Point of View: How to Choose?

Today I thought I’d tackle the perennially difficult topic of point of view (POV). I’m not an expert, so I’m not going to offer “expert” advice. I’m simply going to share my own experience.

I don’t think I need to list and define the various narrative POVs: Google “point of view” and you’ve got it covered. What I do want to address is the question I hear most often at writers’ workshops / in pretentious restaurants / from my editing clients / in my own head: How do I decide whether to write in first person or third person?

When I brought up a blank document many years ago to start writing a novel, I automatically started writing in first person. It was an instinctive move. I wanted to be right up close to my protagonist; so close I was inside their head. I wanted my story to be driven not only by plot but by their unique personality and distinctive way of viewing the world. I also wanted the plot to unfold for the reader as it unfolded for them, adding to the sense of surprise and discovery.

First person narration has the added advantage, if done right, of making the reader feel rather clever. Any reader with half a brain starts to understand that they are reading a biased view of events, with everything being filtered through the narrator’s perception. And they start to sense that this perception may be unreliable, and that they might have a better handle on things than the narrator. They start to feel one step ahead.

But here is where it starts to get really interesting. There’s a second main character in the book, and I wanted to hear their point of view too. I wanted this character to have their own, unfiltered voice. So what did I do? Obviously glutton for literary punishment, I decided to have two alternating first person narrators. I decided they would “take turns” at telling the story. But I didn’t stop there. I decided that one of them would tell their side of the story via a series of letters. To tell you any more would give the game away, but to find out more about this kind of narration you can Google “epistolary writing”. I had to laugh at the irony of this decision, because only a few months previously I had been proclaiming in my book club how much I detested novels written as a series of letters or emails (Bridget Jones’ Diary being one of the few exceptions). But it seemed the obvious choice for my novel, and I think it works.

So. I’m happily writing in first person, when a few months in I hit the wall called “This is Not Fecking Working”, otherwise known as “I Don’t Know What the Hell I am Doing”, or, more commonly, “What the Bejeesus was I Thinking”. I just couldn’t progress the story.

I splashed around clumsily in the murky pool of writer’s despair before hitting upon an idea. I started to wonder if I should be writing the novel in third person, after all.

I rewrote the first two chapters in third person POV, just to see if that was going to solve the problem. And you know what? I hated it. To me, something vital had been lost. I just wasn’t close enough to my characters, and I missed them.

Now, there are advantages to third person narration. You can choose to narrate the story omnisciently, seeing and knowing everything. Or you can stick a bit closer to one character (third person limited). And an air of mystery can be retained as the reader sees what is happening but doesn’t have direct access to every character’s thoughts. As Nathan Branford says in his fabulous book How to Write a Novel:

…in the best third person narratives, we’re piecing together motivations and feelings based on what the character is doing rather than being told every single thought that the character has. We get glimpses into their heads, but their heart will remain partially out of view. It’s sort of like looking into a well-lit house from the street.

Ultimately, however, I chose the narrative mode that felt the most “right”: first person. For the story to work, readers need to see and feel the hearts of my two protagonists. That’s where the magic is. Right up close.

But I’m glad I spent a few hours on the experiment. It helped me to understand that the problems I was encountering weren’t down to POV wobbles—and even if they were, that was just too bad; I would have to find a way around them because there was no way I was changing it.

And I did. I finished the novel. I’m in the process of preparing it for publication.

So, here is the “expert” advice on POV that I vowed I wouldn’t give:

1. If you’re writing in first person, make sure the narrator is appealing and interesting—we’re going to be in his or her head for a long time.
2. If it’s not working, try it the other way. Something that isn’t quite right in first person may be fabulous in third person omniscient. Or third person limited. Or even, dare I say it, second.
3. Go with your heart. Write from the POV you want to; the one that feels right.
4. If you’re convinced you’ve chosen correctly, persevere through the bad patches. Make it work. Get help and advice. Learn.
5. Unless you are certifiably mad, don’t try to write your debut novel with two alternating first person narrators, one of whom writes their account in a series of letters.

Ooops.

Postscript: The novel is coming out next year. Follow me for updates. 😊

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