A couple of weeks ago, I did a post on the pros and cons of writing in the first person, but I glossed over the alternatives. Several options exist, plus variations. The other common POV is third person (he/she). Second person POV (you) is a rarely used one, but can be highly effective when appropriate and done well. I’ll cover that one in a future post. I may discuss the variation on third person in a future post as well.
In this post, I’m not going to talk about which person (1st, 2nd, 3rd) to select, but how to select the best character or narrator to tell the story. This choice isn’t always as easy as one might suspect. Authors often pick their main character to tell the story, and this is often the best one. But not always. Even when using first person, the narrator isn’t always obvious. The narrator may not even be a character in the story (as in the case of an omniscient narrator), or the POV character may be a minor one.
A second consideration is that you are not restricted to using a single POV in your story. Now, a word of caution: While novels can readily accommodate multiple POVs if necessary, short stories should be limited to a single POV. But as with all “rules” in fiction, you can violate this if your short story demands that you do so, and I have seen some superbly done exceptions.
So, how do you select the best POV when you’re using only one? Generally, you want the POV character to be the one with the most at stake in the story, the one that has the most to lose (hence the one with the most interesting story). Again, this is only a rough guide. You also need to consider whose story is being told.
One example is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the story is clearly about Gatsby, but the POV character, the one telling the story is his close friend Nick Carraway. Fitzgerald shows us Gatsby through Nick’s eyes, even though Nick is not all that interesting a character himself. The reason this POV works is because Nick is able to tell and show us things about Gatsby that Gatsby would not reveal were the story in his POV. We actually learn more about Gatsby this way.
Another classic example is Sherlock Holmes. All of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about the detective are told not from Holmes’ POV but from Dr. Watson’s perspective. Before you read on, can you guess why?
Consider this: Part of the mystery and suspense in the Sherlock Holmes stories comes from the reader not knowing what’s in Holmes’ head. If Doyle had used his POV, the reader would be in Holmes’ head and would therefore be privy to everything Holmes knew (assuming Doyle didn’t cheat). By casting the POV into Watson’s head, Doyle could legitimately keep information from the reader because Watson didn’t know it. The POV also allowed Doyle to create more tension and mystery, as well as to give Watson more depth. Watson became an observer instead a simple sidekick.
So, once you know whose story it is, you have to figure out the best narrator for the story. It’s important that the narrator–even if he/she is an omniscient one–have a personality. Otherwise, the narration could be bland. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, because of the expanse of the story, no single character could know everything, not even his powerful wizards. He had to lay out the background for the reader somehow. But, let’s face it, as fascinating as Tolkien’s world is, many parts of the narration are devoid of emotion. This is why omniscient narrators have fallen out of fashion with many readers. Very few authors can do it well enough to engage the modern reader, who craves involvement in the story. Some modern novels use omni-POV in occasional transition scenes to get the information across when no character can see what’s happening.
Now, let’s consider that technique for a moment and how it relates to the real world. In your daily life, you experience everything through your senses, whether directly or by being told by someone else who has experienced those things. We do not have omniscient, god-like narrators in our daily lives. There are no voices in our heads (at least I hope not) telling us things like “little do you know that your life is going to change drastically in the next 24 hours” or “in the sewers underneath the streets of the city, the long-dormant spores had begun to germinate.” So why do we think we need to do this in our novels? I’d bet good money that Doyle never tells the reader things like “Holmes had finally put all the clues together and was about to reveal the truth to Watson.” He would simply do it.
Could Tolkien have avoided his long, background prologue on the origin of the rings? Certainly. He didn’t probably because it was considered satisfactory back in the 1940s when he was writing LOTR to do it the way he did. Outside of literary writing, few authors (if any) today can get by with it and have the novel become a bestseller, assuming they can get it published.
What’s an author to do? Writing omni-POV well requires a good deal of skill, not something I profess to have at this stage in my writing. But if one is going to do it, one either has to craft compelling, fascinating prose (such as Dickens did in his famous opening to Bleak House), or else the omniscient narrator must have a unique and interesting voice–perhaps also interjecting comments that give the reader a perspective he can’t get from the characters alone. This is no easy task. Read the Faulkner classic short story “A Rose For Emily” to see a superb example of a close-in, limited-omniscient narrator. The narrator is never named, and he’s not quite omniscient, but he knows the whole story and lays it out for the reader. We’re also shown the story through that narrator’s eyes, not told it.
Don’t assume that just because you’re using one character’s close POV that you have to use first person. Third person is often just as (or more) effective because you can vary the distance between narrator and reader. You can’t do that with first person. Whatever person you write in, be sure you don’t slip and tell the reader things like what the narrator’s facial expressions look like when he/she can’t see them. A blush is something seen. However, the narrator can feel his/her face getting warm. A skilled writer knows how to stay in the character’s head.
To recap on how to choose a POV character–
(1) The character must be interesting in his/her own right to the reader and have an interesting voice or perspective on the events.
(2) The character should be one to whom the events of the story matter.
(3) When several characters fit these criteria, you should choose the one who has the most at stake or the most to lose, the one who will be most affected by the outcome.
(4) A distant or omniscient POV rarely serves the best interests of the story or the tastes of modern readers. Unless done well, you risk having the reader skim or skip those parts–something you want to avoid.
Finally, if you’re still not sure, don’t be afraid to experiment. Cast a scene into different POVs to help you decide which one works best for the story.