It’s the answer to so many of the writing questions I see commonly on message boards.
“How much description of characters should there be?”
“Can I conceal information from the reader?”
“Is it okay to use swearing in the narration?”
The answer to all starts with “It depends on the point of view.” POV colours everything about the story. It’s one of the key choices the writer makes when they begin to write. In its most basic form the question is “Do I write this in first person, or third?”
If it’s in first person, is it meant to be a written or spoken account? People often write quite differently than they speak, so that’s an important choice. Or is it epistlitory? (Letters, emails etc.) Will there be only one first person narrator or several? For multiple first person viewpoints I think the written account and epistlitory forms work better than straightforward first person. Examples include Dracula and The Moonstone .
First person can be incredibly powerful, and take the reader deep into the mind of the narrator, sometimes in a very unusual voice. Take Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go. It’s in first person POV, but the characters in the story are telepathic, so the narrator’s voice is not the only one in his head. And there are what’s called “unreliable” narrators. First person narrators who may not be telling the truth, either deliberately, or because they don’t know what’s true and what’s not. The narrator of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is unreliable. He’s delusional. But his hallucinations are presented in the book the same as everything else he sees, because to him they’re real. This also leaves you wondering if there are any other things he sees that aren’t obvious hallucinations, but might be so. We can’t know, we can only see what the unreliable narrator sees.
First person narration usually has a distinctive voice. Someone I consider masterful at handling first person is Kazuo Ishiguro. His novels The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go are both in first and both have very different voices. The first formal, repressed, the later chatty, rather shallow. Yet they have something in common. In both it’s clear to the reader that something else is going on under the surface, something the narrator is unwittingly revealing while not appearing to consciously understand it. So are those narrators unreliable? Perhaps a little. Not as much as someone actually suffering from delusions, but they aren’t giving the reader the full picture, at least not deliberately.
Third person is the most popular POV in genre fiction, but it’s got many more variations than first. The two major ones though are third limited and third omniscient. (There are variations on these names too! And let’s not even get into the whole area of “distance.”) In third limited, there might be several different viewpoint characters in a book, but only one per scene, or perhaps chapter. When we’re in the POV of a character theirs is the only mind we can see into, until we move to a new scene and another character’s POV. In third omniscient, the writer lets the reader see into the minds of any characters in the scene they choose to. Neither of these are easy to do! The writer using third limited has to be wary of POV violations, and the writer using third omniscient has to avoid the dreaded “head hopping”, leaving readers bewildered as to whose thoughts are whose.
Some people would ask, if a whole book is in the third person limited POV of one character, then why not do it in first person? The answer can be simply down to sales. It’s not uncommon to see readers express a dislike of first person and refuse to read any book in first. Perhaps they can’t get past the odd mix of naturalism and artificiality of a first person novel. I mean, how is Bertie Wooster, usually the first person narrator of Jeeves and Wooster stories telling these stories so well when he’s supposedly an idiot? Personally I love a good first person story.
How do I decide on POV? I’ve only ever written on novel length story in first person. I started another recently, and about eighteen thousand words in decided that POV wasn’t working and changed to third! So I do love first person, but I find it hard to come up with a story to use it in. In my romances I decided that I usually write my stories so that every scene is in the POV of one of the couple. That means I have to plan the story in such a way that I can tell it entirely through scenes that include at least one of the couple. It really helps me stay focused on those characters and their relationship. I don’t say I’ll never break this rule, but it’s not something I’ll do lightly when I do.
Let’s go back to those questions from the start.
How much character description to include? It depends on what your POV character is likely to notice.
And what about concealing information from the reader? It’s kind of cheating to do it in first person. It’s easier in third, since not every word of the story is the narrator’s thoughts. If concealing something is important you either give the first person POV to someone who doesn’t know it, or use third and tease…
Swearing in the narration? The narration should reflect the character who’s got the POV. Do you know, readers of my books, that though Higher Ground is erotic romance with explicit sex scenes it only has the word “fuck”, or variations in it six times? Neither Zach nor Adam are very sweary guys. On the other hand, with potty-mouthed Kit I hate to imagine how many there are in Stowaway!
Always consider POV. It underlies so many choices the writer makes.
For lots more about POV check out this book by Nancy Kress, who writes amazing writing craft books.