Point of View is About the Reader
Or what does the reader need to know and when do they need to know it to keep them reading
Deciding who is telling your story and the point of view of that character are critical decision points for your story. As the writer, you determine how close the reader needs to be to the main characters. Do we need to be inside a character’s head? Or, would the reader be better positioned outside the head of the characters?
There are advantages to both first person and third person points of view.
First person point of view draws the reader into an intimate relationship with one character. If you have one character that is central to the story, and without that character, there would be no story, choosing the first person point of view might make sense. Writing in first person means, your protagonist, the main character in your novel, drives the story. And, that character should go through significant growth and change during the story.
First person keeps the reader in suspense because we only know what the main character knows. And, what the character tells us reveals what we need to know about them and the other characters in the story.
Let’s look at an example from The Hunger Games:
“Hey, Catnip,” says Gale. My real name is Katniss, but when I first told him, I had barely whispered it. So he thought I’d said Catnip. Then when this crazy lynx started following me around the woods looking for handouts, it became his official name for me. I finally had to kill the lynx because he scared off the game. I almost regretted it because he wasn’t bad company. But I got a decent price for the pelt.”
This bit of internal dialogue comes on page 7. This exchange, from Katniss’ point of view about her relationship with Gale, is both telling and necessary for the development of the story. The tension between Gale and Katniss is revealed later, but for now, Katniss and the reader are unaware of his feelings, because she is still in denial of hers.
The Hunger Games is Katniss’ story to tell. Collins could have chosen to tell the story in third person, but that perspective may have shifted the reader’s loyalty away from Katniss to other characters and Collins wanted her reader to root for Katniss. Telling her story in first person makes sense.
The same is true of The Martian. The story is Watley’s to tell. And much of what he tells comes from the log he is keeping. While the story could have been told from third person the reader, might have lost some of the intimacy that a first person point of view provides.
Avoiding the Traps of First Person Point of View
If we aren’t careful, writing in first person can lead us into two traps. Let’s discuss both so that you can avoid these pitfalls in your novel.
1. The Seagull effect– We’ve all known seagulls, the person who talks about themselves incessantly, mimicking the “ey, ey, ey” cry of a seagull. Their talk is littered with Is — I went, I did, I ate, I said, I know. If the writer isn’t careful, writing in first person can take on the seagull persona. Rather than developing an intimacy with the reader, the Is begin to irritate us, causing us to stop reading.
To avoid this trap in The Martin, Weir begins a paragraph with “I guess I should explain how Mars missions work.” He then switches to “we” and proceeds to explain the ins and outs of mission development before switching briefly to second person, “You’d be amazed at how fast you can get going with a tiny acceleration over a long time.” Occasionally adding a “we” and “you” into the narrative breaks up the “ey ey ey” seagull effect. It keeps the narration conversational. Watley is talking directly to us, the reader, because for a major portion of the book, the imaginary reader of his log is all the company he has.
2. Hogging the Spotlight effect– We’ve all known people who hog the spotlight even though the emphasis should be on the ensemble. When you are writing a novel that focuses on more than one character, and at least two of your characters will change and evolve because of their interactions with others, telling the story from first person may not be the best choice. While J. K. Rowling could have used first person for her Harry Potter series, telling the story strictly from Harry’s “I” point of view would have diminished the changes Ron and Hermione go through in each story and from book one to the last book in the series. Using third person allowed Rowling to shift from Harry’s to Ron’s to Hermione’s perspective and lets the reader root for the ensemble, rather than just Harry.
To avoid this trap determine if this is a story about the growth of one character or if multiple characters grow and change throughout your story. Do you want the reader rooting for one person or multiple people? Switch points of view if you have a character hogging the spotlight unnecessarily.
Third person point of view places the reader in the room with the characters, rather than in the head of a specific character. It allows us to see the action as if we are flies on the wall in the room hearing what others might think and seeing the action others are seeing. As opposed to first person, which limits the reader’s knowledge to only the things the main character knows, third person opens up to information from all the characters. And choosing the third person point of view means the actions of anyone in the ensemble can and will drive the story at any given time.
Third person works best when there is information the main character isn’t privy to, but the reader needs to know. While many writing teachers and books suggest new writers write in first person, I advocate trying your hand at third person. I find it easier to tell a story when all the information and action isn’t focused on one person in the story. And, it gives your reader additional characters to empathize with and root for.
Jay McInerney’s debut novel Bright Lights, Big City, was considered a tour de force when it came out in 1986. McInerney burst on the literary scene with a “generation-defining” book written in second person. Here’s an excerpt:
You have traveled the course of the night from the meticulous to the slime. The girl with the shaved head has a scar tattooed on her scalp. It looks like a long, sutured gash. You tell her it is very realistic. She takes this as a compliment and thanks you. You meant as opposed to romantic.
The “you” point of view in Bright Lights, Big City, was used to put the reader not just in the head of the narrator, but have the reader look through his eyes and see what was going on as if the action was happening directly to you, the reader. Using the second person point of view was McInerney telling the reader “imagine if you were me and you were living in New York in the mid-1980s, you would . . .” By employing this point of view, people living in Des Moines or Birmingham or Oklahoma City could live vicariously through Jay McInerney. This point of view invites us to imagine we are there, walking the streets of New York, casually conversing with the tattooed girl and seeing it all through our own eyes.
There is a pitfall to second person point of view. Like the Iof first person point of view, the youof second person point of view can begin to pile up leaving us wondering who is talking and wondering why we should care.
Second person point of view is incredibly difficult to pull off. It is used when the writer needs the reader to feel as if they arelivingthe experience the writer is portraying first hand. There needs to be a good reason for telling a story in second person, for putting the character in the shoes, rather than in the head of or the room with your characters. Otherwise, second person point of view can come off as gimmicky rather than effective.
Shifting Point of View
Shifting point of view allows the narration to fall with different characters throughout the story. This point of view works best when we need to get specific information from a specific character. For example, in The Invention of Wings, Kidd shifts the narrative from Handful to Sarah in alternating chapters. As the story unfolds, Sarah’s perspective follows Handful’s description of events, creating a complex account of slavery and enslavement. Both Handful and Sarah tell their story in first person. However, as the chapters alternate, Kidd shifts the point of view from one girl to the other keeping the intimacy of the first person narrative, allowing both characters to share the spotlight.
In The Husband’s Secret, Moriarty uses third person narrative to provide the reader with information as either Cecilia or later Rachael Crowley discovers it. Moriarty could have told the story in first person from Cecilia’s point of view, but she knew the reader needed distance to understand what each character has at stake in the story. While this is primarily Cecilia’s story, the change Rachael goes through is also crucial to the story. Shifting the point of view from Cecilia and then Rachael shows us how events affect different people in profoundly different ways. We might not have gotten that insight using the first person point of view.
Did you find this post helpful?
Be sure to click follow to get all the posts from Your First Fifteen Pages. And if you enjoyed this post, please be sure to clap 👏 👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏.
Sandra O’Donnell is the author of Your First Fifteen Pages. She’s read hundreds of queries and has a passion for helping writers create stories that connect with agents, publishers, and readers.