In this article in my series, Twelve Rules of Writing, I will be looking at point of view from a story-telling perspective. To remind you how this was addressed in my tongue-in-cheek article here’s the original.
10. Which point of view should I adopt?
This depends on genre. If you’re writing pornography or recipe books then second person present is what you’re looking for. If you’ve chosen science fiction you need to write in the future tense and if it’s historical fiction you need the past-imperfect. First person present is essentially for the psychologically disturbed and third person is for insurance policies.
Should stories be told as if the writer is experiencing them, or as an observer? The point of view colours the way in which the tale is experienced as a reader. Let’s take a more unusual example first: ~
You take the stairs, one at a time, ascending each tread as slowly and carefully as you may. Your fingertips brush the smooth waxy grain in the banister so that you sense many hands that have come this way before. Your eyes lift as you ascend, even though you cannot yet see what is at the top. You hear each creak as your weight shifts onto each stair….
Using second person present puts the reader directly in the position of protagonist, which can be useful where the experience is a strong part of the narrative. It is more commonly used in horror or erotica, both of which may benefit from a sense of immersion and direct involvement. A byproduct of this perspective is that it denies the reader free will and the writer is constantly in the position of instructing the reader in what they will do and how they will do it. This can be tiring as it forces the reader to constantly question whether they would follow the instructions as written. Used sparingly it can be a powerful tool, but in overuse it often becomes oppressive and fails to engage.
Shifting to third person perspective gives us a little distance and allows the writer to narrate. The following is in third person past tense:
Tony watched the street from the darkened window. His eyes sought the shadows, looking for a glimmer of reflection or a shape out of place. He felt he was being watched, and wanted to know why. A glint of metal from beneath a tree, close to the trunk where there should be nothing to catch the light, told him that someone watched him in return.
Shifting that into present tense changes the mood, upping the tension:
Tony watches the street from the darkened window. His eyes seek the shadows, looking for a glimmer of reflection or a shape out of place. He feels he is being watched and wants to know why. A glint of metal from beneath a tree, close to the trunk where there should be nothing to catch the light, tells him that someone watches him in return.
Comparing these two paragraphs we can see that the second is more immediate. It has a sense of tension and action that the first is denied because the events in the first example have already happened. In the second example events are happening now and things could change at any moment. For shorter pieces third person present can work very well for exactly these reasons, however over a longer piece it’s hard to maintain the tension through extended periods, especially when the tension ramps down again.
Stories have a natural rhythm of their own, and while publishers are fond of quoting books as having a pace that never lets up, in practice this reads as unnatural and forced. Everyone has to breathe at some time, even characters in a book, and if they are never allowed to consider their actions and reflect on what’s happened then it will seem as if they are flotsam, washed along by waves of events with no control or influence, making them uninteresting as characters. The best characters make the most difficult choices, but how can they choose if they never reflect on their actions?
Second person past tense is rarely used because it is a combination in conflict with itself. By placing the story in second person you are setting the reader as protagonist, but by placing it in the past you are saying events have already happened. As a reader you are even further out of control than you are with second person present.
The other main choice is first person past tense.
I was staring into space when it happened, so I didn’t really see. I could feel the wind as the tube train buffeted towards the platform and hear the grinding and squealing as the driver applied the brakes. I was part of the crowd waiting for the train. There was no sign that the guy beside me was in any distress. He just stood there with everyone else, until the train was yards away. Then he stepped forwards, leaned over the edge and toppled onto the tracks.
This is an extract from the opening of Sixty-One Nails, which is written mostly in first person perspective. The reason I chose this was that I wanted to reader to experience the discovery of the world as Niall, the protagonist, discovers it. This is both a strength and a weakness because the reader can’t know anything the protagonist doesn’t know and can’t see anything he doesn’t see. The viewpoint is vulnerable to their prejudices and subject to their assumptions. It also means we can tap into the character’s thoughts, revealing insights into their decision process and emotional reactions.
There is a danger in this that the narrative becomes introspective and locks into self-examination. The character’s voice can take on a whiny quality as they begin to wonder why all the bad things in the story happen to them. This can distance the reader from the character, undermining the empathetic relationship between reader and protagonist. The opposite can also happen, with the character seeming like an empty cypher for the story, manipulated by events and immune to the consequences. The character can seem untouchable, which distances the reader once again.
With Niall, I wanted to have someone who was completely closed off, emotionally damaged from a crashed relationship, immersed in a work-sleep cycle, a workaholic estranged parent who had locked themselves into a numbing cycle to avoid the pain of dealing with the rejection and guilt of his marriage break-up. When he has a heart attack in chapter one, he isn’t really dying – he’s already dead. He’s numb to the world and sees only what’s in front of him.
First person present worked well for this, but when I came to write The Road to Bedlam it seemed insufficient to simply present Niall’s view, especially as his view had shifted. There were things going on around Niall that he couldn’t see and we had come to know Blackbird, at least through Niall’s eyes. Including some passages from Blackbird’s viewpoint, but switching these from first person to third person, allowed me to follow Blackbird’s thread of the story without compromising the relationship. If I had used first person perspective with Blackbird the reader would have gained intimate knowledge of Blackbird’s feelings about Niall, something I wanted to explore later and which forms one of the core threads of the arc-plot.
If you are fortunate enough to get feedback from a large number of readers you will find that some people expect your characters to wear their heart on their sleeve and voice their emotions openly and expressively. Others will want your characters to stop talking about how they feel and get on with the plot. The simple fact is that you can’t please everyone. As a writer, what you can do is be true to your characters. Your choice of viewpoint is linked to your expression of those characters in the context of that story and forms the basis of the reader’s relationship with the character, so it can make or break the empathetic link that is so important.
Point of view is a powerful tool for a writer and like most powerful tools should be used with care. The choice of viewpoint depends on the story and characters and provides the writer with the opportunity to zoom in to a character’s inner dialogue or zoom out to get a wider perspective.
It’s not just for insurance policies and the psychologically disturbed, after all.