Writing · Writing Tip Tuesdays

WTT 5: Who’s Viewing the World–Me or He?

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Writing Tip Tuesdays Chapter 5: Point of View

(Hey look, another Wednesday update. I suck at schedules.)

Have you ever gotten a great idea for a story, and then realized you had no one to tell it? Sure, you’ve got the main character in place. But does everything happen to him alone? How much can you show your reader? Should she be allowed to know the thoughts of other characters? Does the villain get a say in all this, or should the hero be the only one to say in influencing the reader’s thoughts. These are all questions that relate to point of view.

This is a big, tricky subject, and unfortunately I don’t have a whole lot of time to talk about it today. Maybe I’ll go into more detail on it later on, but for now, here are the basics:

First person:

I, we. The story is told from the perspective of one character alone: the main character. We see the world through their eyes, we know their thoughts, and we only know about them, not anyone else. “I walked down the street and saw my sister. We talked for a few minutes. I asked her about my jacket, and she said she thought it was cute. Sure you do, I thought.”

Second person:

You. This kind of POV is very rare in fiction, and is mostly reserved for choose-your-own-adventure novels. In this case, the reader is the main character. Instead of learning the character’s thoughts, you tell the reader what they should be thinking and what they’re doing in the story right about now. “You walk down the hall and feel an eerie presence nearby. There’s a loud crash behind you and you jump. If you run down the hall, turn to page 6. If you go to investigate the crash, turn to page 14.”

Third person:

She, he, they, it. In this POV, the reader gets a look outside of the main character. There are two forms of third person: 1) Semi-omniscient, which means the invisible narrator of the story can only read the thoughts of one person. 2) Omniscient, which means they know the thoughts of every character. Semi-omniscient might look something like this: “Luke studied the high school students, wondering if they had any clue about the dramatic event that would soon happen. He sat down on the stool and waited.” While omniscient might look something like this: “Carly thought it was a bad idea. Surely Joe was in over his head! But Joe was thoroughly convinced. After all, he had his future to think about–but of course he couldn’t admit that to anyone.”

So which one works best in a story? Unless you’re writing in letters or a choose-your-own-adventure, second person can most likely be ruled out. (In my opinion, it can be rather creepy at times anyway.) That leaves us with first and third. Which one is better?

Honestly, it mostly just depends on style and preference. If you think you’ll do a better job with having your main character be the narrator, go for it. No one can get mad at you for picking the style you prefer.

Now, say you want to jump to the main villain’s POV every so often to get us excited and worried about his plans. We leave the hero sleeping beside a river to find the evil scientist working on a new mixture in his lab. (Like you might see in a movie.) In that case, you should use third person. If you want to show different characters while they’re separated, use third person. Jumping from first person to third person or first person to a different character in first person is highly annoying and hard to follow.

However, if you want to pick between first person or third person semi-omniscient, there’s not much I can tell you that would be helpful. In the end, it’s the style you think would work best. Maybe first person works better to dive into your character’s deep psychological thoughts. Or maybe third person works better because you want your reader to be a little more disconnected from the character’s mind so you can pull out more surprises later. Whatever works best for you and for your story.

One thing you can never do, however, in any POV, is to reveal information the narrator can’t know. If it’s in first person with Frank as the main character, you can’t tell us about the hidden key, because Frank never learned about it. Don’t even include one tiny paragraph, because unless Frank knows, the reader can’t know. If you’re doing third person semi-omniscient, it might be acceptable to tell us about the key before Frank knows, but probably not wise. It might make the reader fell disconnected from the story. Now, if you were doing third person omniscient, perhaps you can have the villain hide the key before Frank finds out. Mostly the whole revealing-information-the-narrator-can’t-know happens in first person, but be careful about how much you reveal. Show, don’t tell, remember?

In the end, point of view is a style. Sometimes one way works better than the other, and sometimes an author has an easier time writing from a certain view. Try writing some of your story out in one point of view, and if it doesn’t work, switch it around. Find the style that best fits your novel and you–that’s all I can really say in the end.

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