Editing Corner: Why did the chicken cross the road?
A: To get a new Point of View
You are in a dungeon. You look around. You see implements of torture on the walls, floggers, thumbscrews, other stuff you don’t even recognise. Except the stains; you have a good idea what those stains might me.
You hear a noise behind you…
Second person POV is definitely an acquired taste. Beloved by RPGers (that’s Role-Playing Gamers, not Rocket Propelled Grenadiers—what the fuck’s wrong with you?) but hated almost universally by everyone else, you probably won’t see any traditionally published Second Person fiction outside of a Choose Your Own Adventure book.
Q: ‘Second Person’; that’s a fancy way of saying a story about ‘you’, isn’t it?
A: Yep. First Person Point of View (POV) narrates from the point of view of “I”, “me”, and “we”. Second Person is “you”. Third person is “he”, “she”, and “they”.
Q: Why do people like to hate on Second Person so much? Wouldn’t it be easier to pretend you’re the main character?
A: A reasonable question coming from RPGers, who are used to it and don’t understand the fuss. Some people say they don’t like being told what they would do in a situation, but for most of us, it just feels weird because we’re not used to it. We focus our attention on the weirdness and can’t get into the story. Since genre fiction is all about the immersion, anything weird, anything abnormal that pulls you out of the moment, is a bad thing.
Most fiction is written in Third Person.
Gemima stepped into the dungeon. Her heels clacked on the cobbled floor and echoed eerily off stone walls, where the sconces cast a flickering light over an array of floggers and thumbscrews. What are those stains? A shiver ran down her spine. This was not something Bradley had ever mentioned in his emails.
Third Person is normal—the POV, that is—the content can be disturbingly abnormal.
Third Person is the ‘vanilla’ of genre fiction. Does that make it boring? Anything but! Vanilla lets you highlight all the other flavours in the bowl—the tang of the raspberries, the bitterness of the dark chocolate shavings. If I might mix a metaphor, third person gets its fat ass out of the way and lets your fiction strut its stuff.
A well written third person story will give more readers the best chance to enjoy your story. If you want to crank out fiction that people will read, write in the third person. People like it. As an author, you could do a lot worse than having people read your stuff.
Gimme a double-scoop of Chunky Hoboken Caramel-Cumquat Swirl
I like vanilla. You like vanilla. But we don’t always want vanilla, right? Sometimes I’ll order a scoop of bubblegum-ripple. It’s been years since I’ve had that stuff… and then I remember why. Blah! Not everything’s as bad as bubblegum-ripple though. There’s lots of other flavours you might enjoy for a change, you just don’t want them every day. As an author, you don’t always want to write third person. You want to try something more exciting, just for a change.
Choosing the right narrative device to compliment your story can lift it to the next level. Like lamb with rosemary, cheese with wine, PB&J. How do you do that safely, though, without creating a flavour only a snot-faced, colour blind, eight-year-old sugar addict would eat? You don’t want to be that dork who thought the Vegemite-Nutella sandwich would be the next big thing.
We already know to avoid writing in the second person, so don’t go there. What’s left? Well the choices are endless. Just sticking with third-person, you can mix it up with omniscient voice, narrative distance, or switching perspective. Bored yet? Well then, my young-adult dystopian-futured friend, step through into the self-indulgent world of first person POV, and I’ll show you present tense, secondary character perspective, epistolary novels and unreliable narrators.
Feel like you’ve just walked into a Japanese Baskin Robbins where all the labels are written in Kanji?
Don’t worry. I’m here to help. I present for your perspective-clarifying pleasure:
Belinda’s Genre Fiction Non-Standard Perspective Ready-Reckoner
Popular Third Person Perspectives
|Third Person Limited|
|Example||The chicken crossed the road to see what was on the other side.|
|Use it||All the time. Really, I shit you not, it never gets old.|
|Beware||Too much narrative summary and not enough active scenes. Give us some dialogue to keep it fresh.|
|Close Third Person Limited|
|Flavour||Chunky Choc-chip Vanilla|
|Example||Jake tapped his beak on the asphalt. Hmm, this is new. I wonder what’s over there. He was an adventurous bird. Flicking his comb to a rakish angle on the left-hand side, he took his first step towards a new beginning, towards pastures greener. Jake was on his way to the other side.|
|Use it||Blended with regular Third Person Limited, zooming in to Close Third for intensely emotional scenes.|
|Beware||Too many of those rich, chunky choc-chips will make you sick. Back off every few pages.|
|Flavour||Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Jelly Beans (or Wonka Everlasting Gobstopper for you pre-Millennials)|
|Example||Jake had never seen a road. He knew not of its potential, nor its dangers, so there was no way he could have predicted his fate when he stepped blindly onto its dull black surface.|
|Use it||Rarely. No longer popular in fiction. Well suited to fairy tales.|
|Beware||Lapsing into distant Third Person. Use the God-like ability to see things your characters can’t possibly know, including the future.|
|Switching Third Person|
|Flavour||One scoop of Chocolate, one of Vanilla|
Jake had often looked beyond the black strip that bordered his chicken run. It didn’t look any different over there, but how could he know for sure? He stepped closer. He flicked his tail feathers, summoning his courage.
Pricilla looked up from her pecking, a fat worm dangling from her beak. She heard the growling engine. Too late, she spied Jake’s plump, gold and black plumage as her true love stepped onto the roadway. “J-a-a-a-a-k-e!” The worm fell. Tires squealed. Pricilla took to wing, beating up a whirlwind of dust. But there was nothing she could do. The meaty thump and the cloud of feathers showering the yard would haunt her for the rest of her days.
|Use it||In novels. Follow secondary characters through sub-plots. Show us the antagonist scheming in his lair. Switching to another character’s perspective is a great way to cover more ground.|
|Beware||Head-hopping. Stick with a single perspective for an entire chapter or section, otherwise you risk disorienting your reader.|
Popular First Person Perspectives
|First Person Past Tense|
|Flavour||Strawberry (you enjoyed it a lot more when you were young)|
|Example||I strutted up to the road and looked across. It didn’t seem so different from my side, but I was a sucker for an adventure. I couldn’t wait to see Pricilla later—she’d lay a square egg if she knew I was going to the other side. I took my first step.|
|Use it||Just like Close Third Person. Works well in erotica because it’s a very intimate style.|
|Beware||Many readers dislike it. Especially Romance readers because it’s unbalanced towards a single character.|
|First Person Present Tense|
|Flavour||Nutella Cookie Dough|
|Example||I strut up to the road and look across. Pricilla is behind me, still pecking away—I haven’t told what I have planned. A strange, growling sound fills my senses. Perhaps it’s the other side calling me. I step out…|
|Use it||Popular at the moment in Young Adult fiction; it’s edgy and well-accepted by the hipster crowd, and has a very immediate feel that works well with building tension. Lisabet Sarai switches masterfully between First Present and flashbacks of First Past in her story Underground, a suspenseful erotic thriller in ERWA’s premier Paranormal Anthology, Unearthly Delights.|
|Beware||Using it just because it’s hip. Don’t be your grandmother wearing high-waisted short-shorts; not everyone can pull off the latest fashion.|
|Epistolary (like a diary, or letter)|
|Flavour||Rum raisin (an acquired taste)|
|Example||Dear Pricilla. I hope this message finds you well, my dear. I’m writing to you from the other side. I regret leaving without saying goodbye, but I hope and pray that in a few weeks I shall collect enough worms to sustain my return, and we can be together once more.|
|Use it||Writing daily diary entries can be an effective way to add immediacy to first person while remaining in past tense. Stephen King does it very well in “Survivor Type” and “The End of the Whole Mess”, where he writes in First Person Past Tense and still manages to kill the narrator.|
|Beware||It’s a device—use it for a good reason. If the story can be told just as effectively in Third Person Past Tense, then use that instead.|
|First Person – Secondary Character|
|Flavour||A lick of whatever you’re having, please|
|Example||I’d told Jake to watch out for the roadway, but did he listen? There he was again, scratching up the gravel and blunting his beak against the asphalt. I squawked. “Watch out for cars, pecker-head.” Adrenaline junkie. He was going to be insufferable when he got back from the other side.|
|Beware||Sherlock Holmes is plot-driven fiction—Holmes never develops as a character. Secondary Character perspective is a challenge for character-driven fiction because it is harder to show the main character’s development.|
|First Person – Unreliable Narrator|
|Flavour||Chocolate Surprise (Surprise! It’s not chocolate)|
|Use it||With unlikeable main characters, like serial killers. The narrative is coloured by their skewed world-view. They’re inclined to lie and embellish to make the narrative suit their purposes.|
|Flavour||Squid ink sorbet|
|Example||The chicken will cross the road and will get to the other side unless he gets hit by a truck.|
|Use it||Don’t. Jesus, what were you thinking?|
|Third Person Present Tense|
|Flavour||Liquorice (sure, they stock it, but nobody buys it)|
|Example||Jake scratches at the gravel and sets one foot on the black asphalt. He steps out. He’s doing it! He walks to the other side.|
|Use it||Early learning books. This is Spot. See Spot run. Run Spot, run.|
|Beware||The popularity of First Person Present does NOT translate to Third Person Present. The ‘-s’ English verb endings grate on my ear. There’s simply no good reason to use it.|
|Second Person Present Tense|
|Flavour||The taste of Yourself (for kinky contortionists and Ron Jeremy)|
|Use it||Strictly for Choose Your Own Adventure.|
|Beware||Every author has one Second Person story in them because the challenge of the impossible is irresistible. But for pity’s sake, keep it in the Present Tense. Nobody wants to be told what they’ve already done.|
Why cross the road at all?
You write in the Third Person Past. Your readers read and enjoy Third Person Past. It’s a simple formula that mainstream popular authors have mastered, because handled competently, it sells books.
By all means, try other perspectives to stretch yourself. They’re fun and sometimes produce an amazing result. They won’t all be Sherlock Holmes or Hunger Games, though, so brace yourself for disappointment.
In the comments below, let me know:
- your favourite book written in a non-standard perspective, and,
- your favourite weird ice cream flavour.
For bonus points, answer in the gender neutral, indefinite third person 🙂 It’ll look trippy for the slackers who just scroll to the comments.
My answer: One enjoys a single scoop of Blood Orange Sorbet when reading Stephen King’s epistolary short story, “Survivor Type” (one still can’t hear the term “lady fingers” without getting chills).