous8:13 AM

    I once encountered a novel written in second person. After the first chapter I had enough and -hmm- abandonned it in the subway.

  3. That's odd. I'd read somewhere that first person is actually very difficult to handle and not recommended for new writers because you're very limited by the restriction to that single person's perceptions, and it has to be a very engaging person and set of perceptions indeed to hold the reader's attention.

    And then after I read that, I was continually running into a whole slew of books and stories (including many of your short stories) written in first person which seemed to belie that advice.

    Most recently were the first five books in the StarDoc series, although I have to say I found Cherijo extremely irritating and I completely concur with Jarn's thought ("that stupid female") about her but Duncan Reever more than makes up for it. He is a wonderful character and one of the most moving I've come across. My absolutely two or three favourite lines in the six books I've read so far are about him.

    Sorry, I'll stop waffling. I got a bit carried away.

  4. When I read how-to books, I always skip the section on POV because all the books simply tell you what the different POV categories are. None of them tell you the practicalities and pitfalls. I hadn't considered that you not only have to look at your story, but you have to look at your genre and what's expected in it. So, thank you for this.

  5. I have a tendency to 'jump' through several POV's during my writing of a single paragraph. Problem is, most of the time I remain oblivious to my mistakes. When I try and edit, I get lost in the story again.
    Any suggestions for someone who has written for more than 20 years, because I love it, but is completely pathetic when it comes to grammar and rules? (Like a backyard mechanic... they can fix it, but not by following the rules)

  6. I think that second person has immense potential for hitting the reader in the emotions. Has anyone read a second-person piece that did that?

  7. Great post. Count me in the switch-hitting category. My current manuscript is in third person, but my next story idea is planned to be in first person. To me, the determining factor is whether or not I can achieve the story tension I want from only one person's perspective. If I can't, I have to write it in third person.

  8. Anonymous1:30 PM

    I'm curious: has an agent/editor ever asked you to revise a piece to flip POV from 1st to 3rd or vice-versa?

  9. Like you, I'm a switch hitter. It all depends on the story, and the character. The only full novels I've ever done in First person were BOUND, and the most recent release MY PREROGATIVE. (And MP had heroine in first, and hero in third)

    Sometime you just have to forget about what you want to do, and do what feels best.

  10. I've written some short stories in first, but my favourite POV is omniscient. Sure, there are days when I ask myself why I'm doing this to me, but in the end omni is the POV I feel works best for me, followed by multiple third.

    Though I know some readers hate it so much they won't buy a book in omni. *shrugs* Their loss. ;)

  11. Anonymous11:54 PM

    I think the second person POV works especially well for those choose-your-own-adventure books from back in the day. I loved those things!

    Other than that, if done well, I like first person but third is my favorite reading choice.

  12. ZeroFlowne wrote: I think that second person has immense potential for hitting the reader in the emotions. Has anyone read a second-person piece that did that?

    Thomas Harris got me in the emotions (not in a positive way) with some of the second-person expository in Hannibal.

  13. Shawn wrote: I'm curious: has an agent/editor ever asked you to revise a piece to flip POV from 1st to 3rd or vice-versa?

    Nope. I don't write by committee, so those are decisions I make alone before I even pitch the work. So far no one's had a problem with my POV decisions, so it's worked out nicely for me. :)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.