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The literary point of view is the perspective from which an author tells a story. This is one of the most important decisions writers make in shaping a story. The narrator can be anonymous or a specific character. The authors also choose to write in the first, second or third person. Readers can determine this in part by the pronouns that refer to each character.
Limited first-person narration is used in many novels. The narrator is called “I” and his knowledge of the story is incomplete. Most memoirs are also written in limited first person (with a few exceptions – more on that in a minute). The first person gives an idea of the voice of the narrator.
A first person narrator is often – but not necessarily – the protagonist. Starr Carter in The Hate U Give is a protagonist who is also the first-person narrator. Readers experience the events of the novel alongside him. Nick Carraway is a character and narrator in The Great Gatsby, but not the main character. By not making Jay Gatsby the narrator, the novel portrays his surroundings while preserving his mystique.
Omniscient or omniscient first-person narrators are much rarer. The narrator of The Lovely Bones is a murdered child, watching her loved ones from beyond.
A plural first-person POV is even rarer. Back in 2018 on Book Riot, I mentioned The Virgin Suicides and Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” as examples of this POV. When the point of view is “we”, the narrator is a collective, not an individual. In the case of Faulkner’s story, the narrative “we” refers to an entire city.
The second person, “you”, has many possible uses in storytelling. Sometimes the narrator addresses the reader directly in the second person, as in the Choose Your Own Adventure books. In other instances, the readers themselves do not become characters in the story, but the second person allows them to identify more closely with a distinct character.
Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” is a short story in the second person, written in the form of a mother advising her daughter. House of Prayer No. 2 is a rare memoir written in the second person, which immerses the reader in author Mark Richard’s isolated experience of growing up disabled in the 1960s.
In the third person
Third person pronouns include he, she, and they. Limited third-person narration sticks closely to a character’s perspective. The author has a bit more flexibility in third person than in first person. For example, they can use their adult vocabulary instead of exclusively using words that a young protagonist would know.
Omniscient third-person narration is one of the most common viewpoints in fiction. The narrator knows the whole story and can reveal the thoughts of the characters. Third-person narration that observes characters from a distance and incorporates the thoughts of individual characters is called free indirect speech. Jane Austen was one of the first authors to use this style.
When authors change perspective too often, some readers may find this “headspin” confusing. Louise Harnby wrote on her blog that readers may feel confused if they have to adjust to the thoughts of a different character from one sentence or paragraph to the next. Many authors today have multiple characters POV in the same novel, but they may choose to focus on one character’s POV for an entire chapter or section to avoid head-hopping.
Third person is often considered more objective than first or second person, but this is not necessarily true. Moreover, even an anonymous, third-person, omniscient narrator does not necessarily represent the voice or personal opinions of the author. Roland Barthes wrote about this distinction between authors and their narrators in his essay “The Death of the Author”. As Stacey Megally recently wrote on Book Riot, there is no completely objective or “reliable” narrator because all real and fictional people have biases and imperfect memories and knowledge.
How to choose the right point of view
All of these perspectives have advantages and disadvantages. So how do writers determine which point of view works best for a particular story?
It depends on the author’s goals for his story. A novelist might want to focus on the uncertainty of a first-person protagonist, surprising readers and protagonist when their attraction is mutual. If the same story had an omniscient narrator, or another POV character’s love interest, readers would already know the attraction was mutual. It could spoil the tension or create more tension through dramatic irony, depending on the author’s approach. This applies to all genres where suspense is important, including mystery and horror. Deciding on story structure and how much information to hide from readers can also help writers choose the best point of view.
The first person point of view helps some readers relate more to a character, while other readers prefer the broader third person point of view. As a reader, I don’t have a strong preference for any particular point of view, but as a writer of fiction, I do. So far, all of my stories accepted by literary journals have been in the first person. When I started submitting my work to enlightened magazines in college in 2009, first-person stories seemed more popular. Now the third person seems more popular, at least for literary journals.
Having preferences is inevitable. However, when critics call a first-person story “voice-y,” that criticism strikes me as vague and dismissive, especially if the character or author is marginalized. The voice and character can overwhelm other story elements, like the plot, but that’s a more nuanced critique than “voice-y.” Second-person narration is often experimental and thought-provoking, but I love how it makes me view characters and stories differently.