I’m fascinated by how stories use their narrators, because it’s not as simple as first person, second person, third. In my reading (and I read a lot), I’ve noticed that the books I love the most, the books that simply lift off the page and envelope me in story, are the ones with the most well-defined POV.
What do I mean by well-defined POV? It’s not a term I learned in grad school or anything, it’s just the way I’ve come to think of books that are told by a narrator (or narrators) from a specific (and known) time. Allow me to elaborate, because there are a lot of variables in any given story.
From Where and When?
If your story is told first person in the present tense, then the well-defined POV is taken care of. You know who’s telling your story and when they’re telling it (as it happens).
But consider first person in the past tense: “I confronted my uncle about the theft.” We know who’s talking (I), and what they did (confronted the uncle), but how much time has passed? If our narrator is talking from the not-too-distant future and they’re sitting on a bench in a jail cell, the energy is completely different than if fifty years have gone by and all the repercussions of their actions have played out.
Same for third person, whether in present or past tense. As an example, we’ll invent a moment: “He held the flowers out toward her, a peace offering in tiny white petals.” Who is seeing this happen? Is it the “her” of the story? If not, who is witnessing this scene? And again, how much time has passed since it happened?
Third person POV is the most fascinating to me because it is so often written without acknowledgement of who that third person is. Beyond interesting and edging into irritating are third person narrators who know things they couldn’t possibly.
Fails and Successes
For instance, the framework of a child recounting a parent’s story. A person may know a lot about their father, from the details on his Army uniform to the brand of cigarette he smokes, but I REALLY struggle when that kind of story dips into a sex scene. When a third person narrator starts describing a sexual encounter in detail I start to wonder “did your dad really tell you all that?” Because ew.
But when it’s handled well… oh, the beauty. Consider “Moonglow” by Michael Chabon. In that story he is narrating his grandfather’s story, but never loses sight of himself as the teller of the story – he wasn’t there, he’s just telling it as he heard it. Masterfully done.
Or the book “Less” by Andrew Sean Greer. The story is told mostly in third person, but then dips into first person to acknowledge the narrator and explore his relationship to the story. I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s masterfully done. A must read.
It’s not that stories can’t be well told with a mysterious third person narrator talking from somewhere out there in the future somewhere, but what I’m coming to realize is the potential presented by this question: who is telling your story and from when?
Answering that can only make your story stronger.