Most people read about point of view (also known as narrative) in English class, where certain terms and definitions swirl around in their minds: first person, third person, second person, third-person limited, limited-omniscient…and the list goes on. This post is not about my knowledge of these terms and definitions and how to use them – I am not an author or English professor. I am, however, a reader, and I’ve read my fair share of POVs.
I’m going to break-down different narratives in today’s fiction: when it’s used well, which POVs are popular, which POVs are memorable, and why certain POVs tend to work better in certain genres. For authors and scholars out there: this is primarily from a reader’s perspective. I will not get technical, though I probably will get technically incorrect. I apologize to my English professors in advance for any inaccuracies in nomenclature.
So. Point of View.
1st person is when the author writes from a character’s perspective by actually using the terms “I” or “we.” Think John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars or Looking For Alaska. I guess just think John Green. Also, Percy Jackson, or so the internet tells me.
Pros: The reader feels a stronger bond with the narrator, because the reader is privy to the thoughts and feelings of the narrator. It’s more personal. The reader has a stronger connection to the story because the narrator pulls the reader directly into the narrative.
Cons: Leaves room for the dreaded (or purposeful) unreliable narrator. Essentially, the narrator is too close to the action, and there’s no room for another perspective to offer a little depth to the situation. Also, only perspective can get boring.
Why it’s popular: 1st person is probably the best way to portray teenage angst, especially to other teens. In YA, often the reader wants to be able to take what’s in front of them with out too much analysis. In fiction with more adult readers and concepts, authors have room to get slightly more layered within their narrative because they know their audience can keep up
2nd person is when a person acts as if he is observing the MC and talking directly to him. Wiki gives a great example of this in the opening lines Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.”
Pros: This is great for ‘choose your own adventures’, self-help books, and certain fiction genres. It lends a gritty sort of appeal to it and thus was used by greats such as Camus and Faulkner.
Cons: 2nd person is much less common than 1st or 3rd, and thus takes some getting used to for an unpracticed reader. It also comes across a little more aggressively and a little less smoothly in many ways, because it is often difficult to embody the narrative in that POV.
Why it’s popular: This is a hugely popular form of POV writing for those aiming for notably modern or even post-modern storytelling.
3rd person is probably the most common form of narration. The story is not told by any one person, but rather uses characters names to convey a perspective and “he,” “she,” “they,” etc. Think Game of Thrones. Each chapter marks a new narrator, revolving between nine characters in the first two novels of Martin’s series, and more like 18 characters by the fifth book. (Yikes.)
Pros: The author has multiple outlets to convey the action of the story to the reader. It’s a good POV for making sure the story stays fresh, as you can focus on more things, not simply what the narrator sees and does.
Cons: 3rd is slightly less personal than 1st, though not overwhelmingly so.
Why it’s popular: 3rd offers more story movement. The reader is aware of more things than the main character’s narration, which is refreshing. Often, the reader needs to see an event through the more than one character’s perspective to really understand the action.
Note: There are a few varieties within 3rd person, the most common of which is 3rd person-limited. No first person narration, but the reader follows the thoughts and actions of only one character. Think Harry Potter and the….you get my point. We typically see only Harry’s thoughts and Harry’s feelings – yet the books aren’t actually “written” by Harry.
Omniscient is exactly what it sounds like: it’s as if there’s an omniscient being narrating the story: a God-like figure who knows all and sees all.
Pros: This narration is unique and rarely used explicitly – it’s more often used in conjunction with limited-3rd.
Cons: The reason it’s rarely used well is that it’s very difficult to pull off without getting too focused on one character (becoming limited) or head-hopping. Head-hopping is either a rookie author mistake, where you switch perspectives, changing from character to character and screwing with the reader’s head, or an experienced author’s trick. Think Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: the narration changes constantly from character to character, as if a fly lands on one character’s head and spills their thoughts, then the fly flits away to someone else. It’s incredible difficult to follow and distracting.
That’s the break-down. Use it wisely.
Here’s the sum-up.
Narration is incredibly important. Unless you’re Virginia Woolf, you shouldn’t hop from head to head without due warning to your reader – it’s terribly confusing and causes whiplash. Just ask anyone who had to read Virginia Woolf and write an essay about it. The point is to make sure your reader is able to follow, and that you’re consistently choosing one narration, or that your reasons for changing narration are valid.
Keep in mind that readers like to be entertained, and that variety is the spice of life. To keep things interesting, try taking a leaf out of George R.R. Martin or Jodi Picoult (who does flawless 3rd person multiple as well) to give a voice to a character your reader doesn’t get to focus on. Once you’re comfortable with different narratives, you can start to experiment with characters and perspectives.
Final note: 1st person narrative is by no means boring. Ask Markus Zusak, the author of The Book Thief, who’s narrator is Death. Death, people. As in, carries a sickle and charters the dead into their next life. And it takes place in Nazi Germany, 1945 (give or take). It’s an incredibly memorable narration and fantastically written. Another unique perspective is The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein. It’s narrated by a dog—and has almost 200,000 ratings and 24,000 reviews, so I’ll let the people speak for themselves on that one.
Okay—your turn. Thoughts? Concerns? Huge, gaping holes in my education? What’s your favorite narrative to read or write? Do you think head-hopping can be used well? Do you simply detest multiple narration?
Comment below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to continue the conversation.