Episode 83: Who’s Story is this Anyway?

On February 22, 2020, Kasie and Rex took on the Point of View question again. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

What is POV and why does it matter?


  • All Stories have a Narrator
  • Strengths and weaknesses of each
  • Questions to ask before deciding
person sitting on rock near waterfalls
Photo by Sebastian Palomino on Pexels.com

Segment 1

We covered this twice before. Here’s the link to the original notes and here’s the August 2019 reprise.

All writing has a point of view. Nonfiction included. If it’s an autobiography, the viewpoint is the author, if it’s a textbook or a professional advice book, the viewpoint is the professional posture appropriate to the subject. Point of View can best be defined as the lens through which we view the story. What experience, education, and ambitions govern the person speaking to the reader?

In fiction, we call it “narrative” and there are basically three kinds of narrative perspective: first, second, and third person. There are also some creative alternative versions like collective first (“we”) and epistle second person (letters) and omniscient third (all-knowing). 

First person:

Strengths include intimate knowledge of the narrator and (presumably) the protagonist. Great first person narrators include (full list here):

  • Huck Finn
  • Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye
  • Ishmael from Moby Dick
  • Saleem Sainai from Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
  • Will McLean frome Lords of Discipline (which, oddly has a very powerful and effective prologue)

Want a list that will make you think you’ve been living in a cave? Check out this link.

I did recognize Circe and Children of Blood and Bone and would recommend both of those first-person narrators.

Weaknesses are of the same variety — because we’re so close to the narrator, we can get fatigued by the proximity, and a single person can only see a limited amount of the story. There’s also the question of authenticity like this review about a woman author’s inability to sustain her male character’s voice. 

Neurotic and unreliable narrators are also opportunities but perhaps weaknesses in first person. Examples An Abundance of Katherines and other John Greene teenage protagonist narrators and S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep in which the narrator is suffering from some kind of memory loss and The Silver Linings Playbook wherein the narrator intentionally keeps things from the reader.

Second person: 

Less used in fiction because it relies heavily on the pre-defined reader. Some info on making this choice here.

Here are 12 books that use the 2nd person successfully (link) — the one I’ve read is The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern); also recognized Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

The best reasons to use 2nd person include 

1) making the reader so close to the story he or she is actually acting in it;

 2) standing out — very few authors attempt 2nd person, so the use of it can be unique and impactful.

Challenges include 

1) predetermining who the “you” is, 

2) which tense you will use — if it’s the reader’s memory (past tense) it may be harder to convince them to suspend disbelief.

Third person:

Distance is the primary advantage here. Third person is like watching a play on a stage. Both the reader and the narrative have a comfortable distance from the story. Some classic third person narratives (there are thousands, literally):

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (Elizabeth Bennet main character)

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (Lily Bart main character) 

Weaknesses of third person are the inability to be in the characters’ heads without risking the narrative. In multiple characters’ heads in the same chapter? You’re head hopping.

Is omniscience making a comeback? We remember it as the “tsk tsk” judgey jerk of a narrator in early American realism like Portrait of a Lady but omniscient narrators had fallen out of fashion in the last two decades — we wanted to be closer to the characters. This article argues they’re back. 

  • Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
  • Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

This is a narrator that is aware we’re in a book and reminds the reader that he is, too. There’s a controlling force, so even if the characters are uncertain, the narrator is not. It’s Dickensian and intrusive unless you like that sort of thing. Is it a literary fiction thing? Let’s talk about how to choose.

So how do you choose? Here’s one blog of advice. Highlights: Who’s carrying the camera? When we think about choosing who will tell the story we need to ask “Who’s story is it?” Here’s another blog of 7 steps to choosing: 

  • choose the level of knowledge you want your narrator to have, 
  • choose what point in time you’re writing about, and 
  • how many narrators you will have.

Some books where the narrator isn’t the main character here

Here’s a pretty comprehensive discussion on the subject of point of view, narrators, etc.

Seven narrator types? Try this blog. First person narrator can be the protagonist or the observer (think Nick Carraway). Third person can be limited or omniscient. The narrator can be the commentator — with insight and advice — the interviewer — researching and asking questions.

When deciding on narrator to use, have you ever tried multiple narrators on the same story? How’d that work out?

Has something started with one narrator and you realized it needed to be a different style?

How invested in the story is the narrator?

What is the narrator’s role in the story?

To whom is the narrator speaking (besides the audience)?

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