Point Of View In Fiction Writing

The way you address or engage with your readers determines their level of immersion in the story you tell. You need to decide how you would like to ‘speak’ to your reader. There are three very different ways to do this, and these points of view have their advantages and disadvantages, in some cases restricting the amount of information you can provide. Let’s take a look at them:


First-Person Narrative

(I see this; We saw that happening; I’m going to tell you a story, etc.)

A First-Person narrative engages the reader as if in conversation with the writer. The writer narrates directly their actions, thoughts, and interactions with others. Some of the most famous novels ever written adopt this approach:

  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville

This is a great way to draw the reader into the action, to place them at the centre of the story and to engage them on a personal and emotional level. If the story is written well, the reader can experience vicariously (i.e. through their connection with the character) the unfolding events. This creates an almost fantasising or voyeuristic experience.

Even when the group referred to is pluralised - i.e. ‘we saw that happening’ - the narrative control remains with a single narrator. Of course, there can be multiple first-person perspectives, in which the narrator changes from one person to another, with each narrator focusing on their individual perspective and their experiences. This is a style adopted in Sha’Kert: End of Night by Australian Author, Ishmael A. Soledad. In this novel, the reader follows the stories of a number of characters who come to share the same experiences and events.

The advantage to this ‘multi-perspective’ point of view is that characters can interact, but you can ‘hear’ what they think of each other, understand how they feel about each other, and ‘move away’ from other characters whose perspective you already have or will come to know at a later point. It could be described as circling a group of people and entering their minds one at a time.

This first-person style has its disadvantages, however. Unless you are a skilled writer who can create clearly defined characters, each with their own ‘voice’, the reader might get confused when you switch character. You also need to find a way to ‘teach’ the reader about the fictional world within which you place your characters, as general conversation between characters would not usually call for discussions designed to address and ‘educate’ the reader. This latter point is part of the wider skill of ‘worldbuilding’.

A lot of first-person stories are rooted in the present, with the narrator setting their current context while speaking about a past context; but many are fully in the present, and dominated by the present tense. There is no problem having your character(s) talking about what happened in the past, but remember the restrictions here: no single character could realistically know what another was thinking in the past (an option available to you in third-person); nor would they know what another character was doing in the past unless that character either told them, or they were sharing the same space. Here are some examples of first-person narrative:

I can still remember that day; the memories are seared into my brain. I’d just finished my homework when I heard a knock on the door. Then I heard him calling, “Hey, Jody, are you coming down to the lake?”

I suppose you must think me mad. It’s been years since all this happened, so why am I telling you now?


Second-Person Narrative

(You do this; You see this happening; You’re going to like this story, etc.)

A Second-Person narrative is unusual and you won’t see it much, but it addresses the reader as if they are the character(s) in the story. There might be a fantasy element to this, as if you are instructing the reader that they have been ‘transported’ into this fictional world. Note that the Present Tenses (Simple or Perfect) are dominant in second-person POV, as this approach is designed to make the reader feel that the action is happening right now - it is imminent. Other tenses can be used, of course, but usually only as they are relevant to the narrated present action.

You are likely to encounter a second-person narrative in RPG (Role-Playing Games) books (or video games), which are interactive and intended to immerse you in the action. You are the character, you make the decisions, you suffer the consequences or receive the rewards. Here is an example:

You have been chosen to solve the mystery of my death. Yes, I am a ghost, whose spirit is embedded in these pages. You need to follow my instructions to the letter. Now, read on…

You open the door and peek into the shadowy room before crossing the threshold. You feel a shiver run through you as the cold from the room takes your breath away. A sibilant voice whispers, “Come in, come in. It’s perfectly safe.”


Third-Person Narrative

(He did that; She saw that happening; They found that story delightful, etc.)

This is the most popular and commonplace narrative approach, allowing you to describe multiple points of view. It expands the scope of your narrative, as you can introduce the reader to facts and perspectives without having to engage with any of your characters. This helps you to describe large contexts and provide backgrounds to situations in which your characters might find themselves, meaning you can avoid forcing information (unnaturally) into the thoughts and conversations of characters.

You can talk about the actions of characters from a completely objective viewpoint, with characters walking and jumping and fighting and doing whatever you want, without anyone else having to be in the scene to witness this action.

A great strength of the third-person narrative is the ability to reflect or muse upon the thoughts, feelings, and aspirations of others. You are the ‘god-like’ observer, the all-seeing eye of the narrative, so there is nowhere you can’t go and nothing you can’t see. In fact, the world you’re writing only exists for the characters based on your decisions.

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