When I ask a student, “In which point of view is this story written?” I often get a blank stare, a long “uuummmmm,” or a wrong answer with a question mark tacked onto the end (for example, “First person?”).
When making decisions about point of view, you must consider two important questions:
From whose perspective is this story going to be told? (In other words, whose story is it?)
Who is going to tell the story?
First Person: an “I” (or sometimes a “we”) tells the story; everything in the story is filtered through that narrator
Example: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
1. This is Holden Caulfield’s story. No doubt about it.
2. Holden is the first-person narrator. He is the “I” in the story.
Advantages: strong sense of intimacy; constant opportunity for characterization; a strong voice that draws readers into the story
Challenges: a first-person narrator walks a fine-line between interesting and self-indulgent; readers might doubt the narrator’s interpretation of events (thus creating an unreliable narrator); readers can only climb into the head of the narrator
Second Person: the protagonist (or another main character) is addressed by using “you” (This creates the sense that the reader is the “you.”)
Example: Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
1. This is the main character’s story. (Yes, he remains named throughout the book, but he is most definitely the “you.”)
2. The narrator is the main character talking to himself. (He’s a little screwed up so this direct address using “you” makes sense.)
Advantages: a sense of immediacy and urgency; fun to write and read; readers feel included
Challenges: if readers don’t like or don’t relate to your main character, you might lose them; some readers are uncomfortable if they feel they are being addressed directly; hard to sustain readers’ interest over many pages
Third Person: an outside narrator tells the story using “he,” “she,” and “they”
Example: Loving Frank by Nancy Horan
1. This is Mamah Borthwick Cheney’s story.
2. A third-person narrator tells the story but via Mamah’s perspective.(We see what other characters do, but don’t get into their heads.)
Advantages: more leeway to move around a story; opportunity to observe the protagonist from the outside; ability to get into the heads of your secondary characters (if you choose to); able to create a more complicated world; more objective than a first-person narrator
Challenges: less intimacy; temptation to include too many characters; a narrator who accesses the thoughts and feelings of too many characters
Caution: It’s Not Just About Pronouns
At first glance, it may seem that changing the point of view of your story is as simple as changing the pronouns, but it’s not. Deciding on a point of view requires you to consider many aspects of a story, including information to which the reader has access, voice, attitude, language, and which scenes to include (among others). Take your time here, and when in doubt ask yourself: Who matters most?
Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s debut novel, Thirsty, will be published by Swallow Press in 2009. Since moving to Shanghai, China, in 2006, Kristin has been chronicling her adventures (and misadventures) in her blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse.” Her essays and articles have appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Poets & Writers Magazine, The Baltimore Review, San Diego Family Magazine, and The Gettysburg Review. She teaches fiction and nonfiction writing and is the curator of Out Loud! The Shanghai Writers Literary Salon. To learn more, visit www.kristinbairokeeffe.com.