The Point of Point of View, part 1

How do you choose the point of view for your stories?

Point of view is one of those decisions about a story which sometimes isn’t a decision at all – the idea comes to you as a voice telling their story and you have to use first person to capture that, for example.

But point of view (or POV) is a feature of the story, like tense, which you have to stick with throughout the writing or the book will be very hard to read. There are books I’ve encountered where a single unexpected POV change jumps me out of the story, forcing me to stop to figure out what just happened, and where I never pick the book up again. So, when you pick your POV, be consistent with it.

There are three basic POV choices:

  1. first person – “I did this”
  2. second person – “you did that”
  3. third person – “he did the other thing”

Each of these has variations, advantages and disadvantages. In this post I am going to look at first and second person.

First person

This is where the story is told from the perspective of a particular character within the story. It’s great for quickly gaining sympathy from the reader for a character, and also for expressing a story in a particular voice.

The biggest problem with first person, and also one of its greatest opportunities, is information hiding: because we are seeing the story told from one character’s POV, things that the character does not know about cannot be relayed to the reader.

This manifests in my writing as meetings: the MC gets pulled in to discussions with other characters nominally to keep the MC up to date, but practically to present information to the reader. This amounts to info dump by dialogue, also known as the handy idiot technique, which can at times be unavoidable but if it’s happening a lot and the reader actually does need to know this stuff in order to understand the story, then I would that is a tell-tale sign that your POV may not fit the story.

Another issue is in presenting what the character already knows, such as physical appearance or features of the the world which are normal to the character but extraordinary compared to our world. Unless the narrator is aware of the audience, explanations of the mechanics of the world often seem out of place.

The opportunity with information hiding is that you have available the concept of the unreliable narrator: the person telling the story has something to hide, or has an unusual perspective, which makes the narrative more interesting. However, it is dangerous to use information hiding to spring surprises on the reader – deus ex machina turns of plot are not satisfying however they are presented.

Another issue with first person is that it gives the narrator plot immunity, especially when combined with past tense: if someone is telling the story in the past tense from a personal perspective, you would expect that they have survived the events told. The exception here is if the story is presented as a memoir – the diary of the doomed explorer, for example – but even there the narrator needs to make it to the end of the book.

Second person

Of all of the points of view available to the writer, second person is the one which most needs a definite decision to use.

I haven’t encountered second person much in novels. As I mentioned when discussing Charles Stross’ work, his novels Halting State and Rule 34 are written in second person because they are meant to recall the style of text adventure games (Zork, Collossal Cave, Snowball – the Infocom and Level 9 games, basically). Those were written in second person because you were being told what was going on around you in the game, and then you gave commands which the computer would apply to the game’s state.

The basic disadvantage of this POV is that it is unfamiliar and jarring. When I started reading both of Stross’s novels in this style, it took me a few pages to get used to it.

However, if you have a particular stylistic point to make, second person can be effective, especially when combined with present tense to invoke a sense of immediacy.

Next time, I will look at third person and switching point of view.

3 Replies to “The Point of Point of View, part 1”

  1. Ian Rose says:

    As primarily a short story writer so far, second person has been a little less scary than it must be to novelists. As you say, it’s the only POV that requires a really good reason to go with it, and if the story can justify it, it can be useful. I’m not sure that I would ever make it through a novel length second person piece, just because I think a novel has to have a comfortable state at some point, and second person is never that. I want to be jarred by a novel, but not by every sentence. I expect to be lulled into security before the rug is pulled out.

    1. Dunx says:

      I think the saving grace for Stross’s second person books is that the actions of the MCs (and there are multiple characters, which helps) are given in second person, but the activity around them is described with an actor. So, “the wall is made of slimy brick” rather than “you see a wall coated with slime from years of overflowing gutters”.

      I don’t think I could write a second person novel either, though.

  2. Valerie says:

    “Unless the narrator is aware of the audience, explanations of the mechanics of the world often seem out of place.”

    Very well put. Why would a narrator from a fantasy world be explaining things in terms of Earth-concepts? I think this is one of the main reasons most fantasy settings are so Earth-like at heart.

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