The most common points of view that writers use in fiction are first person and third person omniscient. Third person POV is especially versatile and gives the writer a lot of room to maneuver. I used third person in Perceval’s Secret but with a close focus in on three different characters: Evan Quinn the protagonist (spent the most time with him), Chief Inspector Klaus Leiner of the Vienna City Police, and Bernard Brown the Deputy Cultural Attache (and CIA operative) at the American Embassy in Vienna, Austria. With this POV, I could dip into each character’s mind when I needed to or step back and look at the big picture.
First person POV is quite restricted. When a writer chooses this POV, she can only write what the “I” character sees, hears, and experiences, and what that character already knows or learns. There is no opportunity to explore the minds of other characters, or give the reader information that the POV character doesn’t have. This POV can be extremely effective in suspense novels, however, and it is often found in mysteries.
The second person POV is far, far less common and can be really tricky to pull off
well. Probably the most famous novel written in second person is Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1984). Here’s the beginning of the first paragraph of that novel:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head.
This is a pure second person POV. It feels like the author is addressing the reader, putting the reader directly into the novel and the story whether the reader wants to be there or not. At the time that McInerney’s novel was first published, it caused quite a stir because of the POV. He maintains it through the entire book. It begins to wear on a reader. After a while, it’s “you, you, you.” So how to write a second person POV story without irritating the reader?
Charles Stross, in his novel Halting State (2007), handles the second person POV with style and brilliance. I highly recommend this book for many reasons, but especially as a story told in second person POV that’s highly successful. So how did he do it?
First of all, he doesn’t overuse the pronoun “you.” In fact, once he establishes which character is the “you” character in the chapter, he backs off of the pronoun, using it sparsely. The reader is deep into the character’s mind, so the “you” isn’t needed very much.
Second, Stross titles each chapter and includes the name of the POV character in the title. This insures that the reader will not become confused. Why?
Third, Stross doesn’t limit himself to only one character as his second POV, no. He has three characters that he moves among to give the reader different experiences of the same story. I found this to be absolute amazing. It also heightened the suspense similar to the way first person does. So, he uses the limitations of the second person to great advantage.
Here’s a little taste, the beginning of the first chapter entitled “SUE: Grand Theft Automatic”:
It’s a grade four, dammit. Maybe it should have been a three, but the dispatcher bumped it way down the greasy pole because it was phoned in as a one and the MOP who’d reported the offence had sounded either demented, or on drugs, or something — but definitely not one hundred per cent in touch with reality.
Not a “you” in sight! The first time one appears is a “your” at the end of the third paragraph. This is the work of a master….