Point of view is one of those things that happens so automatically that a lot of writers don't really talk about it. I've found that my stories fall naturally into a point of view and rarely slip from that, but an experience I had with The Book* had led to me to think carefully about what point of view does to a story and what changing it can do. Then I read this post from Marie Brennan over at Fangs, Fur, and Fey about the difficulties she's having with a project. This is how she puts it:
the damn thing can't decide what point of view it wants to be in.Heh. I feel her pain.
When I started writing, it defaulted to third. I cranked out a couple thousand words like that in the first day of "whee fun shiny new toy!," but then when I came back the next day, I got a couple hundred in before I noticed it had morphed to first. And ever since then, it's waffled back and forth.
What this means (t0 me--I don't know what it will mean to Brennan) is that at some point, she's going to have to make a decision and stick to it, which is hard because it forecloses all the cool things that you thought of in the other point of view. In my experience, when a story isn't telling you what point of view it needs to be in, you have to choose** and then go with it.
A lot of people think that there are hard and fast rules for point of view. Like, I can't tell you the number of times someone has said to me that YA is always in first person point of view.*** Or that third person point of view is "more literary" than first person point of view. Really, for me, the question is the same as the question for any other aspect of writing -- namely, what does this add to the story?
For example, take the "YA is in first person" trope. This is true, a lot of YA is in first person, and I think, generally, the industry certainly has a preference for books in the first person because they think they are more relatable for young readers.***** And some people have told me that YA is in first person because it's easier to write.******
But the question I always ask myself when I have to make a decision about first or third person******* is what does this add?
The thing about first person, for me, is that there has to be a reason for us to hear from the character directly. I don't mean a narrative device -- like here is a character writing in a diary or whatever -- but a story reason. What do we learn hearing directly from a character that we wouldn't notice if the story were in third person (or vice versa)?
Ironically, mostly these are things that the character doesn't know about him or herself. That's part of what makes the first person so compelling, is that we the readers can put things together on their own. A first person narrator who has no flaws and no secrets is...well, a boring first person narrator, frankly.
But the thing you lose in first person that you get in third person is the internal workings of the other characters. You can see them (through the eyes of the narrator), but you can't see everything, and that can be super frustrating from a writer's point of view.******** Sometimes, that's a good thing, because it allows the other characters to be more obscure, but sometimes a story needs a broader scope and that's when third person, even third person limited, can really come in handy.
Also, in third person, everything doesn't have to be in the narrator's voice. There can be more description, there can be more...philosophizing, more narrative digressions. Think about, for example, that passage in It by Stephen King where he follows the path of Georgie's paper boat down into the sewer. You can do that in third person without making the reader so much as blink, but that's not possible in first person.
So the question is: what does the story require?
And the next question is: are you sure?*********
* I'll tell you later.
** Notice I don't say "get to choose." For me, in these situations, it's a "have to" thing. I would rather just switch back and forth at will, but apparently that's frowned upon in writerly circles. :)
*** Not true. See, e.g., The Chocolate War. Or, you know, Harry Potter.
**** Also not true. See, e.g., Catcher in the Rye. Or The Good Soldier.
***** This could be true, but I haven't seen the marketing research so I have no idea how based in reality.
******* I'm sorry, but if you're not an experimental novelist second person? Is probably not a good look for you. Really.
******** I can't tell you the pages and pages I have of "backstory" for The Book (which is in first person) that are just scenes written in the point of view of other characters, or scenes that my point of view character couldn't know about or see.
********* No, seriously. Sometimes a story will say "I'm supposed to be in the first person," but it's lying to you. Sometimes a story doesn't know what's best for itself.