If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
First person is from the point of view of one person, up close and personal. The implied conceit is that the narrator is also the author of the novel. It’s all “I”, “me”, “mine”, “my” and “myself”.
The vast majority of thinly disguised autobiographical novels set in coffee shops about aspiring novelists are in first person, making it the the pov par excellence for the self-obsessed.
Many beginning writers find it the easiest because you can just write a novel as if you were you, and as you are you, what could be easier? All my first attempts at novel writing were in first person.
Pros: The first person is very freeing. You can go off on tangents, share wild-and-woolly theories about life, the universe and everything. All that could possibly go on in your character’s brain is fair game.
Cons: With first person you are stuck in one person’s head for fifty thousand plus words, which if you are the writer can mean many, many years of enforced visiting with a person you may grow to hate. This is especially bad if your text’s “I” is a thinly disguised version of yourself. But it’s not only writers who can hate first person. I have heard several readers say that it is their most despised point of view and that they won’t read books in it.
Fashionability: Perennial. First person has been with us since novels were first writ and will never go away, but it’s like jeans they’re not exactly in fashion they’re just there.
Difficulty: Deceptively easy.
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room.
Second person is all “you” and “yours”. It’s the most maligned of the povs. And yet, when done well ’tis heavenly. Also very useful for delivering rules about writing. No wonder that it’s the first choice of advertisers and dictators.
Pros: it’s an amazing device for writing about love and obsession and psychosis and tourism.
Cons: It is like having to spend many hours in the room with a bossy, obsessive and possible pyscho telling you what you’ll think and what you’ll do. Bugger that! And when writing in second person there’s the worrying feeling that you’re starting to turn into a bossy obsessive psycho. Or possibly the voiceover of a tourism ad.
Fashionability: Never high. The least popular of all the povs. Though some argue that all epistolary novels are automatically second person.
Difficulty: Really High—bugger it up and you lose your readers instantly.
Third Person Limited:
Robert Langdon awoke slowly.
A telephone was ringing in the darkness—a tinny, unfamiliar ring. He fumbled for the bedside lamp and turned it on. Squinting at his surroundings he saw a plush Renaissance bedroom with Louis XVI furniture, hand-frescoed walls, and a colossal mahogany four-poster bed.
Third person is all “she”, “he”, “her”, “his”, “they” and “their”. Third person is the default pov for stories about someone else. Making it limited means that it echoes first person, making you privy to that character’s thoughts. Sometimes it feels like pretty much every novel in the English-speaking world is in third-person limited. Especially the really popular ones.
Pros: It allows you to get into the head of a character without actually going all the way in. Although it echoes first a distance is maintained. Thus third person limited engenders a much less suffocating relationship with your characters.
Cons: You can’t get as close as you can with first person. It’s much harder to go off on entertaining digressions. Scott’s So Yesterday would be an entirely different book if it was in limited third.
Fashionability: The pov of choice of the twentieth century and shaping up to dominate the twenty-first as well.
Difficulty: High, but at least you’ll look like all the other novels.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
The point of view where the writer gets to be God. What is not to love?
Pros: The narrator can go wherever they want whenever they want. They can deliver digressions. Tell us what’s going to happen and then tease us by not going there immediately. The narrator know what everyone is thinking, even the lad who got tuppence for watching the horses in a few lines in chapter five, “Of Horses and Other Follies Wherein We Learn that Our Heroine is Not All that She Seems”.
Cons: When done poorly the reader has no idea whose head they’re in or why. Can sometimes read as cutesy or trying too hard to be like Jane Austen or Henry Fielding.
Fashionability: The pov of choice of most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Difficulty: Extremely High, unless you were born in the 1700s, or really are God.
Oh very very good explanation. I actually find first person the hardest to write (well) – my next novel after my next one after this one (what?) is my first foray into writing a first person novel. It’s actually wickedly fun if you hit on a voice and a character you like.
Getting a distinctive voice happening for me was the key to unlocking the mystery of writing a novel. I’d had stories before, I’d had characters. But when I started getting phrases popping into my head that sort of defined the voice, the writing started to flow. I also think, as a reader of unsoliciteds what separates the maybes from the absolutely nots is the narrative voice – it’s there from the beginning and if you don’t got it, you don’t got ‘it’.
so it’s official: you’re feeling better.
We might want to distinguish two species of second person.
One is the “dear reader” second person, such as you quote from Calvino. It has an old-fashioned ring to it, as 18th- and 19th-century authors often directly addressed their readers with warnings, admonitions, and other narrative hooks. “You will not believe the story I am about to unfold, and yet I assure you it is true!”
The other species is the more modern second person of comic books, Choose Your Own Adventure novels, and 1980s hipsters:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not.
—Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City 1984
In the modern species “you” are a character in the book. It has an intense, pulpy directness, very different from the fireside-chat feel of the old-school second person. (Although Calvino is ultimately doing a more post-modern thing; the reader is a character, or something.)
I always tell my students that the (modern) second person is best reserved for characters who are “sweaty.” Maybe that’s because all the comic book characters I’ve read in second were on desperate, unlikely to succeed missions. Or maybe it’s that I used to ghostwrite Give Yourself Goosebumps, where “you” are always getting killed.
I’ve actually published 100,000 words in second person, which contain roughly a total of 100 deaths for “you.”
“Omniscient Difficulty: Extremely High, unless you were born in the 1700s, or really are God”
Or Terry Pratchett.
I never thought of the “dear reader” one as being second person POV. I think of it, rather, as breaking the fourth wall. My protag addresses teh reader directly all the time.
Italo Calvino’s ‘you’ kind of slips from being ‘dear reader’ to being a completely fictional construct who behaves in ways the reader wouldn’t necessarily, so Calvino’s actually being very playful with that 2nd person POV. When I first started reading the unsoliciteds I used to torture myself wondering if I would have rejected Calvino because I didn’t get it. (In the end I realised I wouldn’t have, because – of course – he’s got the voice.)
Coming back to say that I think the big trap with 1st person is that it’s very easy to ‘tell’ rather than ‘show.
Justine you have become my favourite procrastination. 😉
i always think of the bride stripped bare whenever i think of second person. which totally felt like a conceit to hide the fact that it was a fairly boring and unpleasant sort of book.
and the moral of that story (and probably all the stories in your last few posts, justine), is that if you’re going to do something wacky and creative with the architecture of your novel, make sure that you
a) have a really, really good reason to do so (don’t use the smoke machine and the strobe light just because it’s there. there needs to be a narrative reason why you do it).
b) do it well.
Lili: Read Black Idol by Lisa St Aubin de Teran.
Excellent post! I’ve written many short stories and a few not-so-brilliant novels –all in first person. Only recently did I say to myself “hmmm, this all feels so limiting and flat because I’m always with the same character.” I’ve just starting writing a novel in close third and while it may be the most popular POV, it has freed up a range of possibilities for me. What fun I’m having! As you point out, close third POV is definitely tricker, but worth the effort, I think.