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Editor's advice 5 - Points of view


Points of view – who’s telling this story?

Maureen Kincaid SpellerMaureen Kincaid Speller a reviewer, writer, editor and former librarian, is our book reviewer and also works for WritersServices as a freelance editor. is a long-serving WritersServices freelance editor. This new series, based on the advice she has given writers over the years, deals with the most common problems she has encountered in the manuscripts which cross her desk.

In the fifth article Maureen deals with points of view - who’s telling this story?

Not so long ago, I read what ought to have been a really exciting novel filled with drama, action, treachery and romance. Or it would have been but for one thing. I saw none of this drama, I only heard about it later.

Why was that? It was because the author had decided to use a first-person viewpoint character and, unfortunately ‘I’ was nowhere near any of the action. In fact, ‘I’ was in a bunker halfway up a mountainside, having rather a dull time of it all while mayhem broke out elsewhere. As the reader, I had to stick with ‘I’ and likewise, I had a pretty boring time.

It is a great temptation for the inexperienced author to write from the first-person viewpoint because it somehow seems easier to imagine oneself directly into a situation and to write about how things might seem from that point of view. In some instances, it’s a good thing to do. However, you can also create immense difficulties for yourself because the first-person viewpoint can inadvertently become very limiting.

Put simply, all you can actually describe is what ‘I’ saw or felt or had access to. For the rest, you have to rely on other characters coming to ‘I’ to report what they saw. You can get away with doing this but you really have to think hard about the structure of the narrative to avoid it becoming obvious that you’re having to rely on reported action, and more importantly to save the reader from boredom.

Beyond that, bear in mind that the reader is also stuck with ‘I’. Think of the most self-absorbed person you know. The one who always manages to turn any conversation round to what he or she is doing, or has done, no matter what the situation. They may be quite entertaining in small doses but you wouldn’t want to spend several days trapped in a confined space with them, without any other company. Now think about a three-hundred page novel written from that person’s first-person viewpoint.

Which is not to say that you shouldn’t use the ‘I’ viewpoint at all. If you are clear in your own mind that your primary character will be taking part in all, or at any rate most, of the action, then yes, use it. First-person viewpoint could be useful if, say, you want to write a detective story. It’s also tremendously useful if you’re writing a fictional memoir or diary-novel, or something fiercely subjective or introspective. However, it’s nowhere near as useful if, say, you wanted to write a family saga, or an intricately plotted thriller requiring many narrative threads to be drawn together.

And you really do need to think about the character’s nature when you’re using first-person viewpoint. I once read a manuscript about someone who was very bored with life. It was tough-going in third-person; I might well have thrown myself off a cliff had it been in first-person. The classic example of a fascinating first-person narrator is Holden Caulfield in Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Holden’s depressed but he’s sparky too. It’s interesting being inside his head. You need to make sure people want to be inside your first-person narrator’s head rather than poking their own eyes out in desperation.

I don’t really know why so many new writers are so nervous of the third person viewpoint, given the fact that they must have read hundreds of novels written in that form. They’re a lot more common than first-person viewpoint novels, and for a good reason. They offer the writer the sort of creative freedom that I don’t think a first-person viewpoint does.

The third-person narrator comes in two basic flavours – the limited viewpoint and the omniscient viewpoint. Let’s get ‘omniscient’ out of the way first. As a friend of mine puts it, you’re God. You, the author, know everything about everyone and can write it all down. You can achieve miracles with sentences that begin ‘After ten years …’ If you’ve read a lot of nineteenth-century novels, you’ll be familiar with the form already. It’s a good way of dealing with grand historical sagas, featuring a cast of hundreds, thousands even, and covering a lot of time. There are problems. Sentences that begin ‘Had she but known …’ are always bad news. Omniscience can bring with it heavy-handed foreshadowing. Try to avoid it. Otherwise, my writer friends tell me, being God can be great fun. You should try it at least once.

However, the viewpoint that many aspiring writers are going to find most helpful is the limited third-person viewpoint. In many ways, you’re echoing the first person narrative, but you’ve got a bit more control over what’s going on. ‘He’ or ‘she’ replaces ‘I’, providing some distance and detachment from the action in a way that ‘I’ can’t. You can get into the character’s head, but you’re not living there in the kind of sweaty intimacy that ‘I’ demands. It’s a lot less claustrophobic and you can, creatively speaking, move around a bit more.

Actually, moving around is quite important. It is nowhere written down in flaming letters on tablets of stone that you can’t move from head to head as you write. I often encourage authors to think about writing from more than one viewpoint, even if they are using the limited third-person. You may not want to go the whole hog and assume godhead, but one limited third-person narrator can, in some situations, be … well, limited. Why not have more than one? Why not have several? It’s even fine to move from character to character within one scene if you want to get a multi-facetted view of what’s going on. I gather that there are unofficial rules that claim you shouldn’t do this. The only thing that matters in the end is whether it’s right for the particular story you’re trying to tell. If that seems to be the best way to tell your story, then try it and see what happens. It might not work, but you don’t know until you try.

I haven’t mentioned the second-person narrative viewpoint. I think it’s better left to Italo Calvino and people who write role-playing game-books, unless you’re feeling really, really brave. Most novels don’t need it. And if your novel does, I’d take another look at it and ask yourself if you wouldn’t be better off with another point of view. Most readers, and I include myself here, don’t like second-person viewpoints. I always feel I’m about to be hypnotised, and that isn’t a good way to feel about a novel.

In conclusion, the important thing in choosing a viewpoint is to think really hard about what will best suit your novel and give you as author the most effective way of telling your story. First-person can seem like the safe way for a new author to go; but writers are supposed to be adventurous, so cut loose and head out into the wide open spaces of the third person.

An Editor's Advice 1 on Dialogue

An Editor's Advice 1 on Dialogue
An Editor's Advice 2 on doing further drafts
An Editor's Advice 3 on genre writing
An Editor's Advice 4 on planning
An Editor's Advice 5 on points of view
An Editor's Advice 6 on autobiography and travel
An Editor's Advice 7 on manuscript presentation

See also Maureen's many reviews of writing books in our Resources section.

Maureen Kincaid Speller is a reviewer, writer, editor and former librarian.

© Maureen Kincaid Speller 2007