Choosing a Point of View

In fiction, point of view refers to the vantage point from which readers observe the events of the story. In other words, whose eyes will we be looking through as we read? As the author, the choice is up to you.

The ways you can handle point of view fall into two major categories, first person and third person. Each has its benefits and disadvantages.

FIRST PERSON

In the first person point of view, one character acts as the narrator, directly telling us her own version of the events. The narrator refers to herself as I or me, just as you do when you tell a friend what happened to you this afternoon. Here's an example from my short story, Dreaming of Dragons:

I walked north on Grant into a bitter wind, jostling around the horde of pedestrians, the postcard racks, the tables covered with souvenir t-shirts and cloisonné trinkets. The rainy afternoon was brightened by red-and-gold banners fluttering from lampposts, wishing everyone GUNG HAY FAT CHOY—Happy and Prosperous New Year.

When I reached Ming's House of Treasures I was welcomed by a smiling wooden Buddha, four feet high, that stood by the door. A sign was posted beside him: RUB MY HEAD FOR WISDOM OR MY BELLY FOR LUCK. His belly, I noticed, was much shinier than his head.

I massaged Buddha's brow. Better to be wise than lucky, I decided. I felt wiser just from having reached that sensible conclusion.

But inside the shop I had second thoughts. I stepped back out and rubbed the fat tummy, just to be on the safe side.

Most of the time the first person character is the protagonist, but it can be anyone—another major character, a lesser participant, or someone who is simply an observer of the events. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, for example, the great detective is the protagonist, but the narrator is his associate, Dr. Watson. The narrator in Ring Lardner's Haircut is the town barber, gossiping to a stranger in town about the local citizens. In A Rose for Emily, William Faulkner describes a reclusive woman's relationship with her community; the narrator is an unidentified we who comes to sound like the voice of the town itself.

First person offers the advantage of strong reader identification with the character. The reader is given an experience that is as direct, intense, and immediate as the character's own, presented in the narrator's natural voice. Because we are in this person's head and heart, we can hear her thoughts and feel her emotions. We get to know her more intimately, and therefore care about her more intensely.

The drawback is that you can tell the reader only what the narrator actually observes or knows firsthand. The narrator cannot climb inside another character's head; she can only guess at his thoughts and feelings based on the evidence of what he says and does. Nor can she know what is happening in a place where she is not present, unless someone tells her about it later.

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