Friday, March 29, 2013

Which Point of View is Best for Your Story?

Today's blog post is a bit of a how-to guide. There are so many decisions to make in writing, and which point of view (POV) to choose is no exception. Rather than spend my time defining everything, check out this five-minute YouTube video, which is rather entertaining and quite informative if you don't know the basic concepts.

Instead, I'm going to try and explore the effects each POV choice creates. These come from my research, various conferences from which I've gleaned info, and a lot of my own experience.
  • First Person: This seems to be the POV of choice for a majority of YA fiction. I think the reason is because it makes your character more relatable. By seeing everything from one character's perspective, you really understand your character. Since YA has a strong focus on growth and development of the main character, this is a particularly effective technique. First person can be used anywhere, but it creates a more intimate tone, kind of like a "private club" between the narrator and the reader. As noted by The Writer's Craft, it can also allow for unseen twists and turns in the story. Warning: your narrator is necessarily going to be biased, but that isn't always a bad thing.
  • Second Person: Rare in formal writing. More often used in impersonal writing, such as letters, emails, memos, notes, etc. Second person narrative can be seen in technical writing, like manuals and instructions which use the "imperative" form of a sentence (understood "you;" i.e. Go feed the dog vs (You) Go feed the dog), or even advertising. We used to have a genre of "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" books which necessarily used the second person format, but I haven't seen those around for a long time. Warning: Journalists are taught to never write in second-person because it automatically alienates some readers. For example, "Have you ever ridden a donkey to work?" No, I haven't, so why should I read any more? Food for thought.
  • Third Person: It seems that most literature that is not YA is written in third person. This gives a more distanced view of the story, but that doesn't mean a cold one. I have seen several stories that use this POV specifically so the author can switch from one character to another. This is especially useful in complex suspense/mystery stories where different perspectives have to be used in order to fully comprehend the plot. Warning: If switching between character POVs, be careful and clear whose head you are writing in. Use line breaks or chapter breaks, and make sure you name your character right away.
Now some of the "Perspectives" associated with POV. There are three options that span a range.
  • Objective: This POV is complete with observations, but absolutely no thoughts or feelings related to those observations. It is often compared to a camera capturing every detail, but the camera is unable to comment upon those details. It does not show up very often because it is so tricky to master. It is frequently used in moralistic stories to add distance between the reader and the writer, so the writer doesn't sound "preachy." An example would be "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson. You get to make your own judgments on the story at the end. Warning: Exceptionally difficult to master this technique to keep your audience interested in the story when you cannot make any commentary about the story. You must also give enough physical clues to guide them to the conclusion you want them to make, but can't give subliminal messages. Hard, hard, hard.
  • Limited: This is by far the most common POV perspective. Even in stories where we switch back and forth between characters, we are limited to that individual character's perspective. This means we always have the thoughts and feelings of only one character at a time, while we see the actions of any other characters. The POV character can guess at the emotions and thoughts of other characters, but remember, it is always just a guess. Warning: This will always be biased based upon the perceptions of the POV character, but that can add effective tension, or even dramatic irony in some cases, to the story.
  • Omniscient: In this POV, no actual participating character tells the story. Instead it is a godlike figure which may or may not even be named. This narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of every character in the story. The narrator can choose which commentary to include in the actual story, but it is a very delicate balance. It seems to me that the interest level in the story would be difficult to maintain because there is no inherent suspense when you know everything about the story. Warning: It can be easy to confuse your reader when you are constantly switching between character POVs as you give their thoughts and feelings in the story.
Whew. We made it. So now what?

Now you get to decide what is going to work best for your story. Consider what kinds of effects you want to capture. My YA novels are written in first-person because I, as the writer, become more intimate with them and can tell a better, more complete story. My short stories, which are more adult in nature, tend to be third-person and somewhat more plot-, or "moment"-driven, rather than growth- and development-driven like my novels.

So do you want your readers to relate closely to and empathize with your main character? Then perhaps you may want to choose first-person (which is inherently limited in nature). Do you have a more moralistic story to tell? Then maybe third-person objective is the one for you. Or does your story require multiple characters to complete its full concept? Then perhaps third-person limited will work best.

And if you're still unsure, play around with them a bit. Write the same scene or two from different POVs to discover which one flows easiest and best captivates the story you want to tell because that will overall be your best choice.