You have an idea for a short story. You’re really excited about it, so immediately you sit down and begin writing. One sentence, two … you’re rolling. But already you’ve made a major choice that might have been better with a few minutes thinking before you began to write. You’ve committed to a point of view (POV). And it might not be the best one for your story.
It’s almost impossible not to have committed to a POV by the end of the first paragraph. Since this is a short story, I’m going to assume that you’re using only one character’s POV. (Yes, it’s possible to write a good story with more than one POV character, but I’m a purist. For short stories not novels I think one POV provides necessary unity and smoothness.) I’m also going to assume that you’ve chosen the right character for your POV. This is the person through whose eyes we can most effectively see your story unfolding.
So what choice is left? The choice between first person and third which can have surprising effect on the shape of your story. Here’s how to choose a point of view for your novel.
First person: a matter of intimacy
A quick refresher: In first person, everything we see, hear and experience about the story action comes to us through the first-person narrator, the “I” character. This person is telling the story to us, describing events and his or her individual reactions to those events.
It’s the latter phenomenon that is the great strength of first person. Moving from description of what the character witnesses to her thoughts about those things is perfectly natural. It happens to each of us all the time, within our own heads. Doing it in fiction creates an intimacy in storytelling that third person can seldom match.
Consider, for example, the opening to Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.”:
I was getting along fine with Mama, Papa-Daddy and Uncle Rondo until my sister Stella-Rondo just separated from her husband and came back home again. Mr. Whitaker! Of course I went with Mr. Whitaker first, when he first appeared in China Grove, taking “Pose Yourself” photos, and Stella-Rondo broke us up. Told him I was one-sided. Bigger on one side than the other, which is a deliberate, calculated falsehood: I’m the same. Stella-Rondo is exactly twelve months to the day younger than I am and for that reason she’s spoiled. She always had anything in the world she wanted and she’d throw it away.
This feels very intimate. The character rambles on in the way that close friends ramble in conversation, or that we ramble inside our own heads. Such personal ramblings can feel strained in third person, especially if they’re extensive (Welty’s narrator goes on for several more paragraphs).
Another factor boosts the intimacy of first person: the flavor of the character’s speech. Because your character is talking directly to us, you can use highly emotional diction, quirky language, regionalisms and dialect, and they will all feel natural. In short, all the characterization advantages of dialogue are extended to description, action and exposition. For example, the following three first-person narrators are all describing the same thing, but look how different the description feels:
I watched John pour himself another bourbon, always his drink of choice. He was getting drunk.Then John belted down another drink, and I don’t know how many that was but it sure as heaven was too many.
Our John, worthless since the day he was born for the sole purpose of causing misery to his mam, was drinking away like the Irish sot he was.
Do you see how each version conveys just as much information about the speaker as about John? First-person is the ideal choice to characterize your narrator.
Third person: a matter of distance
The advantage of third person is directly opposite to first. Third person gives you distance from your POV character. But before we discuss how and why, let’s clarify what we mean by “distance.”
Imagine you, the reader, are standing 30 feet away from a house. On the porch, a husband and wife are arguing. You can see them clearly and hear their words, but of course you can’t see inside their minds. That’s a long distance between you and the POV character.
Now imagine you receive a printout describing what the husband sees and hears at every moment. The printout also carries a running record of his thoughts, but both what he witnesses and what he thinks have been mostly edited into standard English. That’s middle distance between you and the POV character.
Now imagine you’re telepathic. It feels as if you’re directly inside the husband’s mind as he argues, hearing his thoughts and feeling his visceral reactions. That’s close third person; there is very little distance between reader and character.
Close third person POV is a lot like first person. It can have much of the individual flavor of speech, much of the intimate ruminations … but not all. The reader is still receiving descriptions from the outside rather than being told them directly “from the horse’s mouth.” To illustrate the difference, look at these two sentences:
Peter raced around the kitchen, trying to clean up the godawful mess before Mary, that priss, arrived home.I raced around the kitchen like a headless hen, trying to clean up the godawful mess before prissy ol’ Mary got home.
In the third-person version, we are being told what Peter does. In the first-person version, because of the “I,” we’re inside Peter’s head as he does it.
Distant third person: a matter of opinions
The advantage of middle-distance and far-distance third person is that instead of hearing the opinions and reactions of one person, the POV character, the reader can now hear those of two people: POV character and author. Distant third person lets the author put in his two-cents’ worth of interpretation of events.
This is easiest to see in example. Here is John Cheever in “The Country Husband,” in which Francis Weeds is the protagonist and third-person POV character:
The party was small and pleasant, and Francis settled down to enjoy himself. A new maid passed the drinks. Her hair was dark, and her face was round and pale and seemed familiar to Francis. He had not developed his memory as a sentimental faculty. Wood smoke, lilac, and other such perfumes did not stir him, and his memory was something like his appendix: a vestigial repository. It was not his limitation at all to be unable to escape the past; it was perhaps his limitation that he had escaped it so successfully.
The first three sentences clearly come to us through Francis’ eyes. The next three, however, are just as clearly the author’s comments and observations, not Francis’. This is the advantage of distant third-person; the author can insert descriptions, exposition and opinions that go beyond the more limited ones the character may have. At the same time, the character’s opinions can also be included.
This flexibility has a price. (Doesn’t everything?) Because you now have the author in the story, thrusting his interpretations between you and Francis, you never develop with Francis the same intimacy as with Peter of the messy kitchen.
Point of view: a matter of choice
So how do you choose among first person, close third person, and distant third? Your choice will depend on the total effect you want your story to have. Some guidelines:
- If you want to write the entire story in individual, quirky language, choose first person.
- If you want your POV character to indulge in lengthy ruminations, choose first person.
- If you want your reader to feel high identification with your POV character, choose first person or close third.
- If you want to describe your character from the outside as well as give her thoughts, choose either close or distant third person.
- If you want to intersperse the author’s opinions with the character’s, choose distant third.
- If you want low identification between reader and character, perhaps because you’re going to make a fool of your character, choose distant third.
Isn’t it nice to have so many choices? So before you write more than a few sentences of that exciting new story idea, take a few minutes to ensure you’ve chosen the best POV to maximize its impact.
This article appeared in the September 2000 issue of Writer’s Digest.
Nancy Kress’ latest book is Probability Moon, a novel told in multiple, middle-distance third person, for maximum flexibility.