Sunday, April 10, 2011

I is for I

With that cryptic title, I will be talking about narrative point-of-view (pov), which determines through whose perspective a story is viewed. By far, the most common points-of-view in literary use today are first-person (I) and third-person (he/she), but there's also second-person (you). Note these povs are all related to WHO is telling the story.

In a first-person pov, the story is relayed by a narrator who is also a character within the story. First-person can be extremely effective because readers easily identify with it. Some genres utilize first-person extensively, such as Young Adult, Urban Fantasy, and Mystery. A drawback to first-person is you can't hide information from the reader if the character knows it. Usually the first-person character is the one who acts and is the most crucial in the story; also called the major character. This doesn't always have to be the case, we can have minor character narrators, for example, the 2005 novel Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, has an every-man narrator, Tyler Dupree, and has the major character die. A famous example of an unimportant first-person narrator is found in which F. Scott Fitzgerald novel? Hint: It rhymes with Trait Tatsby. :)

In a second-person pov, the narrator refers to one of the characters as 'you', therefore making the reader feel as if he/she is a character in the story. An example is If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino. The only benefit to second-person is it's unusal. This is also its drawback. Don't do it. (Notice the implied 'you'. Clearly second-person pov is often utilized in blogs. :) )

In a third-person pov characters are referred to as 'he' or 'she'. Notice in this case the narrator is not a character in the story. This pov is the most common and so is the most accepted by readers. It enables authors to withhold facts from readers, makes comments and flashbacks easier to write, gives the author more scope for characterization, and other benefits. Examples include: look on your bookshelf. ;)

There's also the issue of how many pov characters there are, known as singular or plural pov. This can be utilized with any of first, second, and third. (This is not to be confused with multiple povs, e.g. the author could have more than one 3rd person povs.) For example, first-person plural pov would use 'we'. Can you think of any examples of this? Supposedly I, Robot by Isaac Asimov did this. (I'm going to have to check my copy!)

Another significant issue to consider is how close the perspective is to the character(s). An author can utilize an omniscient, a limited/exterior, or an interior/close pov. This is the cinematography of the novel, if you will, WHERE the camera is. The important consideration here is does the reader get to know the character's thoughts and feelings? Is the camera inside the character's brain, so to speak? Or outside, showing a 'just the facts' perspective?
Again, different genres have different conventions here. For example, Young Adult is commonly a very close interior pov; the reader gets to know all the angst-ridden thoughts and feelings of the narrator.

We're starting to get a bit bogged down in possibilities, but I'll add one more: reliability versus unreliability. The unreliable narrative voice involves the use of a non-credible or untrustworthy narrator. Examples? How about Holden Caulfield in The Catcher In The Rye?

These povs can all be mixed and matched in multiple povs! For example, I recently read WWW:WATCH by Robert J. Sawyer and he has multiple third person povs with one first-person pov. The first-person is the artificial intelligence and it does help the reader to identify with him.
So, in summary, I don't know if you've noticed, but we have dozens, if not more, of pov possibilities. I summarize them in a table:

1st singular1st plural2nd singular2nd plural3rd singular3rd plural
Authors can utilize this multiple times within a work.
Have fun with it!


  1. I tend to prefer 3rd person limited. I write suspense and mystery and I think a limited view point is better for having things the reader doesn't know.

    I've written a little first person, and actually have a book in ABNA at the moment that has 3 PoV characters--one is first person, the other two are 3rd. I think people should master 3rd 1st, as 1st person can sound like a diary if a person is a new writer--it just is trickier to not sound like a whiny teenage girl. (unless of course you WANT to be a whiny teenage girl).

    I've totally never heard of a plural PoV book, but can totally picture it from say... a dystopian panel displaying someone's life and crimes (unreliable of course--I always prefer a somewhat unreliable narrator, but I like the reader to be able to tell). 2nd person... works for erotica or middle grade suspense... never seen anything else it works for.