A writer friend recently asked me how I go about determining from what point of view to narrate a story. As I considered his question, I realized that I could not remember making a conscious choice of which perspective to use in any of the novels I’ve written. Rather, I’ve always allowed the proper point of view to emerge organically.
I have no preference, either as a writer or as a reader, other than having a strong dislike for any fiction written in the second person (“you”). In fact, I can remember reading only one such narrative during a university-level creative writing course. Although, I do not remember its title or author, the story was presented as avant garde. I simply found it annoying.
My first novel So Shelly (Random House/Delacorte), set for a February, 2011 release, is told in the first person through the observations of one of the three main characters. The novel is based on the lives and personalities of the Second Generation of Romantics: Keats, Byron, and Shelley as they are transported into modern-day high school students. Of the three, largely due to his less-sensational lifestyle and more conventional views, Keats seemed to be the most reliable narrator. Modeled loosely after Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, he provides a moral center for the story and a trustworthy account, while simultaneously undergoing a series of life-altering events himself. In the case of So Shelly, a narrator was required who could provide an objective balance and who could act as a sort of clearinghouse to separate the truth of the lives of the Byron and Shelley characters from the salacious rumors and vitriolic opinions inspired by their often outlandish behavior.
For my second novel, currently a work-in-progress, I’m employing a third-person narrator. The yet-unnamed novel has two major characters. Over the course of the week in which the story takes place, their lives regularly intersect; however, many of the events in need of narration occur while they are separated. Should I use one of these characters to provide a first-person narration, it would severely limit my ability to share the other’s story. Although I may sacrifice some of the immediacy of a first-person narrator, the omniscient, third-person perspective solves this problem.
I think that the general moral relativism of the past fifty years or so and society’s continual championing of the individual over the collective has inspired the use of first-person narrators and severely limited the relevance of absolute, god-like, third-person narrators. I don’t think that’s necessarily either a good or bad reality; it simply reflects the times.
My best advice is to listen to your story and to let the necessities of telling it effectively dictate your choice of point of view.