Those of us who still remember our high school English grammar know that there are three points of view: first, second and third. ‘I’ is first person, ‘you’ is second person, ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’ are third person. So far, so good. When it comes to writing fiction, though, it is not enough to know what each point of view means. A writer must understand the different viewpoints deeply enough to be able to choose between them based on his needs.
To be able to understand viewpoint, let me tell you first about this concept of a ‘narrator’. There is a lot of academic debate on whether the narrator is different to the author (and if so, in what way) and so forth, but that’s just hair-splitting. The narrator in your story is the guy (or girl) telling it. Some writers make it a point to define the age, gender, class and hair colour of their narrators before they begin writing. Others don’t even notice theirs. Regardless of which side of that fence you sit, your story is being told by someone, and that someone is the narrator. I am going to such pains setting this ground rule because I’ve heard people say that their stories have no narrators. Sorry, that’s not an option.
Once you accept that your story has a narrator, viewpoint is just a set of rules that define who the narrator is and how much power you decide to give him. So in a first-person narrative, you’ve defined the narrator to be one of the characters in the story. In third-person, you’re saying that you want your narrator to be alongside your characters and a part of their world, but somehow detached from it. If you write in the rarely used second-person, the narrator aims to make the reader an integral part of the story.
The accepted maxim is that once you pick one of these three viewpoints to tell your story, you stick to it throughout. While accomplished writers can pull off alternating third-person and first-person narratives without breaking the fictive dream, as a beginner you will be well-advised to choose carefully and go with it. If you cannot resist the temptation to change viewpoints within your story, please make it between scenes or chapters. Even accomplished writers don’t change viewpoints mid-scene.
Beginning writers gravitate towards first-person because of a few reasons: one, it gives the writer an illusion of still being himself. While writing in first person, the writer believes he is spared the effort of being in someone else’s shoes. And then too, first-person lends itself to a certain amount of ‘telling’, and it tolerates the narrator being a little ‘talky’. Since beginning writers tell a lot and talk a lot, they find first-person narratives comfortable. Also, because first-person narrators are part of the story they’re telling, they don’t have to be invisible, so the writer doesn’t have to make efforts to push him into the background.
But beware. All three of the swords mentioned above are double-edged. Contrary to escaping having to be someone else, you have to put in an extra amount of effort to make sure that your narrator’s character is well-etched and that he’s sufficiently different to you, the author. It’s also not true that writing in first-person gives you the license to tell and talk. You just have to work harder to show. As for the narrator’s visibility, you must be able to know intuitively when to bring your narrator to the fore (he’s after all one of the story’s characters) and when to push him behind the curtain and let others take the spotlight.
In other words, don’t be lulled by the apparent simplicity of the first-person viewpoint. It demands a lot of dexterity, and it requires the writer to be constantly on his toes to strike the right balance between showing and telling, between visibility and invisibility, between overstating and understating.
In contrast, the third person is a lot easier because the rules are at least consistent. Show, don’t tell. (There are instances where you tell and don’t show, but we’ll come to that later.) Make the narrator invisible. Make him impartial to the point that your readers don’t even notice him. By making him a clear, colourless pane of glass you allow your characters to come into full view and perform.
The second person is hardly ever used by itself in fiction. The most common use of it is in an epistolary form where a character in a story picks up a letter addressed to him or watches a tape recording that speaks to him. For the duration of the letter or recording, the reader gets to be the character and gets addressed directly, but after the clip runs out and the letter gets thrown away, normal service resumes. There are very few pieces of fiction that use the second person exclusively. If it tickles your fancy, go ahead and try it, but do keep in mind that it’s not easy to make your reader become a part of the story.
So that’s that, then. First, second and third – every story can in theory be told in any of the three viewpoints, so as an author one of your first jobs when you sit down to write is to ask yourself whose point of view you’re going to write from. Don’t worry too much about your choice; feel free to experiment, play around, and figure out your preferences. Ultimately, pick a viewpoint that you enjoy most.
In the next post we will look more closely at the third-person point of view and two of its more popular variants.