I, You, He or She – Some Thoughts on Point of View

In 2003, I wrote the first draft of what was to become Blaze of Glory, the first book in my Laws of Magic series. As I was writing, I was perplexed by how difficult it was. It’s not that I expect writing a 100,000 word novel to be easy but I was having unaccustomed trouble with the characters and the general tone of the prose. When I read the finished draft carefully, I thought long and hard, and then rewrote it from scratch – changing the point of view from first person to third.

I was only three or four paragraphs into the rewrite when it came alive in a way that my first version hadn’t. The story moved more quickly, I had elbow room, I was able to use irony in a way that I couldn’t with the first person approach – and the main character emerged in a much more rounded way.

Writing is largely a matter of trial and error. This 100,000 word trial – and error – taught me the importance of using the right point of view for the right story. Get it wrong, and everything else is a struggle.

Choosing a point of view to write from is one of the two fundamental decisions that a writer must make when beginning a story. To determine the Point of View (POV), you have to decide who is going to be telling the story – who is the narrator. This will both limit and enable your story to unfold. It will present you with opportunities, burden you with responsibilities and throw obstacles in your path. It will also position your reader to engage with your writing on emotional and intellectual levels.

For a novice, the options can be daunting: first person POV, second person POV, third person (limited or close) POV and third person (omniscient) POV. For all intents and purposes, 90% or more of modern fiction is in either the first person or the third person limited mode.

In short, first person POV is the ‘I’ voice. The narrator is a character and ‘speaks’ directly to the reader. All the experiences of the story come via this character. For example, ‘I wasn’t about to let my feelings get the better of me as I walked toward the school.’

I think of the third person limited POV as ‘the camera on the shoulder’, where the readers are limited to, or close to, one character’s experiences – not just what the character sees, but the whole character experience. ‘Becky wasn’t about to let her feelings get the better of her as she walked toward the school.’

Third person omniscient POV is old-fashioned. It’s a common mode for novels prior to the twentieth century. It’s where a disembodied narrator floats above all the characters, knows everything, shares with the reader and often comments on character’s motivations and aspirations. ‘Little did Becky realise, but soon her feelings would get the better of her while she walked to school – a school that she would learn was going to be demolished the very next day.’

Second person POV is rare, and that’s because it’s extremely difficult to do well. It thrusts the reader front and centre into the narrative: ‘You struggle with your feelings as you walk toward the school.’ I find a story steering me around like that without asking my permission to almost be rude. Second person POV finds its natural home in the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books, where at the bottom of the page the reader must make decisions about the story’s unfolding.

So which is preferable? I write Young Adult novels and my decision making necessarily takes this audience into account. There is much received wisdom about Young Adult readers and their preferred narrative POV. It’s said that young reader prefer novels written in the first person, that the closeness afforded by the First Person mode, where innermost thoughts are on display, makes it easier for the young reader to connect, and that they enjoy the intimacy of, as Atticus Finch would say, walking in another person’s shoes.

This is a widely held belief and, to judge by the number of YA novels told in this mode, a widely practised belief as well.

I have a different outlook on this issue. I suggest that such intimacy with strangers is the last thing that many teenagers want. At this stage of their emotional development, where embarrassment lies at every turn, where social conventions and interactions are a minefield, such enforced closeness can  be excruciating. It’s like the awkwardness that comes from strangers who don’t understand the notion of personal space. Without much evidence, I’ll advance the notion that this is felt even more acutely by young males.

There are sound reasons why gaining intimate insight into another person could be good for teens – to help build a sense of empathy, for one – but this isn’t going to work if the reader is squirming at every paragraph, just dying of embarrassment until she or he gives up in a blaze of blushing.

Perhaps I exaggerate, but such discomfort can be the death of reader engagement – and I’m also extremely wary of writing which is ‘good for them’. To my mind, this is a hangover from the Victorian notion of children’s fiction needing to be worthy, needing to teach the little rascals something. This didacticism is still subtly approved of in kids’ lit, to the detriment of reader engagement.

I find the slight distance that the third person limited POV provides is much more palatable for young readers. They’re still close to the main character and are privy to thoughts, feelings and motivations, but it’s as a close observer not as the character – close, but not too close. It’s watching, not becoming. Becoming someone else is confronting when you’re not quite sure who you are, yet.

To my mind, that’s why adults cope much better with first person POV than teens. Adults generally have a better notion of their own identity. Assuming someone else’s identity for the duration of a narrative isn’t as discomfiting. It can even be enlightening or refreshing. When well handled, it can afford the sort of deep immersion into character that is illuminating.

You’ll note (second person!) that I’m concentrating on the reader here in weighing up the pros and cons of various Points of View. Structural issues need to be taken into account as well. It’s difficult, for example, to have a world-spanning disaster novel with a cast of dozens of important characters told in the first person. If ‘The World Shakes Apart’ is written in the first person, how does the main character – plucky vulcanologist Ginger Watts – know what’s going on in the White House, where stress-crazed President Juanita Rose is having a discussion with civil defence authorities that might change the course of history? This is the sort of scenario where you need multiple third person characters, perhaps devoting a chapter to each, to give the sort of widescreen coverage a planetary disaster novel can benefit from.

Of course having said all this, contrary examples abound where a wide-ranging disaster is told from a first person POV (‘The Day of the Triffids’ – John Wyndham, ‘The Furies’ – Keith Roberts, ‘The Death of Grass’ – John Christopher). These concentrate on the trials of the protagonist, and any news of the wider disaster needs to come second hand from hearsay, reports from strangers, or via mass media which can be clumsy when mishandled. A number of novels in this mode were written in Britain in the 1950s and earned the sobriquet the ‘cosy catastrophe’ for the way they were enjoyed from the comfort of living rooms, but also because of the reduced focus that the first person POV brought with the personal issues of survival in the foreground with the wider disaster hinted at.

In my twenty-five novels, I’ve written in both first person and third person modes, doing my best to find the approach that worked best for the story and the readership while understanding the importance of the correct POV. I’ve experimented, gone backward and forward, and even written one book (‘Blackout’) with an alternating first person structure. Two characters had their own first person narratives, told in alternating chapters. This was the only way to capture the breadth of the scenario while retaining the intense character focus I was after.

Recently, I’ve been preparing to write a new novel which I’m reasonably committed to writing as a third person limited narrative. As well as researching, sketching location maps, assembling character back stories and organising time scales, I’ve been writing some short character pieces  – in the first person. I’ve found this extremely helpful for fleshing out the characters, well before I actually embark on writing the novel itself. Each first person character piece developed a distinct voice as the characters talked of their lives, their ambitions, their families. These pieces were only a few thousand words each, and much of what appears in them won’t ever make it into the novel, but I’ve found the experience extremely valuable. I’m sure I’ll make this part of every pre-novel warm-up in the future.

As a writer, it pays to think carefully about point of view – and to be prepared to change POV if the story isn’t working.

Oh, the other fundamental decision that a writer must make when beginning a story? Tense, of course!

This article first appeared in on The Australian Literature Review website in September 2010.