Hidden Danger: Point of View (POV)
My happiest discovery about point of view (POV) happened back in college, when my professor assigned Lorrie Moore’s “How To Be an Other Woman” and I fell in love with 2nd person. Moore’s irresistible story begins with the directive “Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night” and has a neglected, lovelorn protagonist who reminds herself: “You don’t have to put up with this: you were second runner-up at the Junior Prom.”
Some of us are not Lorrie Moore and cannot pull off 2nd person with panache. But what about 1st and 3rd? Those are workable choices, and the biggest difference between them is immediacy.
Consider the first line of Mary Doria Russell’s Children of God and the same sentence in different points of view:
A. “Sweating and nauseated, I sat on the edge of my bed with my head in what was left of my hands.” (First person)
B. “Sweating and nauseated, you sat on the edge of your bed with your head in what was left of your hands.” (Second person)
C. “Sweating and nauseated, Father Emilio Sandoz sat on the edge of his bed with his head in what was left in his hands.” (Third person)
We get painfully close with all three examples, obviously, but there’s a different kind of honesty, a willingness to divulge, and a risky potential for whining or self-absorption when Emilio tells us his story directly with “I” (A). We’re privy to the way his mind works, and how his thoughts might conflict with what he says or does. We can have quick changes for humor, or feel his despair directly. Yet there’s never any escaping experiencing the world through his perspective. If he lies to himself, he lies to the reader. That complication can be fascinating, or a mess.
Second person (B) sounds just crazy nuts.
With third person (C), Emilio has a little dignity because the writer serves as a witness reporting the event. We’re invited to feel Emilio’s agony, but we’re allowed to have a little impolite, dispassionate curiosity, too, because we trust that the author, not Emilio himself, is telling the story. We can still get Emilio’s thoughts and feelings, and know if he lies, but there’s a controlled neutrality about the way we get that information. There’s also the implied possibility that Emilio can die, which isn’t possible for a person telling the story as “I” unless the narrator is a ghost (The Lovely Bones) or the writer is really breaking form. Because of the death factor alone, I’d say it’s more dangerous for a character to be in a third person POV. Russell’s book, incidentally, is written in third (C), and indeed, her character Emilio is in such rough shape that it would be hard for him to narrate a coherent description of events.
It’s no accident that many young adult novels these days are written in first person, when it so quickly establishes how a narrator thinks. First person lends itself especially well to a character who is thinking fast, possibly in fragments, on the spot, in a stressful situation. We know Katniss from The Hunger Games, for instance, in first person. First person works brilliantly when the protagonist has a lively, interesting mind, and it’s a riot to write with a funny character. On the down side, first person can limit vocabulary if the protagonist has a limited or non-standard education. Alice Walker gets around this by giving her characters without traditional educations the words they would use if they knew them, so there are ways to manage, but having education line up with how a person sounds when they think out loud is one of the things I enjoy most and I wouldn’t want to give that up.
For Birthmarked, I used third person because it felt natural and seemed to fit Gaia, who does things I am not morally comfortable with, like taking babies from their mothers. I was concerned that her actions would seem so cold that no reader would like her, and I needed the filter of third person so that the cruelty wasn’t part of her own, inner mental voice. When she begins to question things (“This was far worse than she’d imagined it could be”), there’s a play between Gaia’s understanding of events and the reader’s understanding. A little bit of distance gave me better control, plus I had no restrictions on vocabulary.
Like other aspects of writing fiction, point of view is a tool to consider, but I find it is intricately woven up with character and plot and setting. It’s not an arbitrary choice writers make on page one and then simply stick with. I like how Homer switches points of view from first to third for the last section of The Odyssey, when Odysseus is no longer perpetually bragging and there’s a chance one of those suitor’s arrows might kill him dead. 2,600 years later, POV still offers danger.