From the Start
Who did I think was listening
when I wrote down the words
in pencil at the beginning
words for singing
to music I did not know
and people I did not know
would read them and stand to sing them
already knowing them
while they sing they have no names
W. S. Merwin
How does any story tell its tale? Does the narrative speak in a voice that is distant and measured, addressing a full universe of characters and events as though we are that curious fly on the narrative wall? Or does the story speak in the diarist's voice, in a direct first person voice free with its secrets, private thoughts, and sometimes blissful lack of awareness?
Point of view is the way we tell a story. The choice of a first person, second person, or third person narrative shapes the underlying structure and craft. When we talk about character voice, we shift to the perspective of character thoughts, feelings, and actions. In other words, attitude. In my experience, landing on the right point of view for a narrative often follows a sense of voice. Voice may be known to a writer from the first word she hears in her head—before she's even put pen to paper. Voice may grab the plot outline or the rough beginning and shake new perspective into it, entirely flip the planned point of view. A writer may not see the right voice coming, but always knows when it's arrived.
The immediacy and intimacy that accompany a first person point of view closely connect a reader to the narrator. It may then become deceptively easy for a reader to confuse character with author. To entangle fictional first person narrative with the reading of autobiography or memoir—a confusion that illustrates both the power of a first person "I" point of view and its chief drawback. The narrative is story, not confession, and it is the writer's work to make that distinction. I recall a comment made by an editor who declared that he "never read first person if he could help it." I was puzzled by his vehemence. Was it a particular dislike of close voice, or action filtered through the perspective of a primary character? A reader would miss out on centuries of marvelous literary characters as a result of such an edict.
Second person point of view, with its curious, distant use of "you" to refer both to a self and subjective other, can at times feel standoffish to a reader who craves the straight heart of the story without the effort of figuring out who the "you" is in each instance. You as in me, or you as in all of us? The language can be intimate or distancing, depending on how the writer intends it.
Finally, there is third person point of view—distant and close, as well as the omniscient third—often thought of as the wide "stage direction" point of view. The writer unveils the story from the viewpoint of many characters, and the narrative may be perceived by readers as more objective, layered, or multifaceted, the way a film is.
I began SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, my novel of twin sisters growing up on the road and finding their way into country music, with an omniscient (third person) perspective. I saw the sisters, Andi and Marley Stone, and their mother, Donna, in a universe of their own. I shook the narrative and watched how pieces swirled apart and bumped back together. I didn't yet sense the core of these characters, however. It wasn't until Marley jumped out—and for the "quiet sister" took a rather unruly attitude—that I understood this novel belonged to her. The moment I yielded to this first person point of view, the novel unspooled itself without a hitch. The twin with a voice of her own had something to say. Marley Stone had found her footing in the narrative and took the story places I never anticipated.
All points of view available to the writer are valid and interesting ways for characters to tell us their stories. None are bad. All require craft and skill. In the end, I believe the characters eventually gravitate to the right voice and we are wise writers and happy readers to let them.