On Tuesday two weeks ago, I was hurrying back to the office after lunch to prepare for a meeting. En route, I spotted tourists taking photographs of nearby statues, taking advantage of a brief window of sunshine in an otherwise rainy week.
Exactly a week later, I was the tourist at the Edinburgh Fringe squeezing past locals in bus stops as they went about their business. This started me thinking about point of view in the stories we write.
Let’s fictionalise the scenario above into character sketches, starting with the first-person point of view of the office worker:
I didn’t mean to take so long over lunch, but I was dreading that meeting. Profits are down for the third quarter and couldn’t explain why. Just then, some tourist, not looking where he’s going, steps back trying to get a picture of some statue and knocks the papers right out my hand. He’s in a world of his own and if I wasn’t so late, I’d have had a word with him. But I picked them up and carried on and went to the meeting and just said customer engagement was better than ever.
And now from the first-person point of view of the tourist:
Finally, a sunny afternoon after all that rain. Thought I’d take the chance to come out of the museums and take a few photos round the town centre. There’s an enormous statue of Queen Victoria so I had to step back quite a bit just to fit it all in. Next thing I know, bumped into some local who’s more concerned with reading documents than looking out for people. Said I was sorry, as you do, but she just ignored me. Fine by me. I got the picture I wanted.
Already, we can see a difference in the two characters’ points of view. The office worker is in a hurry and preoccupied about the meeting, but the tourist is more relaxed and concerned with taking good photos. We also see different details depending on the perspective of the character. Finally, let’s examine the same scenario in third person:
On Tuesday afternoon, Alice left the pub clutching her documents with five minutes to spare until the meeting. She still could give no good reason why profits were down for the third quarter. Meanwhile, Ben cupped his hand to his camera screen against the strong sun. The statue needed a wider angle. Without turning around, he stepped back. At that moment, Alice turned the corner and they bumped into each other.
The first and second passages are in the first-person voice. The characters use ‘I’ and ‘me’ to describe what’s happening from their perspective. But neither of them knows what the other is thinking; they can only make assumptions based on the actions of the other party. This voice is an excellent way to portray an unreliable narrator.
The third passage is in the third person, a more objective point of view. The narrator uses ‘she’, ‘he’ and ‘they’. We now find out the names of the characters, which is also possible in the first person. But that would require a self-introduction or for a second character to mention the name, which might distract from the story. It’s also revealed that Alice was in the pub. Was this detail simply not at the forefront of her mind, or is she an unreliable narrator with a drinking problem?
So we have a choice to make, and it’s a choice that beginner writers sometimes struggle to make. Even experienced writers occasionally need to rewrite.
A few Novembers ago, I was writing an alternate history novel, where the past is reimagined in some way. In mine, the petrol engine wasn’t developed until the end of the 20th century. My plan was to tell the story from the point of view of a historian who had interviewed the reclusive inventor; this would be peppered with newspaper and journal articles.
The technique didn’t work. I couldn’t find enough material to construct a detailed narrative. I recalled some advice I was once given that if a piece isn’t working, the point of view is often the cause. I’ve found this to be true.
I decided I had to let the inventor speak for herself, and the story came alive. The first thing she did was attend an office Christmas party and hit her boss with a glass bottle.
Earlier this year, I read a letter in Writing Magazine that a subscriber’s own story wasn’t working from his main character’s point of view. He explained how and why he rewrote it in the third person, then rather grandly signed off the letter with First person – last choice.
However, I disagree; the point of view will probably change depending on the story you write. In the case of a novel, there might even be shifts from first to third or vice-versa from one chapter to the next. If the subscriber in question did stick slavishly to third-person, he would probably encounter the opposite problem eventually, as I have recently.
The first- and third-person voices are by far the most common, but there exists a far rarer alternative: the second person. This is where the narrator uses ‘you’.
It’s a personal opinion, but I believe this technique is only effective in poetry, as it gives the impression of the poet writing a letter to a third party. In prose, it can feel as though the author is instructing the reader. A novel in the second person can be done, however, as Angelina Mirabella found out.