Point of View Choice

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Choosing a point of view 2.0
by philopoemen

When it comes to point-of-view, you have four options to choose from, each one with its own pluses and minuses. In a second, I'll demonstrate and discuss them all in turn. I'll also talk about the few times I've tried mixing different points-of-view within the same work.

Let me preface this by saying that, for me, writing is mainly about character -- or, to put it another way, exposing a reader to a character's unique voice as much as possible. This influences my own stylistic choices and preferences, which may or may not match your own or the needs of your story. So take my opinions with a grain of salt. The way I see it, in writing, there are no rules except the ones you choose to impose on yourself. (Aside from those of basic grammar, anyway. Remember, kids -- spell check is your friend!)

But enough chit-chat. Let's get to it.

First Person

When writing in the first person, you put the reader inside of your protagonist's head. Your narrator addresses themselves as I -- I did, I said, I looked. Personally, I associate this mode with hardboiled detective fiction. So let's go with a typical scene from that genre:

Someone knocked on my office door. I tensed up. "Yeah? Who is it?" I called out. My hand reached into my desk and grabbed my trusty revolver. I wasn't expecting any visitors. Hopefully, that meant they wouldn't be expecting me.

The big advantage of writing in the first person is that, in many ways, it's the most personal point-of-view one could choose. The reader gets direct access to the narrator's thoughts and feelings. As a writer, it lets you fall back on the question of what your character would be thinking or doing at any particular moment if you ever get stuck. It also replicates the feel of storytelling in its most basic form, where it's just one person telling another about something that happened to them. In this mode, you can easily imagine the narrator talking to the reader around a campfire, or -- in the case of our hardboiled detective here -- in a smoky bar somewhere over drinks.

However, I see two downsides to this choice. The first is that this style can make it weirdly difficult to reveal important details about your narrator in a way that feels natural. How many times in an average day do you pause to think about your own name, or what color your eyes are, or what your childhood was like? Putting aside therapy sessions and issues with contact lenses, my guess is that you don't, at least not on a routine basis. Those kind of details are such an obvious and unchanging part of our lives that they're almost not worth thinking about. Yet they're all things your reader is going to eventually want to know about your character.

I've sometimes seen writers working in the first person decide to just bite the bullet and try to force exposition, naturalness be damned. "I, Alice Jenkins, randomly decided to stop and study myself in the mirror..." I'd personally advise against this approach. Better to let the details creep into your narrator's thoughts bit by bit. Giving them an actual in-story reason to examine the details in question is generally best. As a reader, I'll even accept shoehorned-in stuff like "I pushed my strawberry-blonde hair out of my eyes," at least in moderation.

The second downside: without some kind of framing device or contrivance, switching between first-person narrators can be a real pain. Once you're inside your main character's head, you're kind of stuck there. If your plot could really use a switch to another person's perspective, or if you want to reveal information to the reader that your narrator's not privy to... well, good luck with that.

If you do choose to jump perspective in a first-person story, remember that you need to find a way to let your reader know whose head they're in at any given time. That's where you have to watch out for that first downside I mentioned -- it's hard enough to reveal information about one narrator in a natural way, let alone two or more.

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