Your Story’s Point of View: Picking the Right Person

Photo © 2007 Frederik Hilmer CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Picking the right person… No, this is not about dating. This is about narrative person, which I wrote about briefly in the context of narrative mode. I mentioned a few narrative modes and how they were used by their authors.

To review, narrative mode has three components:

  1. Person – First (“I”), second (“you”), or third (“he”).
  2. Tense – Past, present, or future.
  3. Voice – Objective, Limited, or Omniscient

(I’ll cite some examples of narrative mode in a later post.)

In an earlier post, I talked about narrative tense, #2 on the above list. As a writer, you can use any person with any tense. But as with tense, person is always set relative to the narrator’s frame of reference.

First Person, Second Person, Third Person

Take a memoir, for example. A memoir is always written in first-person, because the narrator is herself a character in the story. She looks back at the action, as it happened to her, and describes it. She can tell you what she experienced, what she saw, what she heard, what she thought, inasmuch as she can remember it. And she can hide information from you, things that embarrass her, or she can put a different spin or interpretation on the events she describes.

All of these things are true of first-person fiction as well. A first-person narrator, speaking directly to the reader, can also use colloquialisms that would feel awkward in second- or third-person. And what a first-person narrator reveals and conceals, or the spin she puts on things, they can help the reader get to know her better— Or she can confuse the reader, if she tries to deceive the reader.

Some authors have used an unreliable narrator to write a story that’s open to multiple interpretations, because the reader doesn’t know whether she’s telling the truth. But more often, the reader is supposed to know what’s true or not, because it’s obvious, and is supposed to see through the narrator’s spin, and thereby see something about the narrator’s personality that maybe the narrator herself doesn’t even see. This personal closeness is probably one of the reasons the first-person narrator is so popular in chick-lit.

The first-person narrator is a character in the story, usually the main character.

Similarly, in second-person, the reader herself is a character in the story, usually the main character.

You eye the fast-talking stranger suspiciously, wondering whether there’s some catch, something you’re not getting about the situation. You glance again at the envelope in his hand, the envelope full of bills. Hesitantly, you reach into your wallet for a crisp, new twenty.

And meanwhile, the sharp reader will be screaming, “No! How could I be such an idiot!?”

In this snippet, the narrator himself is not a character in the story. He’s a disembodied voice, describing the action of the story from the reader’s perspective. He sees what the reader sees, and even controls the reader’s thoughts and feelings. This can help the reader identify more fully with with the story character (because she is the story character).

The third-person narrator is also a disembodied voice, who also has no role in the story. This is the most common form of narrator. Sometimes, he can see into the thoughts of one or more of the characters, and sometimes, he only reports what he sees, as an objective observer. (I’ll get into that in more detail, in another post, when I talk about narrative voice.)

It’s All about Point of View

Like narrative tense, writing in a given narrative person is about picking a narrator and sticking with it.

So when Dr. Watson describes Sherlock Holmes’s exploits…

I was returning from a journey to a patient (for I had now returned to civil practice), when my way led me through Baker Street. As I passed the well-remembered door, which must always be associated in my mind with my wooing, and with the dark incidents of the Study in Scarlet, I was seized with a keen desire to see Holmes again, and to know how he was employing his extraordinary powers…

A slow and heavy step, which had been heard upon the stairs and in the passage, paused immediately outside the door. Then there was a loud and authoritative tap.

“Come in!” said Holmes.

A man entered who could hardly have been less than six feet six inches in height, with the chest and limbs of a Hercules…

Is he writing as a first-person narrator or a third-person narrator? In some sense, both.. And neither. Because Watson is involved in the story as Holmes’s friend, but Holmes is the hero of the story. When Watson talks about his relationship with Holmes, he uses the pronoun I. When he talks about Holmes’s crime-solving, he uses the pronoun he. And that’s what you would expect, so as a reader, it doesn’t confuse you at all.

So as a writer, you’re not actually choosing between “I” or “you” or “he.” To choose a narrative person, you must answer two questions:

  1. Is the narrator a story character or an impersonal fly on the wall?
  2. Who is the main character of the story? (The narrator? The reader? Or some other story character?)

Whatever choices you make, the reader will intuitively grasp these facts and follow the story from that perspective.

If the narrator is a story character, the reader can sympathize with him. Otherwise, the reader can’t. Also, a narrator who is a story character has his own interests, his own agenda, his own perspective, which can interfere with or support his telling of the story.

A main character who is the narrator can obviously give a unique view on the action of the story, because he becomes a first-person narrator. On the other hand, if you make the reader the main character, you’ll end up writing in second-person, which presents you with a different set of tradeoffs.

All told, you actually have 5 options:

  1. First person: the main character narrates the story. “I was hungry, so I cooked myself dinner.”
  2. Second person: a fly on the wall narrates a story in which the reader is the main character. “You were hungry, so you cooked yourself dinner.”
  3. Third person: a fly on the wall narrates a story in which a story character is the main character. “He was hungry, so he cooked himself dinner.”
  4. First-second person: a story character narrates a story in which the reader is the main character. “We were hungry, so you cooked us dinner.”
  5. First-third person: a story character narrates a story in which another story character is the main character. “We were hungry, so he cooked us dinner.”

(If you’re a mathematician, you’ll see that there is a sixth theoretical option: that the narrator is a fly on the wall and that the narrator is the main character. But this option doesn’t make any sense, because the fly on the wall cannot, by definition, be a story character; therefore, he cannot be the main character. And if that last sentence confused you, don’t worry: it confused me, too, but I’m pretty sure it’s correct.)

And as with narrative tense, choosing one of the available options really depends on what you’re comfortable with. Like any writing decision, it’s a creative choice. Any story you can tell in first-person narrative you can also tell in third-person. But one or the other might feel more awkward to you, depending on the requirements of your story. At least now you can hopefully qualify those requirements a little more easily.

Keep writing!


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