Point of view is the lens through which you either tell your story as a writer or discover your story as a reader. We don’t spend much time mulling over the differences between POVs unless we are trying to muster the craft. And, yet, they exist and they matter. First-person, second-person and third-person points of view are not created equal. While the vast majority of classical genre fiction is written in third-person omniscient (aka the Voice of God in the background), nowadays third-person limited reigns supreme. A Wizard of Earthsea is one of those classical novels that comes to my mind when I think about third-person omniscient. Although it focuses heavily on Ged, his thoughts and actions, it still does not shy away from head-hopping.
The Voice of God. Third-person omniscient point of view is something every scholar loves and uses. There is a certain power to it that makes people malleable to your literary flair. It is easier to explain thoughts and backstories through multiple eyes, reflect all the nuances and collect all the details. Many works of classical fantasy make good use of third-person omniscient POV, including Pratchett’s Discworld Series. I would say the main reason for using this POV is the control it offers – true, pure control over the secrets you reveal and the stories you withhold. That’s what I call power! Ha! With all that unlimited power at your fingertips, it’s definitely one of the most difficult POVs to pull off. That’s where the limitations come into play.
First, it’s much easier to conceal secrets from your reader when you write in third limited, second or first. Delving into dozens of heads, you lose yourself easily. Worse still, you tend to disperse your energy while writing or reading anything written in third-person omniscient. Since my favourite series (yes, Legend of the Galactic Heroes) is written in third-person omniscient, the greatest trouble I experienced while reading it was my inability to stay in the head of my favourite character. Yes, I wanted to spend eternity with Paul von Oberstein. My wish was denied.
Does third-person omniscient POV work? It definitely does when you have intrigues of galactic proportions, loads and loads of characters and conflicting interests. I’d say it’s the best POV to use when painting a grand picture or devising a grand scheme. And, certainly, it is irreplaceable when describing tactical manoeuvres. I’d say any military fantasy or sci fi would profit from third-person omniscient. Fantasy romances or stories about crimes and investigations – not so much.
Literary flair and second person. Before I read On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, I did not pay much attention to second-person narratives. I first enocuntered it in genre fiction, when I picked up Scalzi’s Redshirts, The novel stands alone and jumps from third person to second…to first. Despite my initial reservations, Redshirts managed to convince me one could write science fiction in second person. In the end, I didn’t read the novel for the characters (I barely remember their names). I didn’t read Redshirts for drama or intrigue. I read it because it was an astonishing example of artistic experimentation. This narrative simply refuses to conform, suprising you at every turn. That’s what makes it great.
Redshirts is not unique among genre fiction novels in this aspect. The Night Circus and the Fifth Season both rely on second-person POV to draw a reader into the world. In the first scenario, you visit an otherworldly Night Circus, while in the second you follow a woman, who seeks her family. The POV itself offers a unique opportunity to convey the most visceral, the most revolting and the most beautiful, injecting you with all the details at once. Second-person POV is intense. I would say, it works wonders in horrors. It also brings your favourite characters into your world in fanfics. As a reader you simply cannot get closer to a characters than with the help of second-person POV.
Despite its many positive sinds, I often find second-person POV jarring. After all, what if I refuse to wear the skin of one particular character I didn’t write? What if I don’t connect? Unless it’s a fanfic about ruling the galaxy, it may simply not push the right buttons. Is Emperor Palpatine the ‘you’ in your story? Please, go on. I am all ears then.
Third-Person limited. Fantasy’s most beloved third-person limited POV wins hearts and minds. It’s an omni-tool. First, it borrows the intensity of first-person narratives, but does not require you to recreate the exact voice of each character (especially if that voice is annoying or confusing).
Second, it’s the best way to incorporate mystery into your narrative without giving away the most important parts. If your reader only follows three people, he won’t know all the secrets, but will still taste your worldbuilding. Third-person limited worked miracles in Elantris. While I was personally interested only in Hrathen, two other POVs offered very helpful insights into the mystery of a cursed city, Elantris’s twisted magic, and, of course, the political machinations of the opposing parties in the kingdom.
Third-person limited POV does exactly what it promises – it limits. Characters are not created equal. Why should we lose too much time scanning the mind of someone, who is irrelevant? Third-person limited is a universal POV. There’s literally nothing you can’t do with it. Best of all, you can combine it with first-person POV.
Tricky first-person POV. In first person, you can reveal as much about the character as you want, read his mind, and even hear his accent (mine is harsh). For some reason, most novels classified as YA fantasy prefer first-person POV. While I am not the biggest fan of the niche, I can see how they benefit from this choice. First, it limits the perspectives of both readers and writers. It is simply easier to follow one character than a whole marching army of individuals, most of whom will appear once or twice in the novel.
Second, if your narrator is a provocative person in an interesting situation (think Jude from Cruel Prince), first-person is the way to go. Third, first-person POV reflects your character’s tone. While I don’t like purple prose, I grudgingly admit that a lyric voice can be breathtaking. Unfortunately, it can also ruin the story if you despise the character or his manner of speaking/writing.
I personally prefer first-person POV when the narrator deeply intrigues me. In one way or another. He may be a monster or a saint or anything in-between. But he must be unusual. In any other case, I would settle for the good old third-person limited. Because it is perfectly versatile. And because the possibilities it offers are unlimited.