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Points of View

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Author: Michael Bard

Lately, a lot of people have been talking to me about what Point of View (POV) they should use in their stories. For good or bad, I've mostly used First Person, and people at first think that that is the way to go. It isn't, necessarily.

Let's start with the POV options available:

1. First Person. This is a person telling the story. In other words, relating the sequence of events that happened to them. Thus, "I strode up the hill, my hooves sinking into the soft soil, my tail swishing behind me."

2. Second Person. This viewpoint is most commonly used in instructions, like recipes. While it could be used in fiction, it rarely is (and for good reason). Thus, "You climb the hill, your tail swishing behind you, your nostrils flaring as you inhale the scents of nature around you." The basic difficulty with Second Person is its inherent conceit that the reader is the entity that the story is being told about; this means that the author is, in effect, demanding that the reader feel, react, and behave as the author wishes. This rarely works out well. Accordingly, I will not discuss Second Person, and mention it only for the sake of completeness.

3. Third Person Omniscient. This is, in essence, the author telling the story. The author floats above the events, landing here and there at points of interest. Thus, "The anthropomorphic horse strode up the hill, completely unaware of the three cruel anthropomorphic wolves waiting to pounce and eat him."

4. Third Person Limited. This is the same idea as option two, but the POV is restricted to what only the main character could see or hear. Thus, "The anthropomorphic horse strode up the hill."

So, other than pronouns, what's the difference?

Each POV has advantages and disadvantages. First Person is the best for character. When First Person is done well, the narrator, the POV character, is telling the story. Every word is in his voice, not the author's, and every word chosen reveals characters.

Contrast the two following variations of the same events described in First Person:

I staggered up the hill, the stench of trees and grass gone wild drenching my nostrils.

I strode up the hill, the sweet scent of trees and grass growing free massaging my nostrils.

Both of these describe the same thing -- walking up a hill with trees and grass around. However, both show very different characters. The first shows somebody who hates nature, is not in shape (hence the 'staggered'), and who is not happy to be climbing the hill. The second shows somebody who loves and admires nature, and wants to be climbing the hill.

The events are the same, but the characters depicted in those passages are very different.

First Person provides a closeness of character, but a distance in time. The fact that the horse is telling that he's climbing the hill means that he survived to tell he was climbing the hill. Which means that the wolves he hasn't mentioned yet are not going to kill him as the reader knows the POV character survives. Thus you gain character, but lose jeopardy.

Sadly, most writers pick First Person by default, because it feels both natural to them (they're telling the story), and it seems to be easy to write. It isn't. In fact, it is very hard to write. Just as First Person gives you the opportunity to reveal character, by its very nature it does reveals character with every line written. Every line, every word, must be spoken in the voice of the POV character for First Person to work. If this is done, then the illusion created by a First Person POV narrator is amazing. But, if it's ever violated -- if a single phrase, or even word, doesn't feel right to the reader -- then the illusion is spoiled. It's extremely hard to get every phrase, every word, right.

Third Person Omniscient is the best for describing epic events that involve hundreds of characters, or describing situations and emphasizing irony that would be hard or difficult to get across otherwise.

Consider the following event described in Third Person Ominiscient:

The anthropomorphic horse climbed the hill, completely unaware of the three anthropomorphic wolves waiting to eat him. If he'd known, the horse might have gotten signatures on that last will and testament he'd almost finished, or might have quit his job and enjoyed a few days of celebration with his savings, since he wasn't going to need them much longer. Alas, he didn't.

Here, it's the author describing the scene, and commenting on the irony of the horse not preparing his finances for his imminent demise, or saving money for a future he will never have. There is no way that the horse could know he was going to die. If he did, he wouldn't be climbing the hill in the first place. Most urban myths are told in Third Person Omniscient to get the irony, the humour of the situation, across.

The other use of Third Person Omniscient is the epic event. One might be written something like the following:

Species rise, and species fall. One might think that an anthropomorphic horse was soft and helpless whilst climbing a hill if three anthropomorphic wolves were waiting to eat him, and in the individual case you'd be right. But the anthropomorphic horses were a far more successful civilized species. In their need for survival against the wolves, they'd been forced to co-operate closely, and driven to develop other means of defending themselves. The wolves, in contrast, co-operated in packs, but didn't co-operate as a species. Thus, the horses were the ones to develop swords and bows and crossbows and guns, whereas the wolves only had what they stole from the horses. And a horse with a machine gun can kill a whole lot more wolves, than a wolf with teeth and claws can kill horses.

In this case the story is not really about character, it's about society, and grand and epic changes in technology and culture. Something that could not really be done in any other point of view.

Third Person Omniscient has both distance from character, and distance in time. It is the great overview, the witnessing of things from a distance and the drawing of conclusions. It is an essay written in history class.

If you want to write an essay on a history of fictional events, which can be fascinating (take a look at Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon), then Third Person Omniscient is an excellent choice. Just remember that it's not very good at handling character.

So what is Third Person Limited? Third Person Limited is a compromise between the First and Third Person viewpoints. Consider the following event described in Third Person Limited:

The anthropomorphic horse climbed the hill, the scent of the trees and grass rich in his nostrils. It was a steep hill, and more wild than his mother would have liked him walking through, but he wasn't worried. He'd just reached the crest when the scent of the wolves finally reached him. They'd tried to hide upwind, but hadn't been completely successful. Turning, the horse screamed, but that was all he could do before the first of the pack was on him, ripping and clawing, the horse's bright red blood splashing onto the grass and their muzzles. Pain stabbed through him, pain like he'd never known. A pain that was the last thing he would ever feel.

Third Person Limited is a compromise point of view. It's an attempt to gain the closeness, the immediacy, of first person, and yet maintain the jeopardy of third person. The entire sequence is described, as much as possible, from the POV of the horse, describing only things that the horse could see. Thus, the fact that the wolves are present in ambush is not mentioned until the horse could detect them.

However, note also, that in this version the horse dies. The horse can die, because the horse is not telling the story, somebody else is. And thus jeopardy is maintained. In the first person POV, the horse could not die, because then he wouldn't be around to tell the story. Yes, it can be written that he dies, but the reader will never have the same sense of potential jeopardy as with Third Person Limited. They will always have a sub-conscious expectation that the horse will survive given the POV chosen. And, if you do kill the horse, then the reader has a strong chance of being jerked out of their willing suspension of disbelief because the author has violated an implicit contract created by the use of First Person.

So, we come back to which POV should be used for any given story.

If your story is primarily about character, then think about choosing First Person. Just be aware that you confirm to the readers that the character lives. Also be aware that describing extreme emotional duress is hard in First Person because of the closeness of the narrator. My partner-in-crime, Cubist, disagrees -- but then, he would, wouldn't he? At any rate, consider: If you had a child, and that child died in your arms, could you ever describe that event? Or would you stammer over it, try and jump to what happened afterwards, do anything to not relive the actual event. Most people would do the latter, and that means that the narrator would likely do the latter. And, if they don't, then that is a major component of their character that will affect how they describe all other events in the story.

If your story is primarily about events, and how they affect society, or the world as a whole, then go for Third Person Omniscient. Alternately, if you are writing humour, if you want the reader to see the silliness implicit in situations, Third Person Omniscient is a viable option.

Otherwise, go with Third Person Limited. This is, overwhelmingly, the most common narrative voice used in commercially published fiction today. Readers have been trained over decades to treat a third person narrator as invisible. Still, there is some distance. But, in skilled hands, the character can be nearly as immediate and strong as in first. Events can be described the way the POV character would think of them, but the characterization is not as extensive, or as good, as in First Person.

Third Person Limited should be the default POV chosen. If you chose something else, then know why you're choosing something else, and make sure that the gains are worth the loses.

One last thought: I've written most of my stuff in First Person, because I thought it was more immediate. I also believe, strongly, that I've become locked into it, even when it's inappropriate. Now, I'm repeatedly bashing my head into the difficulties of describing emotionally intense events in First Person. The descriptions are not working. So, I'm forcing myself to use Third Person Limited for a while, almost exclusively, to try and regain balance.

Think about it.