It’s probably one of the first things you decide (consciously or unconsciously) when you start writing your story: who’s going to tell it. First-person narration? Third-person limited? Third-person omniscient? (Never second-person, okay? Very few people can get away with that, and it’s hard not to sound pretentious as hell even for the ones who can.) Will you switch off between multiple points of view (POVs)? Who tells your story sets the tone of the book. Here are some things to consider when choosing which perspective to use.
How many POVs do you want to show? If you want your reader can feel like they’re in the character’s shoes as they move through the action of the story and experience the emotional ups and downs along with them, first person is for you. On the other hand, with third person limited or omniscient, you have more opportunity to experiment with different voices and headspaces. (In limited, the narrator can switch to another character’s point of view; in omniscient, you have one voice in the narrator but the narrator has access to every character’s thoughts.)
The main questions to ask here are how much access do you want to give your reader into the characters and what kind of insight does it offer into your characters if you choosing one point of view over another?
The genre you’re writing might dictate what point of view you use. When Audrey Ryan and I were editing her book All the Things I Know (Meryton Press, 2017), we had a big discussion about the first-person narrative that she started with, especially since it was also in the present tense. The book is a mash-up between Austenesque fiction (it’s a modern take on Pride & Prejudice) and New Adult, and both genres have expectations inherent in them. While it’s not uncommon to have a first-person perspective in Austenesque fiction, most stories seem to be third-person narration in past tense. In the New Adult genre, on the other hand, the majority of books are written in first-person present.
We stuck to the original first-person perspective in present tense that Audrey wrote in because we wanted to give a clear signal that this story is operating under New Adult conventions and expectations and to differentiate it from other modern retellings of Pride & Prejudice. The New Adult genre is all about young women trying to figure out who they are as they transition into adulthood and all the freedom and responsibilities and necessary lessons to learn that come with that change. The first-person POV really helps the reader to see how our heroine grapples with her new life and how she grows in confidence after stumbling over her own insecurities and learning some hard truths about herself. And the immediacy of thoughts that comes with first person and with the present tense is key to the New Adult formula; it fosters a sense intimacy, while also making the character both relatable and vulnerable.
Genre is a good indicator to determine what kind of perspective to use. Grab random ten books in your chosen genre – what do they use? Is there a good reason for you to use a different perspective than that one? (Is it important to get multiple POVs? Is there any interesting way that you could play with or subvert genre expectations by changing from the standard?) Or, like Audrey, do you have two different genre conventions to choose between? Pick the one that serves your characters and your genre the best.
What you want to reveal or conceal
Audrey puts us into her main character Lizzie’s head so we know everything she’s thinking. It means we’re instantly on Lizzie’s side because we get to see her thoughts and assessments to the external world and her own insecurities and doubts internally. While there’s an element of trust there because we’re not getting her mediated through another person trying to interpret her, there’s also a realization on the reader’s part that Lizzie isn’t an entirely reliable narrator – she misunderstands, misinterprets, and misses cues that would help her read other people better and force her to realize things about herself that she’s not ready to face yet.
Confined to the first-person narration, we don’t get anyone else’s read on the situation and there is a certain amount of emotional distance because we’re not allowed into their head. We don’t have access to her love interest Darcy’s thoughts, so we can’t know his interest or the depth of his feelings for Lizzie for certain at any point in the story unless he tells us. (Contrast that to Austen’s original, where her third person omniscient narrator tells us “Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her.”) We can only know how Audrey's Lizzie interprets Darcy's actions, but we can use the clues that Audrey leaves for us that indicate that he’s in waaaaay deeper than Lizzie believes. This allows for a bigger impact when he actually reveals his feelings to Lizzie; if we had been in third person and had already known what Darcy was thinking before his declaration, we wouldn’t get the same kind of effect. (And ooh, the way he reveals them is a DOOZY, guys.)
Sometimes the choice of POV comes easily - the characters speak right through you and the narrative voice is just there. And if that all works with the story you're telling and the characters in it, then get writing! If it's not quite so easy, keep the above considerations in mind.
More on Audrey Ryan's All the Things I Know:
Lizzie Venetidis is confident in her decisions. Moving to Seattle with her sister Jane after she graduated from Stanford, for instance, was a no-brainer. Adult life, however, turns out to be more difficult to navigate than she expected.
What career should she pursue with a bachelor’s degree in Art History and no marketable experience amongst a tech-heavy job market? How responsible is it to drink that fourth cocktail while out with friends? And what should she do about Darcy—the aloof yet captivating guy she met her first night in town?
All the Things I Know is a one-mistake-at-a-time retelling of Pride & Prejudice, set against the backdrop of modern day techie Seattle. Full of wry observations, heartache, and life lessons, All the Things I Know shares the original’s lesson of ill-conceived first impressions and learning who you really are.
Hey, I'd love for you to follow me on Facebook where I post weekly videos, articles, and other fun stuff. Or if you're on Twitter, come chat with me there!