Every work of fiction has a point-of-view (POV) whether the writer is aware of it or not. Learning to control it is a sign of a writer’s progression in his craft. POV answers the question Where are the reader’s eyes while she’s reading your story? The writer may use POV to elicit certain responses from the reader. For example, the writer may wish for the reader to see the events directly (first person), the writer may wish to explicitly tell the reader what they are experiencing (second person), or the writer may wish for the reader to watch the action from a distance (third person). This article is too short to fully cover this very deep subject; therefore, I will simply note each type of POV, show an example or two, and touch on the strengths and weaknesses of each.
First Person Singular
Example: Adcox, James Tadd. “Four Disconnected Truths About My Father.” Smokelong Quarterly, Issue 27, December 20, 2009.
This example shows an important strength of first person singular; that is, it allows the reader to experience the story first hand, from inside the narrator’s mind. The emotional pain the narrator feels in these four “disconnected truths” comes through clearly. While reading the piece, the reader is literally voicing the words “I,” “me,” “mine.” The reader is, in a sense, directly experiencing the story. This POV is great for an emotionally charged subject such as this.
First Person Plural
Example: Beard, Nikki. “Lacking in Civil-ization.” from a Flash Fiction Workshop.
The words “I/me/mine” characterize the first person singular. Another first person POV is called first person plural in which the words “we,” “us,” and “ours” are used. I found an excellent example of this POV in the piece written by my classmate, mentioned above.
In this piece, the narrator describes weekends during which she and her sibling spent time in a “lonely house in the middle of a field,” “on our toes, with lowered voices, [as] he slept.” (Italics mine.) The story is about a divorced, abusive, father and two children who spend weekends with him.
The use of the first person plural works very well in this piece as the reader encounters what appears to be the older of the two siblings recounting the tale. In the same way an older sibling might stand between an abusive father and a younger sibling, the narrator stands between us—the readers—and the younger sibling. We can visualize the younger, silent sibling, hovering behind the narrator, as she wraps her arm around her back protecting him from the abuse. We hear his unspeaking voice in the words “we,” “us,” and “our.” I think it’s extremely effective. I don’t know a better way to express the feeling of a joint experience than the first person plural.
Second Person Singular
Second Person Singular
In the second person singular, the writer uses the word “you” in order to address the reader directly. For example, a piece might say, “You went to the store…you got cigarettes.”
The Schofield paper, referenced above, describes four different types of second person singular: (1) the “you” as the narrator’s own self; (2) the “you” as another character in the story; (3) the “you” as the reader, and (4) the “you” as an amorphous unspecified entity.
Jack Heffron’s prompt book contains the prompt: “Write a piece using second-person, as if you were writing a script for an instructional video.” I tried this prompt and the piece I wrote turned out to be one of my favorites. In addition to being a great way to “hand-hold” your reader (basically the writer is instructing the reader directly in what’s happening in the story), the second person is a refreshing change of pace. It’s enjoyable and challenging to move away from the familiar first or third person writing styles.
Second Person Plural
Another second person POV is called the second person plural, in which “you” refers to a group (possibly of other characters in the story or perhaps a group of readers). There’s a further type called the colloquial or regional second person plural, where the “you” becomes “youse” (Midwest), “yins” (Pittsburgh), “you’all” (Southern), etc. depending on the region of the country the writer desires to emulate.
Third Person Singular
The third person singular POV comes in many forms, including the close or limited third person and the omniscient third person. I won’t discuss the omniscient third person in this paper because it seems to me to be somewhat old-fashioned. Most of the books I’ve read on writing fiction warn the writer to avoid the third person omniscient. I will stay away from it as well.
Close Third Person Singular
Example: “On Holiday:, by Marti Booker, Vestal Review, Issue 5, April 2001
In the close third person, the POV remains inside the mind of a single character. In this way, the close third person is similar to the first person, in fact, a quick and dirty way to write close third person is to write the piece in first person, and then convert the words “I” to a character’s name, the word “my” to the word “his,” and so on.
For example: “I went to the store to get my cigarettes” becomes “George went to the store to get his cigarettes.”
Of course, it is much more difficult than that, but one gets the idea. When writing in the first person, the writer should avoid jumping from the POV character into the mind of other characters. Starting in first person and switching to third person helps preserve this idea of “remaining in a single head.”
When I first started writing fiction, the close third person was a difficult concept for me to understand (along with everything else). “Head-hopping,” which refers to this tendency to switch back and forth between the thoughts of various characters, came naturally as a beginning writer.
Even published writers fall prey to “head hopping.” The example mentioned above was published in a prestigious online journal. The writer writes in the first paragraph, “Jamie…watched the twice-reflected lights twinkle” The word “watched” here is close third person from Jamie’s perspective. Two paragraphs later the writers says, “Samantha scowled at him.….A line of tourists strolled past, reeking of cologne.” To me this is clearly from Samantha’s perspective. Samantha smells the cologne. A few paragraphs later the writer says, “[Jamie] had taken everything out of their joint account already. Silly bitch.” We are clearly back in Jamie’s head. Jamie is thinking the words “Stupid bitch.” We’ve head hopped.
Violating the close third person is not the kiss of death (the piece was published after all), but it’s probably best avoided. “Head hopping” has the tendency to confuse the reader.
Close Third Person, Multiple
Example: Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Another point-of-view is close third person, multiple POV. This is the same as close third person, in the sense that the author stays inside a given character’s experience, but in the multiple point of view the viewpoint character may shift if the exchange is handled clearly (for example by a chapter or section break).
A perfect example of this type of POV is Jennifer Egan’s book A Visit From the Goon Squad. The book is a powerful study of POV. Each chapter is written tightly from a single character’s point-of-view. Some chapters are first person, some second person, some third-person limited, but every chapter sticks meticulously with the character it starts with.
This POV may not be very useful to a flash fiction writer—not enough room—but in a collection or a chapbook, it might be interesting. If you haven’t read this wonderful book, you should.
For me, the concept of point-of-view has been one of the most difficult aspects of writing fiction I’ve had to come to terms with. I kind of get it, and the more I study it the more I understand. First and second person are simple. Recognizing and avoiding the tendency to slip into and out of various character’s perspectives under the third person POV has been much more difficult.
I’m getting there though. It’s just another item I’ve added the long, and growing, list of things I have to learn. But that’s a good thing; the simple act of adding things to that list is one of the most enjoyable things about learning how to be a fiction writer.
FF.Net Author’s Note
Thomas Jay Rush is the owner of a small internet-based software company, a fact he chooses to ignore, focusing instead on writing short fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry. Jay lives with his family in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania.