By Virginia Parker Staat
“Reality simply consists of different points of view.”
~ Margaret Atwood
Before writing any story, we must choose our narrator’s position to describe events and opinions. Then we must stick to it. This position is called point of view (POV). It is an important discipline in our writing because readers become confused when writers head hop from one character to another, particularly within the same paragraph. Point of view is about creating intimacy between our reader and our subject.
The three basic points of view include first person, second person, and third person. In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein explains them as follows:
- I saw this, did that. (First Person)
- You saw this, did that. (Second Person)
- He saw this, did that. (Third Person)
Second person is rarely used because it has so many pitfalls. The writer must develop a character known as “you” and remain consistent throughout the story. Because of its rarity and the difficulty in maintaining second person POV, this article will focus on first person POV and third person POV.
When using first person POV, the writer is the character who is telling the story and is most often the protagonist. First person POV uses pronouns including I, me, my, mine, myself, we, us, our, and ourselves.
First person can be limiting for a writer because the reader can only see things through the narrator’s eyes. It is also from a position of things having already happened, taking place in past tense. As a benefit, however, first person POV builds an immediate intimacy between the writer and the reader, plunging the reader into the protagonist’s experience. William Zinsser reminds us in his book On Writing Well, “Writers are at their most natural when they write in first person.”
When using third person POV, the writer speaks as a narrator outside the story. Third person pronouns include he, she, it, they, him, her, it, one, them, his, hers, theirs, himself, herself, itself, oneself, and themselves.
Third person POV offers the writer two choices in narration. Writers may choose from a third person omniscient point of view, telling the story from a position of knowing everything and writing from any character’s perspective in a consistent manner that makes it easy for the reader to follow. The second option is using a third person limited point of view, where the writer narrates from only one character’s perspective at a time. While most third person POV stories are written in past tense, present tense is also acceptable. Sol Stein cautions, “Third person works best when the story is seen consistently from the point of view of one character at a time, though the author is free to report what any of the characters hear, smell, touch, and taste.”
The inherent danger with writing from any point of view is maintaining it throughout our story. As Sol Stein reminds us, “Writing is a discipline. And one of the most disciplined techniques is the point of view. The choice of point of view is yours, but once you’ve decided, be sure that you stick to it as if your reader’s experience of the story depended on it. Because it does.”