Saturday, 15 August 2015

Kathryn Said Versus I Said: Point of View in Fiction

One of the first questions that you will have to ask yourself when starting a new piece of fiction regardless of whether it is a drabble, short story or a 400 page epic novel (and all the variations in between), is what point of view you want to use. My personal choice is either to go with third person limited, although I have wrote a fewer smaller pieces in first person. My reason for this choice is because I like writing characters internal dialogues and both of these points of view let you really get inside the character(s) head(s) for long periods of time. I will not dwell on the merits and problems with my choice here, that is for another post at a later date, instead for this post I will give you an overview of all the different choices you can pick when going with point of view.


First Person

Is where a character narrates the story in his/her voice. The type of story will often use me, my, mine, I etc. You will see the story entirely through this character view with their thoughts and opinions forming as much of the story as the action taking place within a scene.

Advantages to this view point are:

·         It creates an immediacy and connection with the protagonist. You are inside that character’s head and there is no filter from their emotions, thoughts, feelings, secrets.

·         Due to the close connection to the protagonist and the reader, it creates a level of believability. You see the story through that character view point and understand their feelings and with no other characters to follow, you  believe what that character is telling you.

·         It can help develop the character. As you are in that character’s head you will see their personality more as they view events. People always put some type of interpretation on events and if you stay in a character’s voice you will get a slant on that character be it funny, philosophical, laid back, hyper etc.

·         “Easy to write.” People use I statements every day, so writing this style is similar to way you think and talk naturally. Just be careful as first person is never as easy as you first think as writing from this point of view can have several restrictions.

·         You have a clear perspective and filter for the story. In first person you know who the story is about.

Disadvantages to this point of view are:

·         It is a limited viewpoint. In first person you are only ever seeing what that person sees, feels, knows etc. To get a different characters opinion that character has to be told about it.

·         It can be a restrictive voice. The story is told from your protagonist’s view and their voice needs to match their background and experiences. Therefore you need be careful to use appropriate language throughout. Would an Army General use the word minging or a teenager use the word unscrupulous.

·         You can easily create a biased narrator. You only see what your character sees. Your character voice will have opinions and they will share these with a reader without the reader seeing the other side to the story.

·         Character can quickly become seen as self-centred or can lack surprises as you will know how a character will react in scenes as you have been in their head throughout the build-up.

·         The constant use of I can become repetitive.

Books in first person:

·         The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

·         The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night – Mark Haddon

·         Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn


Second Person

This is very rarely used in fiction. Instead of the more commonly used he/she/me/my, the author uses you and your, making the story directly about the reader. In this point of view the reader actually becomes the main character and is placed right in the centre of the action.

Advantages to this point of view are:

·         It is unique – most readers will not have read a fiction book from this point of view and if they have read one, it’s doubtful that they will have read too many more. Second person is normally reserved for non-fiction instruction style books.

·         It pulls the readers right into the action. The use of ‘you’ makes the story about the reader.

·         It stretches your skills as a writer. Most people are not used to writing in this style, so the skill of creating the story becomes a challenge.

·         It is personal. It is as if the story is a letter from the author to the reader which asks you questions.

·         It forcefully puts the reader in protagonist’s shoes and therefore makes an impression.

Disadvantages to this point of view are:

·         People are not used this style of writing which means it can be jarring. This means people can be pulled out of the story or at the very least find it strange.

·         It is hard to do well and keep the style consistently through the story.

·         It creates a situation where reader is being told they are doing something that they haven’t done. As this is an untrue situation, readers can start to question the story.

·         It limits the reader ability to interpret the story on their own.

·         It can feel like the only reason that the author has written the story like this is as a challenge to themselves and therefore can lack in other areas – plot, character, conflict etc.

Books in second person:

·         Bright Lights, Big City – Jay McInerney

·         Instructions – Neil Gaiman

·         Winter’s Journal – Paul Ausher


Third Person

Third person is written from an outsider’s point of view. Instead of the use of I, me, my, it uses characters names, he, she to tell the story. This means that you can see outside the thoughts, feelings and what that character directly sees. Third person is split into limited and omniscient.


Third Person Limited

This enters a single characters head. This can be from a few chapters to the whole story. You can hear characters thoughts but it differs from first person as the story is still told from the outsider (author’s) point of view, no matter how many times it dips into a character’s head.

Advantages to this point of view are:

·         You can cheat. You can jump into your main character’s head, almost completely tell the story in a way you were writing first person but come out of that point of view and use third person when you want too. It’s almost as if you have the best of both points of view.

·         You head jump less frequently than in third person omniscient, which means that the readers have a settled voice throughout the story.

·         You can jump into one or two other heads for the odd chapter in the story if you want to.

·         As you are not always in a character’s head you are less likely to have an bias narrator.

·         Reads get to figure things out with the character, so they keep pace with them.

Disadvantages to this point of view are:

·         You are grounded in one character so unless you do a fair bit of cheating you are not going to pick up other characters views.

·         Not using I loses a certain level of intimacy.

·         It can become too introspective with too much internal dialogue and not enough action used.

·         Moving out of your character voice to take advantage of other third person and not first person perks can through readers.

Books in Third Person Limited:

·         The Giver – Lois Lowry

·         Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling

·         Still Alice – Lisa Genova


Third Person Omniscient

This means that the thoughts of every character in the story can be used, however in reality this is usually kept to a handful of characters as to enter too many heads can be confusing.

Advantages to this point of view are:

·         You can use several different characters point of view in the same story, which means that you can switch to where the action is.

·         You can get a more fully rounded picture than using just one character of a scene and the story itself.

·         It is less biased and the story is less likely to influenced by a single character.

·         It’s less claustrophobic – it can be hard work for both the reader and author to stay in the same voice for a long time.

·         You get to the action and are less likely to be caught up in thoughts and not what is happening.

Disadvantages to this point of view are:

·         It can be seen as too impersonal as you do not really get to know a character or get the same connection that you do in third person limited or first person.

·         It is harder to withhold information and mislead readers away from plot points that you do not want to reveal yet as the reader can see everything that can happen from many different points of view. This also means that it is harder to use aspects of biased narrator to judge other characters and actions as you see multiple view points.

·         Unless the different points of view/voices are distinctively different it can make it hard to follow and work out which voice you are in.

·         It can be harder to understand a character’s motivation if you are not in that character’s head unless you really spell things out in the action.

·         You can break the flow of the story by switching characters too often  and annoy readers if breaking away from a character at an exciting part of the plot.

Books in Third Person Omniscient:

·         The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Steig Larsson

·         Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkein

·         Under the Dome – Stephen King


I guess the only thing left to say is, although you need to keep to a single point of view in a story, you don’t need to do this for all your stories. You can change point of view from story to story, just like you would change the plot from story to story.

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