Which Point of View is Right for You?
As you sit down to write the first draft of your story, you go through what you have so far: a scintillating plot? Check. A cast of unforgettable characters? Check. An immersive and vivid setting? Check. You put your pen to the page and then wonder… But how will I be telling my story? From the adaptable versatility of the third person to the interactive immediacy of the second, let’s go through the potential perspectives from which your story can be told, and why you may (or may not) want to start with “I”, “you”, or “she.”
First Person: Hello My Name Is…
To write a story shared within a first-person narrative is to define the plot, setting, and characters within the voice, thoughts, and feelings of your protagonist. Your reader will become intimately acquainted with the motivations and hopes of the narrator, and will view all of the narrator’s relationships, actions, and world through their eyes alone. So, this point of view can be both freeing and limiting, and requires consideration and planning before diving into writing.
It is imperative to understand that all of your other characters will be expressed based on the perception of your narrator; therefore, choosing which character should “tell the story” is an important decision. Consider John Green’s works. In Looking for Alaska, the narrator is a supporting character who interacts with the protagonist of the story; however, in The Fault in Our Stars, the protagonist and narrator are the same character. If your protagonist may be an unreliable narrator or is better perceived from the “outside” rather than from within, choosing a supporting character as narrator may be helpful.
If you have multiple protagonists, like a group of friends or two love interests, it may be tempting to write in the first person with multiple narrators through “trading” chapters or sections of the book. Many literary agents caution against this for first-time writers, as it is difficult to craft distinct voices and robust plots for each character. Without unique styles and stories, readers may become confused by who is “talking,” and each character may lose authenticity.
There are some situations where a first person narrative is necessary, such as epistolary or autobiographical fiction or memoir. Examples of these are Walker’s The Color Purple, Plath’s The Bell Jar, and Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, respectively. In others, first person may be the best way to demonstrate the internal growth and conflict of a character, such as that of Holden Caulfield or Jane Eyre. A final consideration lies in the genre in which your story best fits; for example, a literary agent may be more likely to accept a Young Adult fiction piece in the first person than adult literature.
Third Person: Who is She?
In third person narration, the intimacy and openness of the first person is traded for flexibility in storytelling and subtext. Due to the omniscience possible with a story told in the third person, you can divulge details to the reader that are unknown to the protagonist, which can forge irony, foreshadowing, and more. Consider the dramatic irony in the climax of Romeo and Juliet, in which the star-crossed protagonists are unaware the other is alive, but the audience have been privy to scenes that demonstrate otherwise. Additional details can be relayed through narrator description, suspense can be wrought by selected details, and characters no longer have to be viewed by the reader through the biased eyes of the first person narrator. In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, the narrator provides rich imagery and description, and provides limited thoughts from different characters throughout the plot; these details and limited omniscient narration craft suspense that builds as mysterious deaths begin.
Even though the third person may seem to be far removed from the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of your main characters, there are a few types of narrative distance that you can try for your story. In far narrative distance, the reader often doesn’t “hear” the thoughts of the characters, rather observing from the outside. In medium narrative distance, the reader is privy to the thoughts of your character through the use of phrases like “he wondered” or “she thought.” Alternatively, close narrative distance features direct thoughts and perspective, without the use of the phrases above; thoughts are observed by the reader as well as actions.
Based on the flexibility and limitations of the third person point of view, stories with multiple storylines, epics, complex character relationships, and situations in which the reader has to know what the characters do not yet know, may be best-suited to storytelling in the third person.
All of this being said, the most important consideration when you’re choosing what point of view you’d like to use for your story is what feels comfortable for you. Are you drawn to the adaptability of the far narrative distance in the third person, or write by default in the first person? Does it feel like your character is speaking directly to “you” as you write? Write out what feels natural to you, then reflect on how it may impact how your story gets told.
Steven’s story, The Lemon Falcon, was a finalist in Pen 2 Paper’s disability-focused creative-writing competition. In 2019, Annie on the Run took first place in the League of Utah Writers’ first-chapter contest. In 2020, they once again awarded Steven first place, this time as best new writer in creative nonfiction. His short story, The Haunted Castle, was published in My Father and I by Wingless Dreamer. Steven currently resides in Walnut Creek, California, with his wife and ukulele.