First or third, what’s your point of view?

Writers tend to read a lot, and recently I ’ve been reading more than I’ve been writing. Apart from the joy of reading a good novel, it’s also an opportunity to study the styles of successful authors outside my genre, and learn from them. One of the books I finished recently is Stephenie Meyer’s Host. It was a impulse buy based on the unusual story description and the fact that it was now a major Sci Fi motion picture. The story is written in the first person (I), from the point of view of the heroine, who happens to be a selfless alien parasite inhabiting the body of her human host. Yes, it seems such a strange plot line, particularly the relationship between herself and her human host. But it’s so well written and emotionally charged that it works. I couldn’t put the book down.

The fact that the author wrote in the first person is not the only reason why the book was so emotionally powerful. Stephanie Myers is a successful writer and such success doesn’t come about without being a great writer. But I doubt whether it would have worked out so well if it had been written in the third person (‘she’).

Another book I enjoyed reading recently was Suzanee Collins’ Hunger Games. In fact, it was so good I read the whole trilogy one after each other. Again the trilogy was written in the first person from the point of view of the heroine, but in this case it was also written entirely in the current tense. At first, this seemed very strange style to adopt, but the books are such great stories that it didn’t seem to matter. Stepenie Myers also uses the current tense in the Host, but only in certain passages where the heroine was reliving certain memories of her host body.

Why then do many authors tend to write in the third person and in the past tense? That’s easy to answer. The story demands it. Stories written in the first person can quite clearly make the reader identify and empathise with the protagonist. But the story is told purely from that one person’s point of view. Consequently, there is no easy way of making the reader aware of actions away from the main viewpoint character that may be vital to the storyline. The reader only sees what the point of view character sees or is told. If you want the reader to see what is going on when the main character is not present then the story needs to be written in the one of the third person forms (she/he).

One way is to use use third person limited point of view. This means that each scene is written from the point of view of one character, the point of view character. For example, all of Dan Brown’s books featuring Robert Langdon are written in the third person. So when Langdon is not present in a scene, a different point of view character is used.

When using third person limited point of view, it’s best to ensure that there is only one point of view character per scene. Otherwise it leads to a kind of ‘head hopping’, which can be irritating to the reader. When there are more than one main character present in the same scene, a choice will need to be made. In Collision, my own novel, there are two main characters, Elle and Ben, and I give each a share of point of view scenes. There are also point for view scenes for each of the antagonists. In this way, the reader can see what’s coming. The antagonists just don’t turn up to surprise the heroine.

First person, and limited third person point of view are not the only points of view that could be used to write a story from, although the other choices are far less popular. For example, second person (you) is hardly ever used. There is also third person omniscent where the story is told by some god like narrator who sees everything rather than a particular character. It’s a style that’s less popular these days.

Whichever point of view you choose to write in will have an important affect on the way your story unfolds and the way it needs to be written. But whatever point of view you choose will need to be applied consistently.