In any story, there’s a narrator that is separate from the writer. Point of view concerns how the narrator tells the story, and this will determine how close the relationship between the narrator and reader will be. Each point of view, from first person to third to second works differently to move the reader, and through the manipulation of point of view (POV), a writer can create intimacy or add necessary distance.
FIRST PERSON POINT OF VIEW
First person POV narratives are the most intimate as the narrator, “I,” tells a story directly to the reader. We become his or her sole confidants. As a writer, it’s important to have a firm sense of who your narrator is, how he views the world, how he speaks, and why he’s compelled to tell this particular story. Is the narrator confessing a past misdeed? Trying to clarify past events for his own state of mind? How faulty is his thinking? Os he funny, confident, tongue-tied, or driven? What discoveries does he make in the telling of his story?
With first person POV, a writer can create an unforgettable character through a distinctive voice, which helps to endear the narrator to the reader. Author Dorothy Allison does this in Bastard Out of Carolina. The story is told in the informal voice of the colorful character “Bone,” who starts sentences with clauses, conjunctions and declaratives, as if speaking in real time, gossiping with us at the kitchen table. We quickly realize Bone knows terrible secrets about her unconventional family, and there’s no doubt she’s going to tell us everything. We enjoy being her chosen audience.
In Roddy Doyle’s novel, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, the narrator is an abused wife who works as a housecleaner. In this excerpt, she both admits and denies her alcoholism:
Years ago, I had to drown the alcohol with coke or blackcurrant. Now I prefer orange juice, but I’ll drink anything. I don’t know when I started being like that. I don’t know when I became an alco [sic]. My children have gone without food because of my drinking. My children have suffered because of my drinking. But I have it under control. I’ve been taking back some of the day. I don’t drink now until after Jack has gone to bed. . . Sometimes I put him to bed a bit early.
Such a candid confession creates empathy, all the more profound because readers can clearly see what she cannot. Some of the most fascinating stories are those in which the narrator does not seem to be aware of their own distortion of the events.
Multiple first person points of view, when the writer alternates two or more first person narrators, can also be used. Romance novels are commonly written this way. Readers form an alliance with the narrator they most identify with, yet feel sympathetic toward the other narrator(s) because they are privy to their private thoughts, too. That said, having two narrators may not be as intimate as one if readers find themselves torn between differing viewpoints. Not everyone likes being forced to form alliances.
Conversely, this can work to a writer’s advantage by provoking sympathy for multiple characters and entrenching the reader in their dilemmas. It’s like being at a family dinner where everyone you love is arguing, and you don’t want to take sides. This happens in Joanna Briscoe’s Sleep With Me, a novel about a love triangle narrated in alternating chapters in first person points of view by a husband and his pregnant wife, who unwittingly have an affair with the same woman!
THIRD PERSON POINT OF VIEW
Third person is one step removed from first POV since an invisible narrator is telling a story about a “he” or “she.” Third person limited POV (where we see the world only through a particular character’s eyes) can be as intimate as first person, but there are subtle differences that make it well-suited for certain characters.
A good example is Belly, by Lisa Selin Davis. Belly is an argumentative, belligerent ex-convict at odds with his adult children. The reader needs distance from this prickly character. Although Davis makes use of Belly’s caustic voice when we see events through his eyes, his inner monologue is still separate from the narrative. This allows us to be observers, yet brings us just close enough to empathize. In this scene, Belly openly grieves, but he is so out of touch with his emotions that he doesn’t have the tools or words to express them:
He turned and looked at his youngest [adult] child, her pale stringy hair and her pale eyes, everything about her light against the darkening sky and he felt something strange, some foreign object clogging his throat, I’m giving birth to an egg out my mouth, he thought, and then he coughed and made a sound and he thought, What is happening to me, what is this? And Eliza put her skinny little arms around him and said, “It’s okay, it’s okay Daddy,” and he still didn’t know, he could not see out his left eye and he let his head hang down on her bony shoulder and he shook and her shoulder was wet. It was all over in a minute.
As you can see, third person POV permits a writer to make use of descriptions, metaphors and language that the character himself wouldn’t use. In this way, third person opens up possibilities to do more with the writing. An objective narrator can also reveal things about flawed or shady characters that would be less than honest with the reader.
Third person works well with multiple points of view, too. We are observers who learn the motives and thoughts of various characters in a story. A sense of intimacy with the reader can be gained by using limited POV, when the narrator zooms in to get the inner thoughts of a particular character. Chapter or section breaks help cue the reader as to whose inner thoughts we are privy to.
Another type of third person narrative is omniscient, where the narrator knows everything and everyone’s thoughts. This type of narrative is the most distancing, but well suited for novels where setting and history are as important as the characters.
SECOND PERSON POINT OF VIEW
The second person pronoun “you” can be used several different ways, and this POV can create a surprisingly intimate bond between the narrator and reader. “You” turns reading about something into experiencing it.
Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerny, begins: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. . . ”
Obviously, the “you” in this novel does not refer to the reader. Here, the self has split, creating a “you” in an inner dialog. The narrator is speaking to the self in denial. Although we understand the narrator is not us, his inner dialog becomes internalized through use of the word “you.” We are drawn into the mind of this conflicted narrator as he avoids dealing with reality through escapism. I won’t give the plot away, but when the reason for his distress is revealed, his self-discovery becomes, in essence, our discovery, too, and it packs an emotional punch. The same story told in first or third person POV wouldn’t have the same impact.
Second person POV can be used in an instructional narrative, as in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s short story “The Solutions to Brian’s Problem” from American Salvage. The narrator, Brian, brainstorms how to deal with his wife, who is a meth addict and the mother of their baby. The narrative is gut-wrenching because we cannot help but imagine ourselves in his shoes as he lists any and all possible ideas.
Connie said she was going out to the store to buy formula and diapers. While she’s gone, load up the truck with the surround-sound home entertainment system and your excellent collection of power tools, put the baby boy in the car seat and drive away from this house you built with your own hands. Expect that after you leave, she will break all the windows in this living room, including the big picture window and the big mirror over the fireplace, which you’ve already replaced twice. The furnace will run and run. Then she will go to your mother’s looking for you, and when she doesn’t not find you, she will curse at your mother and possibly attempt to burn your mother’s house down. . .
Wait till Connie comes back home from the “store,” distract her with the baby, and then cut her meth with Drano, so that when she shoots it up she dies.
By the time Brian arrives at the seventh and most plausible solution, we are right there with him, feeling his inner conflict and pain as if it were ours.
Another way of using second person is when a first person POV narrator, “I,” addresses a specific character, "you,” throughout the story. John Ames, an elderly minister, dying of a bad heart, is the first person narrator in GILEAD, by Marilynne Robinson. Ames is writing an account of his life for his six-year-old son to read when he’s an adult. Gilead is an epistolary but written as informal conversational, so it reads like a second person address. Here, Ames refers to a playful moment with his boy that turns somber:
And then I pretended I had a bee buzzing around in my mouth, and you said, ‘No you don’t, there wasn’t any bee!’ and I grabbed you around the shoulders and blew into your ear and you jumped up as though you thought maybe there was a bee after all, and you laughed, and then you got serious and you said, ‘I want you to do this.’ And then you put your hand on my cheek and touched the flower to my lips, so gently and carefully, and said, ‘Now sip.’ You said, ‘You have to take your medicine.’
The second person address creates a contradictory reaction in the reader: we feel the narrator is personally addressing us, while, at the same time, we acknowledge the “you” as a specific character in the story. Our emotional response deepens because we cannot help being called into the father-son relationship. We feel the love, tenderness and sorrow firsthand, as if we were Ames’ son.
If this novel were a typical first-person narrative, it wouldn’t have the strength that it does to move readers. It would be simply a sad sermon delivered by a devout man on his deathbed. Instead, we’re able to step into a loving and affectionate relationship through the virtue of the second-person pronoun “you.”
Whichever POV you feel most comfortable with, don’t be afraid to explore different narratives in view of your characters, their motivations, and the story they are telling. How intimate do you want your readers to be with your narrator? Does intimacy serve the story? The subtle and complex layers of POV are worth studying so that your work receives the desired response from your readers. What a story is about cannot be separated from who is telling it, and how.
In addition to the books mentioned above, a solid resource for writers is Points Of View: An Anthology Of Short Stories, edited by James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny. The anthology contains stories by Steinbeck, Capote, Updike, Dostoevsky, Poe, and more, and gives an excellent account of the many variations of fictional techniques concerning point of view.
Linda K. Sienkiewicz is a published poet and writer with a chapbook award and an MFA in fiction. She wrote her forthcoming novel, In The Context Of Love, (July 2015, Buddhapuss Ink) in a first person POV second person address, where the narrator talks to her lost love throughout the story.
Thanks, Linda, for a very clear and intriguing explanation of POV and the important role it plays in every story!
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