In the first installment of my series on point of view, I discussed the benefits of limitation. But the truth is, though limitation can be advantageous, there are infinite ways in which a story might be told. This is as true of point of view as it is of any other aspect of writing. So in this fourth and final piece of the series, we’ll look at a few uncommon points of view and consider what they are, why they aren’t discussed as often as other perspectives, and how they might be useful.
Back in college, I decided to write a short story in what I called “first-person omniscient point of view.” The concept was that the story would be written from the first-person perspective of, basically, a god—a character who could see and relate the thoughts of those around him. I didn’t do it very well, but a couple contemporary authors have. Marcus Zusak wrote The Book Thief from the perspective of Death. Alice Sebold’s narrator in The Lovely Bones is a ghost. Both characters have the power of omniscience, rare in a first-person narrative, but both authors made it work.
And that’s the point: Whatever is common or expected, and whatever rules are in place, there are always exceptions.
Second-Person Point of View
What it is: The reader is cast as the central character, with you as primary pronoun (as opposed to I in first person and he/she in third person). Second-person point of view is most familiar to fans of videogames and Choose Your Own Adventure-style books—that is, forms of storytelling in which the reader or player is an active participant.
Why it’s uncommon: Choose Your Own Adventure aside, you don’t see a lot of novels written in second-person point of view. It’s tricky to tell readers what they think, feel, and do—especially over the course of an entire narrative. Instead of asking a reader to follow the experience of a character, you’re trying to make the reader into a character they may or may not be. This also means that second-person point of view can be limited in characterization. That is, in trying to be broad enough for the reader to identify with the decisions they’re said to make, you lose sight of a defined central protagonist with clear wants and needs and a cohesive character arc.
How it’s useful: Of course, in videogames, you want active player participation. If you’re writing a novel for an audience that has grown up on this mode of storytelling, or if you want to play upon that notion and take it in some uncommon directions, then an experiment in second-person may be just the thing. Alternately, it can be utilized to particular effect in individual passages. In Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz, for example, second-person point of view is used to create an intimate but somewhat surreal moment in which the reader recognizes that the book itself is speaking to her, directly. Proceed with caution, and don’t do it just to do it. Both common and uncommon points of view are chosen with purpose, and when it comes to something like second person, you need to have a plan.
Alternating First-Person Point of View
What it is: The narrative switches between two or more first-person points of view, usually divided by chapter, each chapter often headed by the character’s name. The idea of competing monologues or voiceovers has worked for noir, and relating the same event from multiple first-person perspectives has been a device in classic novels like William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, in which each chapter is written from one of fifteen different first-person perspectives. More recently, alternating first person has been utilized in collaborative fiction, each of two writers providing the perspective of a different character.
Why it’s uncommon: Much of the appeal of a first-person perspective is limiting yourself to a single character and experiencing a story as their confidante. Alternating first-person can remove that intimacy, often treading ground that could be covered more effectively with a third-person limited or omniscient narrator. Many authors struggle also with defining multiple distinct voices in first person. Each focal character needs to read as a different person.
How it’s useful: If you can write convincingly in different voices, and you do want a reader to feel like the confidante of multiple characters, alternating first-person point of view can be effective. This is especially the case if you mean to play with unreliable narrators—alternating first-person allows you to craft different, contrasting versions of the same event, leaving readers to try to determine the objective truth in-between the biased accounts. That’s how it’s used in contemporary novels like Gone Girl, and that uncertainty can be a great way to maintain tension.
I edited one novel that was written as a memoir in which the protagonist enlisted friends and relatives to contribute their own chapters. This proved a clever way to utilize multiple first-person perspectives in a fashion organic to the conceit of the story.
Third-Person Objective Point of View
What it is: The narrative voice is removed from the perspective of any character. All narration is based on observation: sights, sounds, smells, etc. Basically, third-person objective is showing versus telling taken to its full extreme.
Why it’s uncommon: You can find a fair amount of objective storytelling in short stories, but it’s very difficult to sustain an entire novel without the thoughts and feelings of your characters. Third-person objective holds readers at a distance, and unless you have a very particular reason for doing this, and a serious command of specific sensory detail, it’s likely readers will struggle to engage with your story on an emotional level.
How it’s useful: As much of a struggle as third-person objective can be in longer fiction, it’s actually the most common point of view for film. If you’re seeking a cinematic feel to your fiction—if relying entirely on what a reader can observe is consistent with the tone you want—then this is an approach that may work well for you over a longer span. Otherwise, maybe you are writing short stories, in which case the emotional distance of a third-person objective narrator can bring specific detail to life in the context of a small, slice-of-life narrative. It can work if you want your protagonist’s actions to be mysterious and unexplained. A skillful writer understands also that you can generate serious tension by showing objective details to which our characters would not have access anyway—for example, in accordance with Alfred Hitchcock’s Bomb Theory (discussed in the second installment of this series), that there is a ticking bomb underneath the table.
Experimenting with third-person objective point of view is also a great way to develop your skills in showing versus telling, even if you don’t ultimately stick with the objective perspective through your entire manuscript.
Choose Your Uncommon Points of View Carefully
So when it comes to point of view, there are norms and expectations, but nothing is truly off the table. In the same respect, there are reasons some points of view are used more than others. But, uncommon points of view, used appropriately, can lend a unique flavor to your work. Above all else, be sure the perspective you choose is true to the story you want to tell, and vice versa.
What’s the most uncommon point of view you’ve ever read? Or written? Readers like you would benefit from checking out some published examples, so let me know in the comments below!
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners. He’s part of The Writer’s Ally team as a developmental editor of fiction and memoir, for which he’s currently accepting new clients.