When my daughter-in-law first moved here from China, among the first things she wanted was to get her driver’s license. She had never driven a car; she had never even been in the front seat of one.
I told her learning to drive looks differently depending on where you are seated inside the car. To prove my point, I gave her a quick driving lesson.
First, I verbalized all the steps I took, both physically and mentally, as I cruised around our three-acre property.
Next, we changed places and I walked her through all the same steps while she drove in between the house and the other four buildings on our place. I helped her ease around corners, made her stop, start, reverse, and change direction and course. The last trip around, I told her to drive the car and I would not say a word until I told her to stop.
As the final step, I asked her to sit in the back seat while I drove into town on an errand. It was too soon to let her do anything but observe, but I hoped she was more aware of what it took to drive. I wanted her to examine her perspective and see how it had changed.
What does this have to do with narrative point of view?
In second person narrative, “you” are the instructor. You give the directions and make comments. Opinions are thrown in extra at no cost. Though the driver is the central person in the car, the driver’s vision is limited, while the passenger is better able to both listen to the instructions and look about and see what is happening both inside and outside the car. The driver decides the course but the person addressed as “you” sees how the instruction and the narrative come together.
In first person narrative, “I” is the driver. The responsibility shifts onto “I’s” shoulders. The narrator relates the driving experience through what is seen, handled, smelled, or heard. “I” reacts when he/she goes through a red light or experiences a skid. Driving a car may be second nature to many of us now, but remember how it felt the first time we took off in Mom’s car?
In third person narrative, the narrator’s viewpoint shifts to that of the passenger. The narrator is there to observe and recount what the others are doing as they travel down the road. If seated in the front seat, the narrative is expressed through more action and less telling because “his or her” actions are up close and tangible. If seated in the back seat, the scope widens with the distance. The narrator is able to observe everyone inside the car, along with some of what is happening outside. As more passengers come along for the ride, each one adds their own voice, personality, and quirks. Everyone will have an opinion on the speed limit, when to stop for lunch, and who gets to sit by the window the next time we all climb back into the car.
On your next trip through a novel, whether as a reader or as a writer, keep an eye on the narrative point of view. Where are you seated? Who gets to call the shots? Is everyone staying in their own lane?