Point of View
Author and poet Frances Mayes believes that “Apart from the use of significant detail, there is no more important skill for a writer of fiction to grasp than …the control of point of view.”
Any story that's told is told from a particular perspective. While you're planning and shaping your story, that perspective may be obvious. For example, if you're going to create a memoir, you'll be writing the story from your own point of view. But some ideas present a question: who is going to be telling this story? If there are three main characters involved, which of them will be providing the information? Will all three take turns? Or will an external narrator speak to the reader? Who tells the story and how it is told have a major effect on the tone of a story and greatly affect its meaning. Since readers can receive information from only one viewpoint at a time in order to understand the situation and identify the characters, you need to decide which point of view will work best with your story and intended audience.
There are three main points of view to choose from:
First person. The first-person point of view is used when an external narrator or a character in the story tells it. This viewpoint incorporates the words I, me, my, mine, we, us, and our and provides information that only the narrator or the particular character would reasonably have. Telling the story from a personal point of view, the narrator or character can observe all the action and tell readers about his or her reactions and feelings.
Second person. This point of view uses the words you and your to tell the story. With the second person, the reader is actually addressed and involved in the action: “You walk up the stairs and turn to face the window. You see the frail boy walking carefully up the street.” While the second-person viewpoint does engage the reader, it can be difficult to carry through a long piece of fiction. It's an excellent choice, though, for several nonfiction formats such as training manuals and travel guides.
Third person. There are actually two different third-person points of view. Third person limited tells the story through one character's perspective, and third person omniscient speaks through an “all-seeing eye.” In both cases, the speaker is not part of the story, a major difference from the first-person point of view. The third-person narrator uses the words he, his, him, her, hers, they, them, their, and theirs.
To obtain different characters' perspectives, you can switch between viewpoints. However, you'll need to take pains to make sure that readers are certain who's speaking and that the speaker had access to the information he or she is talking about. A confused reader is usually an unhappy reader.
Using the third person, you can go deeply into one character. Third person omniscient gives you a great deal of freedom because you can speak from your own viewpoint or speak as, or reveal the thoughts of, any character.
In nonfiction stories, there are two other points of view. The objective point of view provides readers with facts and observations. The subjective point of view lets the writer inject personal emotions and experiences.
How can you decide which is the best viewpoint to use? There are several things to consider: Which one seems to bring the story to life? Which character is in a position to best tell the story? Through whose emotions and characteristics would you like the reader to experience your work? Would the story have more impact if an omniscient narrator could see and tell everything? Which voice do you feel most comfortable writing in?
Be careful about writing yourself into a corner. In his book, “Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing,” David Morrell explains that a first person viewpoint can be limiting, especially if another character's perspective begins to seem more interesting.
Think about your story's structure and focus, and experiment with several different viewpoints until you feel comfortable with one. You might discover that a different character wants to tell the story once you start writing, and you may change to a new voice at that point. You may also find that different pieces work best employing different viewpoints.