The Three Points of View: Writing in First, Second or Third Person
There are basically three points of view from which a story can be written. Though which POV is used is up to the writer, some points of view work better for certain types of novels than others.
Basically, there are three points of view:
*Third Person (limited, subjective multiple viewpoints, or omniscient)
First PersonFirst person means the story is told from the “I” viewpoint. This point of view brings the reader up close and personal with the narrator. Many detective and private eye novels are written in first person because this viewpoint immediately puts the reader “in the shoes” of the crime-solving hero. The reader can quickly identify and derive pleasure from experiencing the events in the book as if they are seeing them through the eyes of the main character.
First person viewpoint is also effective in a thriller. A first person viewpoint can provide immediate empathy with the main character and enhance suspense because the emotions are deeply felt by the reader. First person gives the effect that each twist and turn, each setback or sensation of joy, fear or pain seems to be happening to the reader personally.
Many “confessional” novels or ones with a gothic atmosphere are written in the first person point of view. In this case the hero may actually be a villain. Seeing the story unfold through the eyes of a narrator who may be self-deluded and not entirely truthful in his account can be very effective. First person can also create a sense of foreboding because the emotions are deeply felt by the reader. Of the books listed below, The Meaning of Night, which begins with the narrator’s confession of the murder of a total stranger, would be much less effective if written in third person.
Examples of mysteries and thrillers written in first person:
The Woods by Harlan Coben
Shattered by Dick Francis
The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox
Second person is told from the “you” viewpoint and is most often associated with literary works. It would be rare to find an entire mystery written in this point of view. However, second person can be very effective in small doses, such as in a prologue or in italicized scenes interspersed throughout a first or third person novel. But an entire novel written in this tense can quickly gets tiresome unless the author has mastered the technique. Two authors who consistently employ this point of view are Joyce Carol Oates and Thomas H. Cook. Thomas H. Cook writes both literary novels and mysteries. Many of his novels contain a blend of tenses, including second person.
An example of a novel which contains scenes written in second person:
The Orchids Thomas H. Cook
Third Person LimitedThird person limited means that everything is seen through the main character’s eyes and in past tense. A book written in third person has the phrases “he said, he thought,” all coming from the same person’s head. The reader sees, thinks and feels only what the main character experiences. There are no shifts at any other time to other character’s thoughts or emotions. Many detective novels are written in this simple, straightforward tense. This POV is comfortable, easy to read, and readily accepted by most publishers.
Third Person Subjective Multiple ViewpointA change in viewpoint can heighten suspense. Many mystery writers use subjective multiple viewpoint to tell their story. In the Tony Hillerman Navajo mysteries, there are two main narrators, officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. When the reader is in Leaphorn’s mind, the viewpoint stays with Leaphorn until it shifts to Jim Chee in an alternating section or chapter. (Some portions of Hillerman’s stories, such as a murder scene, may also be told in an omniscient viewpoint, from no particular character’s point of view, however the larger portion of his work is seen through the viewpoint of one character at a time.)
Books written in third person limited or subjective multiple viewpoint
The Case of the Daring Divorcee by Erle Stanley Gardener
A Taint in the Blood by Dana Stabenow
Cold in the Grave by Peter Robinson
Coyote Waits by Tony Hillerman (alternating narrators Chee and Leaphorn)
Third Person OmniscientIn the third person omniscient point of view, the author takes a panoramic, bird’s eye view of the characters and in describing the overall picture. The story is not shown through the eyes of any one character, but an invisible, all-knowing, all-seeing narrator. This point of view works best in a story with a complicated plot and multiple characters. Most of popular author Stephen King’s works are written in third person omniscient.
Novels written in Third Person Omniscient:
A Time to Kill, The Partners by John Grisham
And then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Mixed Points of View
There is no solid rule that a book must be written from a single point of view. Many authors mix points of view, alternating from third person limited to third person omniscient. In this case, part of the book is usually seen through omniscient eyes, the other through the eyes of the detective. Some authors may also switch from first person to third person viewpoint, using first person for the hero and third for the villain.
What kind of novel are you writing, suspense, detective, confessional? Take a look at some of these author’s books and familiarize yourself with the different points of view and their variations. Try writing the first few pages of your novel in first person, then switch to third. Which seems more comfortable to you? Once you have “found your voice” you will be well on the way to writing your novel.
Choosing a Point of View
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