Choosing Your Perspective

Welcome to Part 10 of my Virtual Balticon panel writeup.

The panel description was as follows: What options does a writer have in choosing the point of view for their narrative? What kinds of stories are best suited by first-, third-, and even second-person narration? What are some ways that you can combine them, and when should you?

The panelists were: Ada Palmer (as moderator), Meriah Crawford, Jo Walton, and L. Marie Wood.

All stories have a voice and a point-of-view — or POV.

Voice

Voice sets the tone and the attitude, often alluding to a certain social class, a time period, and location.

While describing a room or a fight scene, some writers are lyrical and highly descriptive, while others are short and terse. In this bit of the narration, that’s neither character thoughts, nor dialogue, the level of voice can vary tremendously. Some are neutral, but descriptive, some are judgemental, and some are mocking. Descriptors and creative analogies can go a long way toward creating completely different tones.

Point of View

For the point-of-view, you can have first person — “I ate the cookies”, second-person — “you ate the cookies”, or third person — “She ate the cookies.”

The point-of-view character is who the story’s narrative is following. Plenty of writers switch between characters. It is up to the writer to decide how far into the character’s thoughts they wish to delve.

First Person

First person point of view is intimate, but that doesn’t require the writer to delve into the characters minds, they can choose to simply share the character’s actions and sensory inputs. It’s often used in YA, memoirs, literary fiction, and romances.

Second Person

Second person point-of-view is often seen as gimmicky. If the ‘you’ in the story reacts in a way unnatural to you, it can easily throw ‘you’, as the reader, out of the story. Now, news stories and discussions of trauma are often told this way, and it often feels natural to many people when writing reflective pieces.

Plus, of course, you’ll find second person used in those choose your own adventure stories and games.

In a mix of first and second person point of view are stories told to a specific person, “oh, daughter, when I was your age” or “dear reader, you may think… .” The panelists decided we’d call these “addressee second person.”

Third Person

Third person point-of-view has a huge amount of variety and thus is often the default POV. You can be as intimate and as zoomed in as first person, or you can have an omnipotent narrator, who knows all — past, present, and future. If you play video games, it’s the difference from a view right behind the character you’re controlling/following the plot of, and looking at the full map as everything plays out.

Warnings

Cultural norms change. Twist reveals of “he was secretly gay” or “the main character was a woman” aren’t so surprising or novel.

Head-hopping or switching POV characters mid-chapter is challenging to do smoothly.

Ways To Use Points of View In Your Story

As with switching between point-of-view characters, some writers switch between points-of-view entirely, such as using first person with a main character and third person with a secondary character. Often used in thrillers, to hide the identity of the killer. Switching between POVs can also make a section stand out, so if you want to switch tones, that can help. To either make it more intimate, or to back up a little, so the reader can rest and absorb before the plot picks back up again.

While the story is carrying us along, there’s always the choice to create an unreliable narrator in any voice. There’s a huge difference, though, between a character who doesn’t know the truth, and one who is lying to the audience. If you want an unreliable narrator, it’s best to have a good reason.

On the flip side, you can always have the narration, or use a secondary point-of-view character give the readers information that the main point-of-view character doesn’t know.

Some good examples of this are: Haircut by Ring Lardner Jr., Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes, or The Strange Case Of Jekyll and Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Now, there are other points-of-view writers have used, typically as an exploration of a concept — first person plural — “We are going to the store”.

Plus, there’s always the use of epistolary text — traditionally, a story told through letters, now used with articles, chat logs, and faux-book excerpts. This faux-documentation is also a great way to add world building and introduce new information, without needing to introduce a new point of view character.

There are a variety of ways one can combine both voice and point-of-view to create a story that resonates.


What is your favorite point-of-view?

Do you like to write something different than what you prefer to read?

Any tips I missed?


Thank you for reading. I’ll be back again next week with more writing tips and writerly musings.

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