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Friday, April 20, 2012

What's Your Point of View?

I have run into a lot of discussion about different points of view in writing. First person, second person, third person (omniscient and otherwise).

First person is told by the narrator. Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier is a splendid example. The narrator tells the story as she saw it unfold. She is telling it some years after the events took place.

Second person is rather rare (and, to my mind, is a little clunky):

You went to the store to buy some croissants, but you remembered that George hated them, so you opted for the raisin bagels, instead. That's when you saw him - the man you'd longed to meet and finally gave up meeting...

Third person is a narration that can change its focus from character to character. The writer can get into the character's minds and switch from focus to focus. Here's an example from Pharaoh's Son, where Hori and Khay are arguing:

Khay lost his temper. "You're an arrogant, hard headed fool," he said with cutting deliberation. "You ignore what you know is good advice to follow your own half witted schemes. I wash my hands of you!" (you can see Khay's reaction)

"And you're the biggest fool in all Lower Egypt!" Hori snarled. His hand rose almost unconsciously to touch the bruise at his forehead. (now you're watching Hori)

That slight movement made Khay take a half-step forward. "Wait, Hori!" he said. "Wait! Please - understand me. You aren't just Crown Prince here: you are my brother and I love you. I don't want you to be harmed in any way-" (Khay sees the movement and his heart softens)

Third person works (for me) in stories that are progressing as you read. Depending on the action of a specific section, I zero in on the character that is chiefly active (one of a pair of brothers, trying to find the other who's been kidnapped, comes running from a spot, his mind veering between hope and despair) and change the focus (not the point of view) from scene to scene.

Here is one final example from Pharaoh's Son. The villain, Rahotep, has just killed one of the major characters and is now heading toward the hidden treasure:

Rahotep plunged into the coolness of the night and moved purposefully across the courtyard toward the processional way that cut straight through the temple. If he hurried along there and then cut southeast he would come to the series of pylons that culminated in the ruined southeast gateway of Seti I. The pylon of Amunhotep III lay closest to him if he went that way, though it would entail cutting through the sanctuary.

He drew his robes closer about him and shivered. His night of triumph had somehow turned threatening. He thought he could feel eyes upon him, and the silent statues that he passed in the dimness all seemed to be staring at him.
I do, however, have two stories where the narrator is telling of things that happened in the far past. Here's the opening page of a manuscript I'm working on. It tells the story of a year in the life of a boy, remembered forty years later:

Following the tide of memory can be risky. We turn our thoughts and emotions toward a moment in our past, recalling it through the eyes of memory and feeling it with our beings that lived through the moment and beyond and bringing to bear on that act of recollection the subsequent knowledge that our lives have brought us. The moment is not the same. We know too much now, we are able to see where we were before it, and where we went after it had its influence on us. We risk stepping into bitterness, the sense of the hollowness of hopes and dreams.

If we had the chance to relive the moments that we thought were the turning points of our lives, how many of us would behold them unchanged? Many of us would say, "I wasn't so desperate then," or, "If I had known how swiftly my happiness would flee," or perhaps, "I was so deluded at the moment - and I didn't know."
And yet, as I sit here at my desk, I can turn the eyes of my memory back to one moment that remains in every particular just as it was at the time I experienced it. It hasn't changed at all. If I could step backward, turn and enter that specific date and time, seeing it through the eyes of a grown man. I would feel the same way, see the same things, speak the same words. But maybe, knowing what I know now, there would be an added spice, the ability to sit back and say, Yes, that is how it was. I remember the feelings. I feel them now. That was then, this is now, but that moment so strongly ties them together, it is present and as strong as ever.
So, then, the moment.

It was, as I remember, a day in March, a blustery one. Snow lay on the mountains in untidy rags, diminishing each day...

The story follows his recollections told from the point of view of someone who lived through that year and is remembering.

Here's one other (I'm being kind to insomniacs). It's told by a mercenary soldier on the eve of a big battle that will, he thinks, annihilate his troop. It recounts the story of a summer in the life of his troop:

It's odd the way memory works. I just lifted a reed pen, scraped my thumbnail over the tip to see if it was sharp, and suddenly I wasn't sitting as I am now, in a drafty stone hut in the midwinter with three days' growth of beard on my chin and a stomach sour from eating too much sausage, but enjoying the warmth of summer, sound of body with a good horse between my knees. It's HIS doing, I suppose, since it was he who taught me to hold a pen and first traced the letters for me.
I'll think of him. God knows it's better than letting my stomach churn while thinking of tomorrow's fighting. Maybe I won't be here tomorrow. Maybe I will, and right now I don't care.

The second part of the novel begins with him picking up the journal thirty years later and saying that he's going to finish the story:

I had forgotten this journal. It's odd to leaf through it and recall the events of a summer thirty six years in the past, remembered on a night twenty years ago, when I expected to die within the next twenty four hours. The ink is still dark and the handwriting resembles mine as it is now, but somehow cruder, more angular. I've been writing incessantly for the past twenty years, none of it important. Now I write a more elegant hand.
Importance. We mislabel so many things, calling important those events which should occupy only a fraction of our attention, and all but ignoring those things upon which rests the fate of our souls. As I look over this journal and remember, I realize that I have been measuring my life in spoonfuls day after day, a happy life but a hurried one, and now that I am close enough to see the ending, the past has touched my shoulder and made me turn my eyes back toward the beginning. And maybe just as well. There's plenty of room in this journal to finish the story.

In those cases, the first person point of view takes the place, to a degree of the third person (though the speaker can't know everything, he or she has a pretty good idea of what happened

Which is best? It depends on what you want to accomplish. In my experience, first person works best in a story told in retrospect. Third person is the best way, for me, to tell an ongoing story. It allows me to look through different characters' eyes.


  1. I like third person close--you know everything the character knows, but still refer to them by name--and you know nothing else--like Harry Potter. I do have a couple books in first person though--it is popular in YA and DOES help the reader feel closer to the character. I'm not a fan of omniscient, but I don't mind changing PoV by scene (Stephen King does this a lot)

    1. I tend to focus on a specific character in a scene - unless it's a highly-charged scene with things happening quickly and I want to highlight the conflict. That can be exhausting to a reader (it is to me, at least) if it's done too often. Since posting this I was advised that 'third person omiscient' can be like the old-timey voice 'And now, Dear Reader, you can see that Jane Eyre is really in a pickle...' Hm. It's a good thing that's passe'. Third person close it is - you can be pretty flexible with it.

      Which is your favorite?