Choosing a point of view

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.

Comments

  1. Is it possible to keep all this in mind while writing? Your post is very perceptive, but is it practical? While writing, are you aware how your writing is proceeding, and do you realize if it doesn’t confirm to the knowledge you’ve set out in this post? And does the narrator being invisible mean that the narrator should be unbiased? Just a raconteur of what is happening in the story, rather than the onw who is driving it. I think you should re-visit this post and simplify it so that the intention comes out clearly. Its not easy to understand for beginner writers. For eg. I understand that the narrator in first person is the character in the novel (most likely the protagonist); but who is the narrator in the third person if not he author? As for second person, I cannot even imagine how a novel can be written in it. You know of any such novels? Your posts are good. But I’d suggest that you further simplify them (say pointers in bullet points), rather than in narrative form.

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    • Hi James,

      I will try and answer all your questions. Is it possible to keep ‘all this’ in mind while writing? It’s just like playing the guitar, or typing. When you start off, you have to look at the keys to know what you’re typing. But after doing it for a while, you just know where each key is and you can type without thinking. For instance, I typed this paragraph out without once looking at the keyboard.

      Invisible narrator means just that – invisible. With beginning writers, there is always that temptation to sneak in that funny aside, that perceptive observation, but unless you know what you’re doing, it’s always best to resist it. Every time the narrator becomes visible, the reader gets shaken out of his dream.

      In third person narratives, the narrator is someone who belongs to the world of your novel. If you want to be pedantic about it, you should make a distinction between the author and the narrator, but I’ve always gotten away with imagining myself as the narrator. I find it most helpful to think of the ‘narrator’ as merely a recording device (not a live person) that can see and hear the thoughts of certain people within the story. That way you don’t even have to think about it. Just push it back somewhere where your reader cannot find it.

      Second-person narratives do exist. A quick google search led me to this page on a novel by Jay McInerney You could also type in ‘second-person’ into Goodreads and it should give you a list of books written in that form.

      As for the format of the posts, there are two reasons I write in an essay form. One, I don’t like bullet points because I think it makes it all too scientific. And two, I think my essay writing could do with some improvement, so I’m using this forum as practice to write clear essays. So if you say the point of my essay is getting lost, that’s good feedback for me. It means I have to break it down further and write more clearly. Thank you for that 🙂

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  2. Hi Sharath,

    Thanks for such a detailed reply. Reading your reply above, and the succeeding post (Playing God), what I understand about the narrator being invisible is that the author should limit the ‘authorly’ indulgence with regard to anecdotes, witty one liners, things that could fall in the category of running commentary (because the author is so darned good at thinking these things up), and stick primarily to the plot / story line. Basically try to shut the chatter in your head. Correctly inferred?

    Thanks again. Look forward to read more.

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    • Hi James,

      I agree with the spirit of what you said about ‘invisible narrator’. What I will add to that, as a summary, is that your reader should never notice the narrator. That’s it. If he spends any amount of time on thinking about the narrator or hearing his words or his thoughts, he’s spending less time on the story. So the more your narrator is in the background, concealed, the easier you’re making it for yourself to let the people of your story come out into the open.

      I know I’m being generic, but it’s a generic sort of guideline. Once you become skillful enough, you may even break the rule with effects that your readers may love.

      Like

  3. Thanks Sharath, for replying on this and the other post.

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