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Choosing a Point of View

by C.J. Chase

One of the devices in a writer’s toolkit to create realistic, three-dimensional characters is point of view (POV). Consider, a novelist's job is to make fictitious people so real, the reader feels like he knows them. Judicious use of POV provides the frame of reference for the story and creates a bond between the reader and characters. There are three major POVs in common usage.

First person POV creates the most intimacy between the reader and the character. In a first person story, the narrator is a character who addresses the reader directly—like friends chatting over coffee. The narrator and reader bond because they spend the entire story together.

A reader can immediately tell first person because the narrator calls himself (or herself) “I” and “me.” “Call me Ishmael” begins the narrator of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Or how about this favorite from my childhood? “The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it.” Yes, even a horse can be the narrator of a first person story.  

Third person POV adds a little more distance between the narrator and the story. The author chooses one character from the story and proceeds to present the story world through that person’s senses. We are limited to the character’s experiences—only what he can see, feel, smell, hear, or taste.

Third person is the most commonly used POV in modern commercial fiction. A very deep third-person POV is almost a first-person POV. Almost. For instance, this opening line could easily be changed in first person: “Too late, Crispin Worthington discovered he hated dying even more than he hated his father.”

So why use third person instead of first? Third person keeps us at a bit more distance than first person, so an author can more easily switch to another POV character in the next scene or next chapter. A common structure for mysteries and thrillers is to open the story in a villain or vicitm’s POV, and then switch to the hero (protagonist) at the beginning of the next chapter. Back and forth, the POV changes from villain to hero. While each shift adds a bit of distance from the reader (because with each switch, the reader must adjust to seeing the world from another perspective) it adds tension. The reader now knows more than any one character.

In omniscient POV, the narrator is even further removed from the characters, like a bird in the sky reporting on events below. Omniscient allows us to peek into any character’s thoughts, but because we aren’t intimately connected to any single character, it is the most distant.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” That is the narrator’s opinion. We don’t know if Sidney Carlton or Charles Darnay agreed. Indeed, they had no notion of what was about to befall them. Or how about this gem? “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Rather than a character relaying this opinion, the author has stepped into the story to address the reader.

The Bible is the story of God stepping into history to address all of humanity. Omniscience (Latin for “all knowing”) is a characteristic of God. And yet, just like a reader of a story told in omniscient POV, how often have I kept the Omniscient, Omnipotent and Omnipresent God at a distance? Guilty, far too many times.

A writer creates intimacy between the reader and a character by having them spend time together. It is the same in our relationship with God. Only by spending time with Him will we gain intimacy with him.

The God who already knows every aspect of our being wants us to know him—more intimately than a first person novel. He gave us approximately 1,000 pages of revelation of his POV. "And I will give them an heart to know me" says God in Jeremiah. "Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me" invites Jesus. "In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ," Paul told the Ephesians.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a bit of reading to do!

Do you have a favorite point of view? Do you enjoy stories told in first person or do you prefer third person? 

After leaving the corporate world to stay home with her children, C.J. Chase quickly learned she did not possess the housekeeping gene. She decided writing might provide the perfect excuse for letting the dust bunnies accumulate under the furniture. Her procrastination, er, hard work paid off in 2010 when she won the Golden Heart for Best Inspirational Manuscript and sold the novel to Love Inspired Historicals. Redeeming the Rogue was an August, 2011 release. You can visit C.J.'s cyber-home (where the floors are always clean) at cjchasebooks.com

Comments

  1. On the whole I liked your presentation of the facts presented, I just wish there had been more information.
    While I agree that those three are the most common, I think that second person is also worth mentioning. I also believe that omniscient is a part of Third Person, not a POV all to itself.
    Thanks for posting!
    ~Sarah F.

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  2. Second person. Ugh. that's a tough one.
    You read through this type of post and then you get a taste of what is, in essence, a topic far too deep to cover in one post. So, then you go looking.

    You will often find that we talk in second person when commenting but a whole book of it would be really difficult to read. You would.

    So, my favorite way to address this is the old 'camera' illustrations that visually describe how the reader only sees what the camera is showing them. Entire books are written on the subject but even now the whole DEEP POV third is up for debate. I (notice I did not say you) wrote in a method of deep third that slipped into first...often. It was chancy and I ended up going with italicizing some of it. The parts that I considered the POV person to have 'nearly' said out loud. (we talk to ourselves versus we're thinking about it) So, in deep third I found I had to even deliniate those two differences.

    I didn't want a book full of italics, so I had to flip some of those first person self-talk into third.

    Sarah, I think there will be some that debate the omniscient as part of third or not. Good question. I just know that when I slip it in, I get my patties smacked for 'author intrusion'!

    The use of first is very common in the old romantic suspense novels. We are in the protag's head (usually the 'woman in jeopardy') so I was very familiar with that. It used to mean only that one POV but now authors jump from First Person for the protag and drop in another POV or two in third.

    I love this subject, C.J.!

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  3. I love first person. The intimacy. The feeling of taking a journey with your new best friend. But it also depends on what works best for the story.

    My Dandelion is in first person, but I probably won't use it again for a while since it's not as popular as third.

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  4. Hi, Sarah. For a blog post, I only had time to hit the highlights!

    What started the whole idea was thinking about omniscient POV one day and how distancing it is from the reader -- and then realizing how many times I treat The Omniscient in a distant, don't-get-to-close-to-me way. Convicting.

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  5. Ah, Deb, the old Gothic novels and first person: Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, Madeleine Brent. MB was my favorite.

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  6. Dina, I wonder why 1st isn't as popular. Is it because it's just so limiting -- the readers only have one POV, so they don't know what other characters are doing? And yet, there are books written in 3rd that keep the same POV character for the entire book.

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  7. C.J. I actually haven't heard of Madeleine Brent. Interesting. I've been thinking about omniscient. If omniscient was a form of third wouldn't it limit you from seeing yourself? Or am I just getting more confused? Where omniscient sees your reactions as well as your thoughts.

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  8. I think close 3rd is my natural voice, though one of these days I'll experiment with first. It just seems so difficult to pull off. I have a block or something about using 1st. But I love reading it when it is really well done.

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  9. Deb, Madeleine Brent was actual a man (Peter O'Donnell, a mystery writer) who wrote Gothics under a female pseudonym. But I liked his better than Victoria Holt at the time. Haven't read one in ages so I don't know how well they hold up.

    The Capricorn Stone and Stormswift were my favs.

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  10. Lisa, I was wondering today if 1st is harder than 3rd, and why that is. It seems counterintuitive. It just seems like 1st person SHOULD be easier.

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  11. Great discussion C.J.

    I personally don't find much difficulty writing first or third person. Where I think it gets tricky is in historical fiction. An author has to ask themselves how accurate do they want their narrator to be? Using too much period slang or jargon you run the risk of alienating their readers. A good example would be Michael Cook's The Meaning of Night. Without the annotations, I would have been constantly scrambling for my Oxford Dictionary.

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  12. Lisa, I always try to go light on the lingo -- no matter if it's historical or contemporary/technical. As a reader, I don't mind learning a few new words that place me in the setting, but too many and it makes the reading difficult.

    Guess I don't like to work!

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  13. Interesting post, CJ. I write in 3rd Person POV, but I enjoy reading 1st person. Seems like a lot of good books are written in 1st person present tense. When it's done well, it's seamless. I don't know how well I could do it, though... :)

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  14. Great post!

    I tend to write in third person past. It seems the most flexible to me.

    First can be wonderfully intimate, but it's also very limiting. I've written a few short stories in first, but nothing major.

    I think you can almost write deep third as first person first and then change it. It gives you a very deep deep third. :D

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  15. Susie, I can't even imagine trying a present tense novel. Now there's a subject for another post.

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  16. DeAnna, I think the first thing I ever tried was first person - probably in my I-wanna-be-Victoria-Holt days.

    Like you, I find 1st too limiting to write in it. I have read books in multiple first person POV, but perhaps because it is so intimate, I have trouble making the shift to a different character.

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  17. I'm a fan of first person, too, but I've like to write the hero's POV, and it seems weird to me to write a male POV in first-person.
    Never thought about first-person present tense... I might do OK with that!

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  18. One of my critique partners did first person present tense with a historical. The POV was a woman of importance (a real person) during the Roundhead period of British history. She basically was telling her story as it happened. Once I got used to it (it didn't take long) I really enjoyed it. It also helps that she's an incredible writer.

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  19. I think first person can be tricky because in order for the reader to be comfortable in the character's "skin" - the character has to be likeable. Dina did it very well, and Anne Mateer did it very well. Sometimes I'll pick up a first person book and the author has tried to create a sassy, hip sort of character. Those fall flat for me - like the writer tried too hard. If I read first person, I want to feel like I care about the VP character.

    I absolutely don't care for first person present tense. I am so disappointed that so many of my favorite authors are going this route.

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