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First Person! Second Person! Third Person! Oh my!

March 21, 2010


(photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/slightlynorth/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Think lions and tigers and bears are dangerous? They’re nothing compared to wrestling with questions of POV.

Alright, I’m exaggerating. Point of View isn’t really that big a deal. There are books about it and threads about and it’s the foundation upon which your entire manuscript is based. Big deal, though? Nah. Wanna know why? There are two reasons:

Reason One: The Story Knows

I’m a firm believer that all good stories want to be told and that there is almost always a POV which works best for each story (maybe not the only POV that works, but one that works best). The writer may not realize it, the writer might fight it tooth and nail, but the story knows.

I recently started writing a dystopian. I loved the characters and I thought my basic premise was rather cool. Despite that, I just couldn’t get into it. For about a week, I’d try to write the first two chapters only to be constantly distracted. Acting on a hunch, I rewrote a few pages in third person (they had been in first). Bam! Suddenly I was connecting much more clearly with what was on screen. Switching from first to third gave me more flexibility in describing the world around the characters and made for more engaging prose.

Reason Two: You Learned POV on the Streets

If you read widely and often, you already know POV. You may not consciously think about it, but you are familiar with it. And that familiarity will serve you as well as any writing book (and probably better than a fair few of them). You may even find yourself going back to books which handled POV in a way you especially liked, trying to work out how those authors achieved certain effects.

Remember that dystopian I was talking about (it was two paragraphs up, so, if you can’t remember, you may have bigger problems than POV)? I knew I wanted it to be in a very close third person, so close that it almost felt like first. When I needed a little break from my computer screen, I flipped through About a Boy by Nick Hornby. Why? Because it’s the closest third person I’ve ever read. Hornby goes so close that I sometimes forget that the book is written in third person and recommend it to people who are looking for good first person reads.

I can’t be Nick Hornby. I don’t want to be Nick Hornby. But I like trying to figure out how he pulls things off—how any writer pulls things off.

So that’s POV in a nutshell. Not technical advice (you can get that in plenty of other places), but a few things I’ve noted from my own experience.

– Kathleen

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8 comments

  1. I definitely agree with you, here. I can relate to the troubles of starting a project only to figure out it was the POV (and tense). I kind of find it exciting to experiment and figure it out, especially with fresh meat (aka WIP).


  2. I always seem to have a feel for what point of view would suit a story best. It’s rather weird, but I haven’t been wrong yet…


  3. I’ve only done first person so far, but the day I have to do a different POV it’ll be stressful. Thanks for the great post!


  4. I agree with you that the story knows. With Perspective it was supposed to be single PoV 1st person past when I wrote it. Except all of a sudden another character started yelling at me to get his PoV in too!! He made some very convincing points so I listened… Then with the original PoV I kept on slipping into present (even though I’d never written anything in present before… so again I listened)


  5. Totally agreet. Went through a similar thing when starting my WIP. The story does in fact know which POV is best of it 😉


  6. Great post, Kath–I totally agree! Now, please tell me how the story lets me know whether to use first person present or past, mkay? Thnks! 😀


  7. […] First Person! Second Person! Third Person! Oh my! « Old People … […]


  8. First, love this site! I too am an old person (34) writing for your people. Second, like this post. I just finished my Master’s thesis on the pros and cons of choosing first person as your point of view. It’s making me think carefully about point of view choice now as I get back to my creative writing. Bottom line for me is exactly what you said–the story just knows!

    Again, great blog!



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