Points of View (First, Second, Third Person)
Point of view may seem like a small and unimportant detail in the grand scheme of things when creating a story, but is an important decision that should be considered before writing can begin. It usually isn’t something that the reader will take notice of when done well, but the different styles lend themselves to different kinds of stories. I’m going to talk about the different kinds of POVs, and the pros and cons of each type.
The first kind is First Person. Writing in First Person combines the narrator and protagonist. Narration takes the form of the character’s thoughts, and uses pronouns such as “I”, “Me”, “Us”, and “We”. This style is very immersive and it is great for misleading the audience. Because they only ever get to experience the world through the narrator’s eyes, it gives the author plenty of ways to misdirect and trick the audience. This can also be a bit constraining, as being stuck to one perspective means that the author now has to find a way to put the narrator into every single important scene in the story.
One good example of a series told in First Person is “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins. The narrator is Katniss Everdeen, and the audience stays in her perspective throughout the three books. We hear of scenes that happen in the background, but we do not get to experience them. When Katniss is in the Arena we do not hear of events happening at home, in the rebel headquarters, or in the President’s palace until Katniss does. (Note: As movies are rarely shot in First Person, the adaptation of the series does not follow this rule, and these other scenes are shown to the audience)
The second kind is Second Person. I’m not going to lie, Second Person sucks. Nobody likes Second Person. Writing in Second person has the narrator speak directly to the audience, and mainly uses the pronoun “you”. Second Person is not preferable when writing, and is best used in small doses. It’s mainly used for breaking the fourth wall, and can bring some humor into your writing.
A good example of a series that used Second Person well is “A Series of Unfortunate Events” by Lemony Snicket. The series has multiple reoccurring jokes involving the narrator, Mr. Snicket himself, speaking to the audience. Some of the most memorable ones include: trying to dissuade the reader from reading the book, and giving silly definitions for some of the more complicated words in the story. The entirety of the narration does not take place in Second Person, but where it is used adds to the enjoyment of the story. (Note: Both the TV and Movie adaptation have included this aspect of the story in their narratives, although the show puts more emphasis on the humor of the narration style.)
The third kind is the most popular, and it comes in two different forms, Third Person Limited and Third Person Omniscient. Both use pronouns such as “he”, “she” and “they” in their narration. We’ll talk about Third Person Limited first.
Third Person Limited has the narrator telling the story from an outside perspective while still being largely tethered to one character. It is functionally similar to First Person narration, although it is not as restrictive. It is possible for Third Person Limited to shift focus to a background character for a short time a few times during the story, where plot points can be revealed to the audience without the protagonist having to be there.
An example of this style is shown in the “Harry Potter” series by J K Rowling. While most of the story takes place though Harry’s perspective, it is not directly through his eyes. Most if not all of the books has one chapter not from Harry’s perspective but from the perspectives of other minor characters: Vernon Dursley, the British Prime Minister, a Groundskeeper. While these scenes do not have much of an effect on the overarching plot, they act as a teaser for what will happen and also offer some use as worldbuilding.
Third Person Omniscient has the narrator telling the story from an outside perspective, giving equal insight into the minds of the central characters. This style gives the reader knowledge of everything that is going on with the different characters. This style does not work well with plot twists. Most of the suspense and anticipation has to come from a genuine fear for the characters’ safety. This style leaves the most room for mistakes, and the author must be extra careful to avoid conventions when writing stories in this style. Another more logistical issue is the juggling of the different points of view, deciding when to cut between perspectives and how often to revisit them.
Possibly the most well known example of a series told in this style is “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R R Martin. Each book flits between several points of view, and no perspective is more or less in depth than the others. The story is very complex with hundreds of minor and background characters, and the various characters’ chances of survival accounts for the majority of the suspense in the series.