My writing group, Hopefull Monsters, occasionally engages in discussions of writing craft. A recent discussion got me thinking about point of view, or POV. The POV is the perspective from which a story is written, for example first person (the “I” POV) or third person (the “he/she” POV). The POV is important because it is the filter through which the reader experiences everything in the story. POV is as important as the plot, characters, and conflict.
Yet, it seems like many aspiring writers don’t think about POV at any point in the writing process. Instead, they default into whatever is comfortable (often the first person POV) or into what has become the “industry standard”—third person. I’d argue that every writer should consider the strengths and weaknesses of the various POVs and consciously select the one that allows the more effective telling of the story. This assessment should be done before writing a single word.
I don’t have a favorite POV. I’ve published things in first person (e.g., “Thief of Futures” and “The Fine Art of Surfacing”) as well as third (e.g., “Observations on a Clock” and “Still Life Through Water Droplets”). In all of these cases, I weighed the pros and cons before I started the story, and selected the POV I thought would most effectively allow me to tell my story. Sometimes I get it wrong, and I go back and re-write with a different POV— “Thief of Futures” started out in third person, but I soon realized it would be more effective in first person.
So how do I decide what POV to use? My analytical side says I should build a dichotomous decision tree, but I’ll just run through the questions I consider:
1. How close do I want my reader to my main character ? Third person puts distance between the reader and main character, whereas first person is “cozy” with one character.
2. Do I want to “live” in my main character’s head? I find intense introspection is often more natural in the first person POV. If introspection will be important to my story, I’ll lean toward first person.
3. Do I want to limit the reader’s view? A first person narrator limits view of the world—only things my narrator knows or experiences can come into the story. Sometimes I want that; other times I don’t. Third person POV gives more latitude for a wider world view.
4. Does my potential first person narrator have an interesting perspective on the world and thus an interesting voice? If the answer is “no,” then I either change the narrator or change the POV.
At some point in the process, every writer thinks about plot, characters, and conflict. I think successful writers also think about POV and the myriad of other “details” that are often overlooked by aspiring writers—tense, pace, tone, etc. I find these other details are often the difference between a good story that never quite gets out of the slush pile and a great story that sells, so don’t leave these “details” to chance. It’s become apparent to me over the years that great stories seldom happen by accident.