Who’s telling this story anyway?

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Point of View or POV is an important consideration when writing a story. Sometimes the POV is a foregone conclusion – if you want to write your autobiography, then it’s all going to be from your point of view. If it’s a book about someone else, then it’s going to be third person more often than not. Many writers like to experiment with strictly limited points of view, and this can be a huge challenge – using the second person POV will do that for you. It is quite a task to write everything based around what ‘you’ did. And choice of POV will also very often inform your choice of tense too.

I, and many others, like the first person POV. I’ve heard it said that this is the tool of a new writer, but I disagree with that. I love the first person viewpoint because it immediately plunges the reader into a more intimate involvement with the story, and hopefully, a sense of sharing in the outcome of the story too. But without the omniscience of the third person, there are a few things to bear in mind with the first person narrator.

  1. Remember to maintain consistency of tense and viewpoint. It is very easy to forget yourself and drift into a third person POV without realising you’ve done it. Keep asking yourself, but what does my character see here, what does he/she think, feel, how do they react? Are their attitudes likely to colour the way they see this or dictate a course of action? If they can’t for example, climb across a rooftop to reach the villains lair, how are they going to come face to face with their nemesis?
  2. Your reader can only know what your narrator knows and this is especially important in detective fiction of any kind – as your reader learns each new piece of information at the same time – it can feel limiting, so you will need to draw on your ingenuity to make it work. It can also be very freeing and a great way to create tension, to reveal inner motives and emotions that may not be visible ‘from the outside’. Instead of telling your reader so-and-so is grieving or depressed or miserable, you show them wondering if there’s any point in getting out of bed, or wrapping themselves in the old sweater of their dead lover because it’s the only way they can get warm. But don’t forget that if your character doesn’t know something or learn something, then neither can your reader. This also gives you a great opportunity to manipulate the reader with red herrings and misunderstandings.
  3. Your character needs to be identifiable-with for the reader. Even the hardest, meanest, evillest character needs a redeeming feature.  Make them human, make them believable. In my novel Criss Cross, my main character Cressida pours out all her woes into her journal, revealing that she is a murderer, cold, calculating, and ruthless. Yet she adores her husband, comes to adore her housekeeper and her husband, and in subsequent books, takes on more and more responsibility for making the lives of others happy. True sometimes the only way she can make people happy is by killing someone, but sometimes you’ve got to break a few eggs… And even when she’s getting ready to rush off and kill someone, she wastes time faffing about in front of her closet, wondering what to wear.
  4. Your character needs to be central to the story. Yes, I suppose they could in theory be on the very fringes of the book, but for a really satisfying read, they need to be right there in the central action of the story. Think about Agatha Christie’s unreliable narrators, and the use of James Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But again, beware the pitfalls of telling and not showing – it’s all too easy to explain everything instead of demonstrating it.

Hopefully you’ll give it a try if you haven’t before, and quickly see that the first person point of view is challenging and freeing and a great means of getting your story out their to touch many readers.