Tense Persons:

Point of view, part one

First person or third person? Past or present tense? Just one POV character or a teeming horde? A writer has to make all these choices for every piece of fiction they produce—but which is best?

All these choices have benefits and drawbacks that you need to consider before making your decisions. In part two, I’ll cover the topic of how many POV characters you need—but first, we need to talk about the choices you have when it comes to how your POV characters tell the story.

First person past tense, is one of the two natural storyteller voices: I went to the store, and guess who I saw in line! I hadn’t seen her in years, but there she was…

Benefits: First person brings the reader as close to the POV character as it’s possible to be—we see the story through their eyes, hear it told in their voice. And being close to the POV character (in first person this is almost always the protagonist) is what engages the reader in the story. Particularly in a series, it’s usually the close connection with an engaging protagonist that keeps the reader coming back.

Drawbacks: There is, however, such a thing as being too close. If you’re writing a novel we’re going to be in this person’s head for a long time. If your POV character is fairly average, with a normal voice, they can become boring in first person. If your POV character is obnoxious in first person, you’re in even worse trouble! And in first person, you cannot bring in any information your POV character doesn’t know.

Used correctly: First person POV usually works best if the protagonist has an engaging, quirky voice and/or world view. If your character’s voice is more ordinary, you’re probably better off in third person. If you need more than one person’s POV to tell the story, you’ll also probably end up in third. You can use alternating first person POV characters, and that can be a lot of fun—but both of them have to have interesting, preferably contrasting voices, and they both have to be characters the reader wants to hang out with for a long time.

Third person past tense is the other natural storyteller voice: My cousin Bob just got back from a fishing trip, and he had the worst time! First, before he even got to the river, he blew a tire…

Benefits: If your POV character’s voice is ordinary, the distance between him and the reader focuses more attention on the action of the story and less on the character’s personality. If you have more than one character, you can switch viewpoints more easily than in first person. And you can convey (a very limited amount) of information that your character doesn’t have. Writing along the lines of What Bob doesn’t know, is that… is clumsy, and calls attention to the narrator—which even in third person you want to avoid. But you can bring off writing like Bob was so focused on the furiously tugging rod, he wasn’t even aware of the soft rustling in the brush behind him.

Drawbacks: Third person does put a certain distance between the POV character and the reader, and engaging the reader with the POV character is what matters most in fiction. TV and movies have many advantages over the written word—the immediacy of actually seeing the story unfold and a music track to manipulate the viewer’s emotions, among many others. The only advantage writers have is our ability to bring readers inside the character’s head and heart, to know what they think and feel. And one of the most common beginner mistakes I see is too make your third person POV too distant from the character.

Used correctly: The trick for making third person work is to write “close third person” POV. Because the narrator is conveying information Bob doesn’t have, the writing sample that ends the previous benefits section is a good example of “distant third person.” Compare that sample to this one: Bob staggered and the icy water poured into his waders, soaking his jeans. The tugging on line was so strong now that his wrists began to ache. This is one, freaking monster fish! But his breath was coming fast so he couldn’t say it aloud. This close focus on what Bob experiences, thinks and feels can draw the reader in almost as closely as first person, and it gives you more slack in how you tell the story.

*A brief note on second person. I was sitting on a writing panel a few months ago, and someone in the audience asked, “What about second person?” The writer sitting to my left said, “Second person is great for giving someone directions to the nearest garage. Aside from that, forget it.” This is exactly right. I’ve heard of a few literary novels that have used second person—the only commercial fiction I’ve seen that uses it successfully is the Choose Your Own Adventure type books. Second person is a literary device/gimmick. It’s not a choice any storyteller would make.

Present tense—which should always be first person—almost falls into the “literary device” category, but not quite. I go to the store, and guess who I seen in line? I haven’t seen her in years, but there she is…

Benefits: Present tense can lend a certain now-pow immediacy to a story. In YA fiction it’s almost become common enough that it no longer calls attention to itself. I’ve seen stories where it works very well, and heard from a number of writers whose story “wasn’t quite working” and then they put it into present tense and it worked much better. However…

Drawbacks: It’s not a natural storyteller’s voice, and outside of YA it does call attention to itself—in fact, many adult readers find it annoying.

Used: if nothing else works, you might give it a try—but my personal feeling is that if your story lacks “pow” you’d be better off to work on tightening the pace and otherwise improving the story first.

Literary experiments aside, these are your choices for how your POV characters tell your story. And in part two (coming in a few months) we’ll tackle an even thornier question: How many POV characters do you need?

Winter 2009

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