What’s Your Point of View?

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I had this amazing English teacher in high school. Her name was Dorothy Ward. I wish I knew where she is now so that I could call her up and tell her she was awesome. Anyway, Mrs. Ward once gave us an assignment to retell the story of Rip Van Winkle  from his wife’s perspective. Maybe she wouldn’t have nagged him all the time if he’d quit sleeping all day while she did all the work…maybe Rip was just a lazy bum…maybe Mrs. Van Winkle had gotten a bad rap all these years. This assignment–with just about any story–is a fun and highly instructive exercise for writing classes, and I highly recommend it to teachers who want to get across the importance of point of view in a cool way.

For fiction writers, point of view is a little more tricky. Not only do you have to decide who will be your POV character, you also have to decide whether you’re going to tell the story in first or third person, or just have an omniscient third-person narrator. (I’d say it’s probably a good idea not to attempt second person unless you’re writing one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books, which, btw, I loved as a kid…but I digress.)

So, how do you know when to use which method? The answer is…I don’t really know. That’s the funny thing about writing–it’s an art, not a science. Sometimes you just have to try something and see if it works and if it doesn’t, go back and try something else. Not the most expedient of methods, but there you are. I can, however, offer a few things to think about when deciding whether to go with first or third. I wish I could remember where I picked up these nuggets of advice, but I’ve been tucking these hints away for so many years now that I’ve lost track. In any case, here they are….

1. Use the “stuck in an elevator” test. If you were stuck in an elevator for a few hours with your POV character, would you enjoy listening to his/her stories, or would he/she get on your last nerve? If the former, first-person will probably work well; if the latter, you might want to go with third.

2. Determine your character’s level of self-awareness. While I do adore an unreliable narrator, some of the best characters in literature wouldn’t have the ability to tell their own story the way it needs to be told. Think Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind–Margaret Mitchell wouldn’t have been able to wring 1024 pages of very small print out of this story had Scarlett realized from the get-go that Ashley Wilkes wasn’t really her man. But, oh! How lucky for us that Mitchell knew that third person was the way to go! Scarlett may not have realized until the end that she was sabotaging her own happiness, but thanks to third person POV, we knew all along Rhett was the one for her.

3. Remember that a skewed perspective can also be powerful. Look, your character doesn’t have to have it all figured out in order to tell his/her story. In fact, it’s usually a lot better if he/she doesn’t. Consider Holden Caufield of The Catcher in the Rye. He tells his story from a mental institution, but it’s his perspective–much more so than the novel’s actual plot–that makes his story resonate with young readers. Similarly, it’s Huck’s take on things that makes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a classic: Huck’s description of Emmeline Grangerford’s poetry as “beautiful stuff,” for example, is way funnier than any snide comments an all-knowing narrator could’ve made.

4. Decide if you want to surprise your reader or not. It’s always fun when we have the OH NO HE DIDN’T! moments right along with a story character, so sometimes we want to keep readers in the dark along with the protagonist. But dramatic irony, when we as readers know something the story’s characters do not, can also be compelling. (Think, DON’T OPEN THE CLOSET! or WAIT, ROMEO! JULIET’S NOT REALLY DEAD!).

If you know of any other helpful tips when choosing POV, please share. I’d love to know how to make the whole selection process easier.

 

2 Responses to “What’s Your Point of View?”


  • I would have loved to read GWTW from a first person point of view. for all that it was written in third person, it wasn’t far from it. I think it depends on how you want the reader to perceive the story and how the character interacts with it. If the main character is modest and shy, third person, if selfish and domineering, first person works great. It also depends on the story.

    • Interesting idea, Jill! I’ve been re-reading GWTW, and as much as I love the movie, it’s so much better! Really interesting how Mitchell tells us how self-deluded Scarlett can be and how her thought process works on levels Scarlett herself doesn’t even recognize. Even more amazing how clearly Mitchell makes it that Scarlett is selfish and cold and yet we root for her anyway!

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