Point of View:
Who’s Telling Your Story?

Absolute Blank

By Erin Nappe (Billiard)

Recently, I was working on a short romance story. The idea swam around in my head for a few days, and I was excited about writing it down. When I did start writing, though, something didn’t seem right. The character, who was so real and vibrant in my head, just wasn’t coming alive on the page.

This is how my story began:

Andie had never believed in psychics.

But her friend Joanne did, and when Andie asked her what she wanted for her birthday, this was it. A psychic reading.

She’d checked the Internet and found out there was a large “spiritualist community” nearby. She selected one of the names at random and made an appointment. She figured they’d spend the day together, have lunch. But Joanne wouldn’t let Andie get away with just taking her; she’d insisted that Andie have a reading done too.

I wrote about half a page and stopped. It just didn’t feel right. The story wasn’t flowing the way I wanted it to. It felt stilted, forced. After a few more days of mulling it over, it hit me. The point of view was all wrong. The third-person approach I’d chosen was too distant. I wanted the reader to identify with Andie, to feel like they were right there with her. I decided to try shifting to first person. This is what I came up with:

I never believed in psychics.

But my friend Joanne did, and she’d asked for a psychic reading for her birthday. I’d poked around on the Internet, and found out there was a large “spiritualist community” just an hour away from Buffalo on Lake Erie.

So even though I thought it was a waste of money, I told Joanne I’d take her. It was her birthday. I figured we’d make a day of it, have lunch. I randomly chose one of the “registered mediums”, Reverend Gladys Mitchell, and made an appointment. But I couldn’t just pay for Joanne’s reading and be done with it. Oh, no. I had to go too.

The rest of the story flowed almost effortlessly. I had a first draft down in hours.

Background Image: Phil/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Somewhere along the way, we all learned the basic rules of point-of-view. Some English teacher or creative writing professor set out the “rules” for us to follow. They explained first person and third person narrators, limited and omniscient points of view. They teach the basics, but most never cover that elusive, more difficult question:

How do you choose?

At some point in every short story or novel, we, as writers, must make a fundamental decision-who is telling this story? Is the narrator inside the story, telling it as it happens? Is she an unnamed, detached observer? Will we keep the reader inside one head, or will we use several point-of-view characters?

Sometimes this decision is easy-the story flows out and we fall into a point-of-view and stick to it. Other times, it isn’t. But before we talk about those choices, let’s review the basics.

In an essay on the subject, author Robin White referred to POV as “the hidden persuader behind any story” which “focuses your narrative, involves your reader, and temporarily suspends all other realities.”

The most common points-of-view are first person and third person. A first person narrative is told from the “I” perspective. The narrator is clearly involved in the story, and is most often the central character. The following example is from Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale:

The night is mine, my own time, to do with as I will, as long as I am quiet. As long as I don’t move. As long as I lie still. The difference between lie and lay. Lay is always passive. Even men used to say, I’d like to get laid. Though sometimes they said, I’d like to lay her. All this is pure speculation. I don’t really know what men used to say. I had only their words for it.

I lie then, inside the room, under the plaster eye in the ceiling, behind the white curtains, between the sheets, neatly as they, and step sideways out of my own time. Out of time. Though this is time, nor am I out of it.

The narrator tells this story, as it happens. First person narrators can also be mere observers, outside the main story, or detached, as if looking back on past events.

The biggest advantage of first person narration is that it fully involves the reader in the life of the central character; we experience her thoughts, her feelings, and we see what she sees. Certainly, it’s the point of view that best allows us to get completely inside the head of a character. First person can sometimes be limiting, though. Some writers struggle with a first person narrator, because they find themselves wanting to tell the reader what’s going on inside the heads of the other characters. The decision to use first person involves a certain amount of trade-off.

It is also important to remember that the “I” of the story and the writer are not necessarily the same. In fact, first person can actually be too close. I wrote an autobiographical short story when I was in college, using a first person narrator to tell the story. I found I had a problem with separating the narrator from myself. She was me, which made it difficult to write, and even more difficult to accept criticism. My professor made comments about my narrator, which I of course took personally. I now know that I probably would have been better off using a third person narrator, thus distancing myself from the story.

Third person narrative falls into three main categories, limited, objective and omniscient. The third person limited narrator tells the story through the eyes of a single character. The third person objective narrator simply tells the story without allowing the reader to take part in any character’s thoughts or feelings. The omniscient narrator can tell the story from the viewpoint of a number of different characters.

Here’s an example of a third person narrator, from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:

Harry lay flat on his back, breathing hard as though he had been running. He had awoken from a vivid dream with his hands pressed over his face. The old scar on his forehead, which was shaped like a bolt of lightning, was burning beneath his fingers as though someone had just pressed a white-hot wire to his skin.

For the most part, the Harry Potter novels are told from Harry’s point of view. Rowling uses a close third person POV, which can sometimes be quite similar to first person. So why not use first person?

Most likely, Rowling chose the close third person POV so that she would have the ability to occasionally change point of view characters. Some chapters and scenes are told from the point of view of other characters, giving the reader access to information that Harry couldn’t possibly have. This POV is known as “episodically limited”. The “who” of the story is determined by the scene. It’s the point of view most commonly used in genre and mainstream novels. In a novel, it is acceptable to have several POV characters, but you should be careful not to use too many. Generally, point of view shouldn’t change during a scene. This practice, known as “head hopping”, can alienate your reader.

In short stories, it is usually best to stick with a single POV.

The third POV, far less commonly used, is second person. A second person narrator addresses the reader directly as “you”. This POV is difficult to use effectively, so very few writers use it.

So now you’re probably still wondering, “but how do I choose?” Unfortunately, the answer just isn’t simple. Think about what you want to accomplish, and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each choice. Beyond that, the best advice I can give is to trust your instincts. If it doesn’t feel right to you, it probably won’t feel right to your reader either.

If you’re struggling with the piece you’re working on, try rewriting it from another point of view. Switch from first person to third, or vice-versa. Try telling the story from the point of view of an entirely different character. Keep trying new things until you’ve got something that fits.

When you’ve found the one that fits, you’ll know.

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