The Subtleties of Point of View

Posted on March 10, 2011


Have you ever really thought about point of view?

No, really, have you?

I will confess, I never used to. When I was a young writer (we’re talking eighth grade here), point of view was no more an artistic tool than the paper I wrote on; it was just a medium. I didn’t give it two whits: I thought about what I was writing, and whatever point of view the first lines were in was the point of view I wrote the rest of the story in. That, or I switched between first person and third person omniscient, because apparently when I was in eighth grade I thought the only settings for my writing camera were zoom and widescreen.

Now I do. Even though I think about it, I still choose to write in third-person limited (I might talk about why in a different post), but at least I think about it first. And you should, too.

Really. In general, I’d say that thinking about your story as much as possible before putting that first line down is never a bad thing. In my experience, it does nothing but help. And thinking about point of view forces you to think about several things.

For one, how, exactly, would my point of view character express herself? Say you have a shy character. Do you want to go third-person limited and almost objective, to emphasize how little she is involved in her world? Or do you want to go first-person to show the complexity of the thoughts she doesn’t speak? Do you want to use both in different situations?

Second, it forces you to think about who, exactly, is your point-of-view character. Do you want the most interesting character to narrate? Or would you rather that person be off in the background, their strangeness filtered through the eyes of a more mundane but more relateable character?

Finally–and I would argue this is the most important–it really forces you to think about your character’s inner world and how you want to share that with your reader. Do you want to tell the audience straight-up what the character thinks? Pick first-person. Do you want the audience to get some inkling of the character’s views, but not necessarily take them as the gospel truth? Third-person limited. Do you want to leave everything vague, so the reader can draw their own conclusions? Third-person objective.

Seriously, think about it. You’d be surprised.

(You may have noticed that not once during this little discussion did I mention second-person. That’s because we’re serious writers here, and serious writers don’t do second-person. Seriously, don’t. It’s a gimmick.)

Posted in: Writing