Discussion in 'Writing' started by Inkstain, Jan 21, 2010.
1st person, 3rd person? What points of view resonate best in your works and why?
I prefer to read and write in 3rd person. When reading first person I always feel the text calls a little too much attention to itself. (If that makes any sense.) I just think 3rd person is a more natural way to tell a story.
On a related side note I tried to watch an old movie last night. "Lady in the Lake" based on the chandler novel. It was shot in the Point of View of Philip Marlow. I love old movies, but I could only stand about 20 minutes of this. It was too much. 1st person novels aren't the same, but it is a similar idea.
1st person is good for stream of consciousness narrative and can be used brilliantly (As I Lay Dying anyone?) but for sci fi and fantasy I'm not really aware of any writers who use 1st person from the top of my head.
As I Lay Dying is brilliant. Mmm Faulkner.
I find Bret Easton Ellis and Chick Palahniuk to both make good use of first person narratives. Their novels would not be the same without it.
Do both. Sherlock Holmes is written in the 1st person with Dr. Watson as the POV character but he tells of Mr. Holmes' adventure in the 3rd person. It is also the only work I know of that uses 1st person plural POV without putting a lampshade on it.
Roger Zelazny did good work with 1st person when writing his Amber chronicles. John Steakley uses it effectively with his John Crow character in the latter half of his novel, Armor. And of course, H.G. Wells was a fan of this narrative in several of his stories.
I prefer to read and write in third person. It is the most natural to me.
However, one book that used the first person extremely well was Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness because almost every chapter alternated between the two main characters' points of view (with some historical narrations thrown in).
I tend to write in third person, as it allows the reader to discover the character from a distance and make their own assertions, otherwise the story is compromised by the character's subjective perspective. I have always been against multiple perspectives. Generally, I see multiple perspectives as being strung together to tell a greater narrative. Often in these cases the story loses sight of character to focus more on a grand and intricate plot. What can I say? I guess I must be a purist of character driven narrative.
Alternating first person is often quite interesting. This format is essentially the same as exchange of letter format.
Otherwise, first person tucks us into the spell quite easily (remember Huck Finn?), but it limits us in a very important way: We can't pull a "meanwhile, back at the ranch" shift of time or place. Alternating viewpoint within first person solves that problem.
Third person has many, many gradations between full omniscient and third person tight focus. The British literary style (also quite popular in Canada) often uses a storyteller mode. It's often omniscient and often poetic. I relish the chance to read such books... but I'm quite aware of my own limitations. It is so difficult to maintain intimacy within that mode. Maybe some of the Brits on this board can divulge the secret.
American style usually calls upon a tightly focused third person narrative, non-omniscient, where even the "he said / she said" phrases use the actual vocabulary and vocal tics of the character with whom we are currently tight. Alternating viewpoint is easily done in this style; it involves no artifice beyond the change in voice from one character to the next.
As a reader, I have no preference, only that the story be well-written. If I recall correctly, Steakley's military sf Armor alternated first and third pov. Alternating povs can be used very effectively.
When I write, I tend to use third person, which is not pov, exactly. It's voice. The pov is omniscient, camera-eye, tight third (inside the characters head but in third person voice), first person which can be in one character's head or can be an outside narrator a la omniscient (I don't recall all the various names that have been used for some of these and there are many names for many of them). The pov is who's telling the story. The voice is how the pov is telling the story. And with voice comes tense.
I don't write first person voice much because it's hard for me to maintain the voice. I tend to slip into mine. I've done it twice. Once with a character I based on me, so her speech pattern matched mine. The second was with a character with an accent and odd inflections and idioms, so I could quickly see where I went awry and be able to quickly correct it. Third is easiest for me, and I like writing tight third pov which is almost like first person narration for me.
But if a writer is skilled he or she can make anything work. One of the most amazing books I've read is a short novel based on a historical incident: Stewart O'Nan's A Prayer for the Dying, written in second person present tense. I think the main character was the pov, but in a way, with second person, the reader is almost the pov.
Funny you should say that, the narration was told as journal entries. It gave perfect opportunities for character descriptions (of which there were plenty) and insights into two dramatically different interpretations of one action or event. I learned a lot from that writing style.
Actually, "who's telling the story" is the "narrator". The "point of view" is the perspective that the narrator takes, usually his own, sometimes an objective one (attempting to hide all subjectivitiy), and sometimes their channelling another character's subjectivity.
"Voice", with respect to point of view, is who the narrator sounds like. Does he talk like himself (and if so, his professional self, his private self...), or does he sound like the point of view character he is channeling.
The difference between first and third person has nothing to do with either, really. It's a formality: is the narrator also a character in story (first person narration) or not (third person narration)? [Since it's possible that the narrator only comes in at the very end, this distinction is not as hard and fast as people would like to tell you.]
Second person narration cuts across this as it assumes a point-of-view character distinct from the narrator, so that the narrator can address him/her. So it's possible that second person overlaps with first person (a character talks to another character - I can imagine stalker stories be quite creepy that way) or third person (an external narrator addresses a character).
Then there's the distinction between "omniscient" and "limited", which is basically a function of narrative distance - the distance between narrator and experiencer. Conventional lore only applies the distinction to third person, but that's short sighted, as the narrator in first person stories tells a story about his younger self, and thus there, too, is usually a discrepency between what the narrator (story-teller I) knows, and what the experiencer ("story I") knows. Also, the word "omniscient" is a bit of an overstatement, because very few "omniscient" narrator are really "omniscient".
Tense is a grammatical category, and - with respect to point of view - usually serves narrative distance: past tense, for example, marks a psychological distance between narrator and experiencer, present tense a psychological connection. I emphasise "psychological", because first person present tense narrators don't necesserily tell the story as it evolves; there's such a thing as "dramatic present" (the type you also use in meditation exercises or choose-your-own-adventure books).
It's really not even that simple, but the good news is that writers often get it right despite misleading simplifications in how-to books. Remember that there are more point-of-view errors in critiques than in actual fiction: many of them are theory artefacts - they're hard to analyse with the three-point-of-view models.
So, er, what is my favourite point of view? I have none. Neither for writing nor for reading. My favourite authors often do interesting things with point of view. Ian McDonald, in my opinion, is a master of point of view, and here is what he said about the topic:
Of course, every writer is different. It just made my day to read this from someone who I consider a master of point of view.
What Dawnstorm said
I prefer writing in 3rd person, but it doesn't matter with what i am reading as long as it grips me. A really good 1st person novel is Kushiels Dart by Jacqueline Carey. The entire story is written from one character's perspective. It's extremely well done IMO.
And how is that different than what I said? Narrator or pov is not the tense of the piece. It's not first, second, or third person. The tense is how the narrator or pov is narrating the story.
As with many writing terms, there is disagreement as to definitions and connotations and many words for the same thing, ie tight third is also called intimate third. A third person narration isn't telling us the actual pov, which could be intimate, in the character's head, or an omniscient narrator, or a limited third person narrator where we aren't firmly in his or her head. To simply say third person pov is not very informative.
Huh? First person tells me the narration is coming from one character who may or may not be in the story. It is not, however, telling me the pov (see above re: voice vs pov). First person can be omniscient, ie God telling us a story about some humans or aliens. Or the first person pov can be a character in the piece.
A narrator, even first person ones, can be reliable or unreliable. If unreliable, they can be withholding info, letting us know they're withholding info, not letting us know they're withholding info, have faulty memories, have no memories of some incidents or details, etc.
Whether a character is or isn't in the story tells me nothing about the pov. Who is that narrator? That's what I want to know. Everything else will follow from who he, she, or it is. At least for everything I've ever read.
Uh, no. The book I mentioned, A Prayer for the Dying, led to a very interesting book discussion with a group of librarians. Some of us thought the main character was the narrator, as I know many people who speak of themselves in second person. Others thought they, the reader, was the "you." And one person thought God was telling the story.
Second person is simply a method of narrating. It's not the narrator/pov.
I'm a bit confused about what you're saying now, so I can't answer clearly. I'll try later as I progress through your post, so bear with me.
Yes, terms are used differently - i.e. the same term may have different meanings. Also, the same meanings are often covered by different terms.
But the terms take their meaning from an over-reaching theory (there are always assumptions made that give the terms meaning), so that there is no guarantee that two terms that - in general - describe the same stories are the same; there may just be a huge overlap.
So, above you're saying that "tense is how the narrator or pov is narrating the story." Why does that confuse me?
1. "Tense" is a state that (finite) verbs are in. "I go." = present tense. "I went." = past tense. (Beyond that it gets murky in grammatical theory, so I'll sweep that under the carpet for now.) Clearly, when we're talking about "present tense narration", we're drawing on the grammatical meaning, but we're not talking about the state a verb is in - we're talking about the state that [what?] is in.
It is related to point of view, to be sure. But how? What are we exactly saying? And that leads me to:
2. "narrator or pov is narrating". How can a point of view perform the action of narrating? What is it that you are referring to, when you're saying "pov" in that sentence?
The narrator is, on a primary level, a person telling a story. But theory tends to use that in a more abstract manner, using "person" as a metaphor.
The narrator is the focal point for the point-of-view concept. That is: when a narrator tells you that something is bad, does the narrator think that thing is bad, or is he channeling a different character at the time that he is saying that.
A real life example:
You hit your finger with a hammer and say "Ouch!". The ouch is uttered by you (= you are the narrator). The "Ouch" represents your pain (= you are the point of view character).
I watch you hit your finger with a hammer, and I cringe at that, saying "Ouch!". I am the source of the utterance, but I the pain I am feeling is surrogate pain, empathy. My "Ouch" represents your pain. You are the point of view character.
This is the reason we need a concept such as point-of-view in the first place: there can be a difference between who speaks, and who experiences.
But this does not seem to be the way you are using the terms in above sentence, as "pov" can engage in "telling the story". Perhaps, I've been misunderstanding you. Or not understanding you at all?
If that were the case, there would be no stories that could not be analysed as first person. Any story at all is told by "one character". That may just be an assumption (and it's challanged in narratology by some people, who make a difference between "narration" and "representation", and claim that some of the stories that others - not narratologists - call third person limited have no narrator at all, but that's getting really complecated now...).
I've never seen any analysis that works that way either. For example, George Eliot's narrator in Middlemarch has an identifiable personality, and talks to the reader using first person pronouns. Yet, it's usually referred to as a third person narrator.
You could split the story in two: story telling contex + story context, in which case it would be fine to argue that the narrator is a first person narrator in story telling context, but a third person narrator in the story context.
Well, we do treat eye-witness accounts differently from hearsay. And that's why we're making a difference between first person (in-story pov) and third person (out-story pov) narration. Of course, out-story pov don't necessarily rely on hearsay. They could be, wait for it, "omniscient".
It does boil down to reliability, which is why some theorists think an "unreliable omniscient narrator" is a contradiction in terms, even though I disagree.
You're absolutely right that the question is "Who is the narrator?" and everything follows from that. But the story point of view is not necessarily the narrator's. That was the big novelty of what we now term "third limited". A narrator hiding behind a character surrogate, more or less successfully.
Yes, second person is simply a method of narrating. The identity of the narrator can be open - I can identify myself as the "author" of the story and say such things as "You'll never know why I made you up. That would mess up my plans." And later: "Why are you misbehaving so?" Things like that. I can establish in the manner that I am the author, and this is my character.
Similarly, a psychologist could get carried away investigating a suicide of a person he didn't know in life, and imagine how it was for him/her, addressing the suicide.
But from what you're saying I imagine that in A Prayer for the Dying we have no hint as to the identity of the narrator. Many second person pieces work like that (an example I can think of from my own reading experience would be the second person bits of Ian McDonald's "The Undifferentiated Object of Desire"). But having no hint as to the identity of the narrator is significant in terms of point of view. It means that - whenever we have evaluative statements - these have to attributed to a character.
You and Jeannie watch the animal. Jeannie thinks that it's an ant eater. But that's not true. It's an aardvark.
You and Jeannie watch the animal. The two of you think that it's an ant eater. But that's not true. It's an aardvark.
Example B is obvious: an external narrator corrects the assumption of characters. This interpretation is available for Example A, too. The narrator could be correcting Jeannie's assumption. Another interpretation would be that what we're getting here is the addressed character's pov. The addressed character is correcting Jeannie, not the narrator. These are different situations, and how we read lines like these depends on how we parse point of view.
If we never had a sign of the narrator, I think we're more likely to assume that the point-of-view character (addressed by the narrator) is correcting Jeannie.
Point of view is very complex. The same words can be ambiguous as to who we attribute the words on the page to (narrator or character), but the ambiguity is - in practise - resolved by the picture we have of the "point of view situation", which is a complex construct we create as we read.
I want to point out that this usually does not create any problems for the readers. Usually, the ambiguities will all be "invisible" to the reader; as the point of view situation takes care of this. It's a problem for the analyst.
If I go all scientific on you all: the empirical data is twofold: the text and the reading experience; the text (= the words on the page) is always the same, but the reading experience varies. It is possible that two different readers construct different point of view situations, and thus will have different assumptions about what characters know, which can lead to a slightly different story.
Basically there are three related questions:
1. Who is the source of the words on the page?
2. Whose perspective do the words on the page relate?
3. In whose voice do the words on the page relate the perspective?
So, going back to the situation, where I watch you hit your thumb with a hammer and say "Ouch".
1. I am the source of the word "Ouch".
2. You are the source of the experience that the word "Ouch" relates.
3. (a) If I don't normally say "ouch" but you do, I'm not only taking your perspective, I'm also taking your voice.
(a) If I normally say "ouch", but you don't, then I'm only taking your perspective, but use my own voice to relate it.
(c) If both of us normally say "ouch", then it's both our voices and we have no usueful clue to settle that question.
(d) If neither of us normally say "ouch", then I'm probably following a social script. I'm not really sure how to parse voice in that case, since "narrative distance" interfers.
I really think that asking such questions is a better way into learning to deal with pov than puzzling out the terms, especially since they're pretty crude to begin with.
The best way to get our terms straight would be to apply them to a specific text. If you're interested we could try pov analysis of a (short) predetermined text. Out of time now. I'm hoping I haven't created even more confusion (though experience has me expect just that .)
I usually write in third person, but in one book, The Speed of Dark, had to go to third person present tense--a difficult POV to sustain "pure" for technical reasons, esp. if the character thinks differently than the writer--as it was the only way to convey the quality of autistic cognition. I had started it in third person, past tense, shifted first to third/present to get the immediacy, and then realized it had to be first person/present to show what I wanted to show. The trick in that case it to be able to suppress one's own personality, way of thinking, and voice during a session...to show that Other.
I find second-person offputting, both to read and to write, although in nonfiction (on blog entries, for instance) I am quite comfortable with "you" in both the specific and general sense. As a reader, I feel that I'm being coerced into the POV, rather than invited in--forced to become the player-character, rather than allowed to observe him/her from outside, and it's particularly annoying when the character differs from me in important ways. First person is the POV talking directly to me--I'm still me, the character's still the character, though if I want to, I can "fall into" that POV.
In a conversation elsewhere on POV, Charlie Stross (who does second person POVs brilliantly, though I still find them unpalatable) said that he found some people really liked it and others really hated it, whereas nearly everyone will read a third person POV without a hitch.
The Speed of Dark was a wonderful book. The pov worked very well, as did the voice. I can't imagine it written any other way. Same as I can't imagine O'Nan's A Prayer for the Dying written in anything other than second person present tense, which didn't seem offputting or forced at all. If I'd read either had they been written differently, I might not have thought plain old tight third past tense for ex was wrong for them, but as they are, they were written in just the perfect voice/tense/pov for them. Somethings just click with a reader, and with a writer.
Eddie, you can't completely ignore common parlance just because it's technically inaccurate in academic theory. (In the same way that I cannot ignore the word "genre" just because it is used in the marketplace differently from its dictionary/academic definition.)
And in the common parlance, the narrator is the point-of-view -- is the camera. So for instance your example of a person hitting himself with a hammer and another person observing it and narrating the incident, and you saying the observing person is the narrator and the person hit with the hammer is the point-of-view character -- that's not going to work for most people. For them, the observer is the point-of-view narrator -- giving them the picture of the person hitting the hammer, and the person hit with the hammer is the focal character whose feelings are guessed at, but not known for certain, not definitively given. Likewise the Middlemarch omniscient narrator is technically a first person omniscient because that's how they tended to do it back then, but gets called third person by some because it relates the characters and their pov in third person.
It all comes down to inner thought. Whosever inner thoughts and feelings we get, they are the narrating pov character in people's conception, the camera in charge of the story for that part. All narration -- observation, description, dialogue, description of action, metaphor, etc. is considered to be coming through their psyche (their point-of-view of things,) unless we get the inner thoughts and feelings of some other character, who then is taking over for that part of narrative.
For straight first person, this is very easy to see -- one narrator, one point-of-view of the whole story, all other characters have their thoughts and feelings interpreted by the first person pov narrator. For third person tight, limited, intimate, whatever the f they call it, which is like straight first person or revolving/alternating first person, it is also very easy to see because it is one character, one point-of-view, one narrator to deal with at any one time. Even second person, which usually uses first person or third person limited as the jumping off point, can be therefore relatively easy to follow in terms of whose inner viewpoint you're getting.
Where things get more confusing on a writing comprehension level (but not on an instinctual reading or construction level,) is the different uses of omniscience, and not the technical, full-out omniscience but the working definition of the thing. Omniscience can come in many shades, allowing an outside narrator point-of-view and the ability of that narrator to telescope in to characters' inner thoughts and feelings, in whole or in part, and shuffle them like a deck of cards during a scene or just use one at a time. It can be done in first, second or third person, and done a lot of different ways.
And this gets harder for people to pinpoint, because they have actually no problem processing forms of omniscience at all, but have often been told that it is problematic. (Rocket Sheep speculated that this idea was actually started in Australia from a writing instructor and spread. I don't think it's been as much as an issue in the oughts as it was in the 1990's.) But if you focus them on who's thinking what when, then it tends to fall into place conceptually.
Right now, I'm reading two well-selling fantasy novels that are both written in third person omniscient, in a similar fashion though somewhat different from each other. Before that, I read a first person historical mystery. For me, it's just like shifting from one type of lens to another, one sort of framework for narration to another. But I can understand that some people like to stick with one lens for reading or writing.
If you take it down to the atomic level, it gets a lot more complicated than that, but most writers and most readers are not analyzing it at the atomic level, even when it's something like first person semi-omniscient or mixed first and third person with bits of second person, etc. They are looking at it as to who is telling the story, which translates into whose brain are we in at the moment.
Thanks, KatG. I never could have explained pov so well, though I did give it a muddled try.
I don't recall encountering a usage such as the hammer, etc, before, so had no idea how to properly address it.
Point of View is whose view is telling the story. A good omniscient first person narrator (I think it was omnisicent, but it's been a while since I read the book) is Arturo Perez-Riverte's The Club Dumas, which is infinitely better than the horrid movie they made of it (in which they cut out half the plot and lost the whole point of the story). The narrator, a book dealer as I recall, appears at the start and once later on, but otherwise is telling a story about other character's as he knows it to have happened. It's his pov, not the main characters driving the story, even if the "I" pronoun is rarely seen. Mostly, it's told in third person past tense, which is the style or voice or method or whatever, but not the pov. The guy narrating is the pov.
Separate names with a comma.