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So today’s topic is, as almost usual these days, a request topic. I don’t recall which reader specifically requested this one (sorry), but it’s a good topic that, in light of some discussions I’ve seen online that all but floundered on this same point, seems to have come at a good time. Today, we’re going to be talking about PoV, or Point of View.
Actually, we’re specifically going to be talking about the strengths of various points of view, what each one does best that may or may not edge you toward realizing that such a perspective works best for your story. Now, bit of a warning here, some of this is going to sound familiar to you long term readers, and that’s because I’ve talked about Point of View and Perspective pieces before. Several times, if you hit both those links, and then a few more tag clouds from there, and this post is going to retread a lot of the same ground. Kind of like that old adage of “No matter how many times you ask, the answer is still X.”
On the plus side, those of you who want to read more on this topic and have not browsed through the four-year-plus archive on the site can find it. Search bar or cloud tags!
So, strengths of different points of view. I’m going to establish some ground rules before we get started. First, everything I’m going to talk about today? Limited perspective rather than Omniscient. I’ve spoken about those two before (see the above links), but the reason I won’t be retreading that ground today is because it doesn’t change too much insofar as the strengths of these perspectives go. It’s … Well, it’s a bit like changing up the suspension and tires on a vehicle. Yes, it will be different … but at the same time it’s still going to be that specific brand and frame of car, and the different handling won’t make it a completely different car (and if that analogy didn’t click, borrow someone’s copy of Forza Horizon 3 and try to make an Aerial Atom into a rally car). Read up on limited versus omniscient perspective and you shouldn’t have much trouble adjusting the strengths and weaknesses of each point of view with the omniscient perspective. Got that? Good, then lets talk about—
The Strengths of First-Person Point of View
First-person (capping just for this article) Point of View (PoV from here on out) is a classic viewpoint choice with a lot of good strengths, but first and foremost is that it’s the personal viewpoint. If you’re confused about the differences between the two most common viewpoints, think of this one as the viewpoint that lets you fill the shoes of the protagonist. With a first-person PoV, that’s exactly what happens. The audience is, in a way, in the protagonist’s head, getting their direct account of everything as it happened … or at least, as they saw it.
This PoV, then, is an extremely strong PoV when it comes to being personal. It can’t help but be personal, because everything the reader sees, hears, and reads is entirely taken from a single, solitary source. Often in their own words, as well.
If it helps, think of the First-Person PoV like a storyteller sitting across from the reader and telling them their version of events: What happened to them, what they did, how they felt. The First-Person PoV isn’t concerned with other character’s thoughts and feelings past what the viewpoint character reads, understands, assumes, or sees. They’re concerned with their view, version, and experience.
As I said, this gives this PoV a very personal nature, which is why it’s extremely common among YA literature, especially romance or coming-of-age stories, because it puts the reader right in the protagonist’s shoes for the ride, giving them the purest, most undiluted experience.
This comes with other strengths as well, of course. For example, you’ll also see this PoV used quite a bit with detective mysteries for some of the same reasons it’s used for YA and coming-of-age stories, but for others as well. A first-person, story, for example, is very vivid, because the detail that happens to the protagonist is related in a personal way. Here, let me give you an example. This one’s from One Drink, describing walking down the street in the rain.
I checked the mirror and, seeing nothing coming down the street, pushed the door open and stepped out into the rain. And instantly wished I hadn’t. This wasn’t just rain; it was cold rain. My face quickly began to feel like I had ice cubes sliding down it. I hunched my neck into my shoulders, trying to get as much of myself as possible covered by my jacket as I headed for the sidewalk with a urgency to my step.
There’s a directness to the scene in that statement. It’s not imagery, no. It’s someone saying “Hey, here is what it felt like” and then giving you a no-nonsense accounting of exactly what it was like, what they did.
Now, you can take that above scene and rewrite it as a Third-person presentation … but right in what I just wrote you can see the difference. It’s a presentation, not an accounting.
This directness, this straightforward approach to things as they happen, makes First-Person a great PoV for relating vivid detail to the reader. The reader isn’t seeing a picture of it happening and thinking “Oh, that must have hurt.” Instead, they’re shown the pain right from the source, as stars cross the protagonist’s vision or pain rushes up a limb. It’s more abrupt, more straightforward and concrete in its detail. Sort of like the difference between watching someone else bump their shins and then bumping your shins yourself. Or watching someone wake up and waking up yourself with sticky eyes and a dry mouth.
There’s one other strength that I want to discuss with this viewpoint, though, and that is the power of its focus.
Okay, let’s step back for a second. Imagine a room, right? Like … a murder mystery room. You’ve got a body on the floor, and four people, protagonist included, scattered about the room, say … each near one wall. Now, think about how a First-Person PoV will frame this room.
Actually, no, let’s start with Third-Person, though we haven’t talked about its strengths yet. Nor are we starting here, but think about it as if it were a movie shot. What would a Third-Person PoV show? Why, you’d see the whole room? Or even at the least, a large bit of it. Think of a classic Third-Person camera setup from a video game, and you’ve got the gist of it. Sure, you’re seeing what the protagonist is seeing … but you’re also seeing a bit of the world around them. You can see what’s at their back, or off to their side, where they may not be looking.
Now compare that to First-Person, where we see the world through the character’s eyes. Do we see what’s behind them, or to the side? Not unless the character looks in that direction.
What I’m getting at here is that the First-Person perspective brings with it a narrower focus. A sort of “boots-on-the-ground” approach. When in First-Person perspective, the audience cannot see what is behind the protagonist. Or off to the side. They must turn their attention in that direction in order to see what’s happening. Or they have to hear about it second-hand from someone else. Or …
Well, just take this clip from Dead Silver:
For a moment, the room was quiet save for the hiss of the air conditioning. Rocke stared at the ceiling, concentration written on his face. I glanced behind me, checking the time on the room’s clock. It was almost one in the afternoon.
That bit about checking the clock? It required an action, because there wasn’t a clock in easy view. Now a clock may seem mundane, but now apply that same narrowed PoV to another setting, such as a tense sneak through a guarded building, or an examination of a crime scene. Or even a horror setting, where the protagonist is being stalked.
See, First-Person is limited to what the character can see and know (again, just a reminder, but we’re not talking about omniscient today) by virtue of where they are and what they’re doing. The stories are grounded, centered only around the protagonist. Again, this is why you see a lot of mysteries, personal life stories, and the like all using the First-Person PoV, but larger stories, ones that require a larger scope across a much larger cast of characters, don’t.
This narrow focus isn’t bad for a particular type of story. Again, pulling examples from within my own work, Unusual Events sees a mix of both First-Person and Third-Person stories with its PoVs. Some of the stories are First-Person precisely because the narrow focus was exactly what served to make the story the most effective, while others were Third-Person because that wider scope told a better story than the narrow one.
So, if you’re looking at the strengths of the First-Person PoV, you’ll find that it’s a very personal style, direct and concrete with it’s detail. Which in turn, brings a sense of vivid realism to each event. The narrow framing the PoV brings also keeps the story laser focused on those events immediately concerning the protagonist, grounding the story and keeping its scope tight.
All together? Those are good strengths that can suit a large variety of stories and make them more impactful. But what about other PoVs? Let’s talk about—
The Strengths of Third-Person Point of View
Okay, so stepping away from First-Person, let’s talk about Third-Person PoV, and I’m going to start with one of the largest, most immediate strengths that Third-Person offers that First-Person can’t match (I probably shouldn’t be encouraging comparison right now, but in this case it works), and that strength is multiple points of view.
If it helps, think of this as an inverse of what we discussed above. Rather than a narrow focus that just shows what one character sees, a Third-Person PoV shows what is going on behind them, to their sides. It pulls back and shows the greater picture. It can even swoop around and follow a different character entirely, offering a new viewpoint and perspective (which is something First-Person doesn’t do often by nature of its focus).
This is a strong advantage for some types of stories. For example, have you ever read an Epic in anything but a Third-Person PoV? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Third-Person is great for looking at the big picture, for seeing the wide scope of the plot and all its different threads.
Effectively, you can almost look at it as an inverse of many of the strengths of First-Person. Or perhaps … taking them in a different direction to make what First-Person isn’t as good at strengths while taking First-Person’s strengths and making them weaknesses.
Take, for example, the vivid, concrete directness of First-Person. Well, Third-Person PoV can’t quite replicate it. It can get fairly close … but it’ll never quite be a strong as First-Person.
Instead, however, it makes up for it by not being chained to one or two specific details. A First-Person story might talk about rain dripping down the back of the protagonist’s neck, but a Third-Person story can show that and the rain dripping down the necks of everyone nearby, without need for a protagonist to catch that detail themselves.
It goes back to that idea of a camera. A Third-Person story is free to show more detail in exchange for perhaps losing a little of the visceral impact … but there’s so much more it can show that things even out. You’re not required to stay with whatever the PoV character’s eyes are fixed on, but free to jump to a nearby bush, to a tree, to … well, whatever! Which, in turn, means the reader can be given exactly what the writer wants without some hoops on making it a very specific purpose.
Now, that sounds like a case of “well, it’s still not too different because character viewpoint (and limited, remember),” well, you’re not wrong. You still usually have a character around that the “camera” for each scene is orbiting. But you can move that camera to different characters, or sometimes even objects or settings. And with that, you have narrative freedom you cannot find in a First-Person PoV. You can wax historical about a building, or describe its creation, and without the need to make a character do it for you.
Again, this is why larger, epic stories that are concerned with the bigger scope tend to avoid First-Person PoV. Third-Person allows them the freedom to present the myriad numbers of plot lines and different perspectives that bring such a large story to life. They can jump from place to place, show all the players, etc, and with far less leg work than would be required for a single PoV to do the same.
Which, in turn also means that it can dodge dead-time where not a lot is happening to one character while things happen to other characters. For example, just look at Colony. Those of you that have read it (and if you haven’t, you should get on that ASAP), can you imagine what the story would have been like from only a single PoV, First-Person? Just following one of the three protagonists?
It wouldn’t be nearly as strong a story. Putting aside the amount of dead time where each of the main characters isn’t doing much while the others are on the other side of Pisces, there would also be a lot of story that simply wouldn’t be seen and would only be delivered to the reader as exposition and infodumping … rather than the character’s experiencing it themselves. Even if you went and jumped between each character’s PoV in First-Person, rather than Third as the story does, some of the larger picture would be lost, the story narrower and more focused.
Now, it would be more personal. We’d probably get a lot more private thoughts from each of the main cast. But we’d lose in turn that wider lens, sacrificing a view of the whole planet for closer-in looks at the gritty details.
Could it still work as a story? Sure. But it wouldn’t be a strong story for the same reasons.
So, strengths of a Third-Person PoV. You have a wider lens to show your story with, allowing for a broader scope and more viewpoints. This in turn lends itself to expanded scales and context that a narrow focus can lose.
Now, this is where I would be done, but first …
The Strengths of a Second-Person PoV
There are none. Go home. We’re done.
Okay, I kid, but in all seriousness, as I’ve said before, the Second-Person viewpoint is not to be used 99.9% of the time. I have, in the last five-six years written at least 3-4 million words of content.
Of that? I have written one short story in Second-Person. That’s right. One.
And to be fair, it won a competition, so there was that. But that should give you an idea of how rarely a Second-Person story should be utilized.
So why use one at all? Well, it does bring one single strength that the other PoVs cannot: That of the reader’s own. Because a Second-Person story is set, ostensibly, from the reader’s own. It’s a telling of what the reader is going through.
It almost never works. This is a PoV with really only one strength (that only rears its head if things work) and a few dozen pitfalls. That one strength is that … it’s all “happening” to your reader. So it’s kind of like a First-Person story but with the reader standing in and directly becoming the protagonist. Which makes for an even richer experience if it works.
The pitfalls? Hundreds, not the least of which that you don’t know how your reader thinks or acts, meaning just about every word can pull them out of the story. Even I sidestepped that issue with The Ride, effectively cheating.
99.9%. Stick with the other two PoVs.
Now, anyway, it’s time for—
A First-Person PoV narrows the lens of your story, focusing on just what the protagonist sees and experiences. It’s really good at offering concrete, vivid, gritty detail and being personable, which is why a lot of YA coming-of-age stories and mysteries make use of it. Strongest when it’s bringing in the details and giving the audience a laser-focused event.
Third-Person PoV, meanwhile has a much wider lens, sacrificing some of that vivid detail and personable experience for an array of viewpoints and details. In other words, a much more open world that can jump around and see things that static or fixed view won’t. This is great for stories that have a lot of territory or material to cover, or multiple events happening in different places at the same time.
There you have it. Remember, this isn’t all I’ve written on the topic, so check those other links if you’re unsure. But for now …
Good Luck. Now get writing.
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