This is another exercise from Chuck Palahniuk’s book Consider This. First Person language tends to carry the most authority because the narrator is the character that is experiencing the action. But, that can limit the ability to expand to other places. Second Person language can make something more intimate and have almost a hypnotic effect. But, that can limit your ability to more deeply explore the scene and other characters. Third Person can control the pace and act as a god-like story teller to control pacing. But, it can sometimes seem removed.
When we speak, we tend to use all three POV language types. It is important to note that you don’t have to switch narrators to change the POV language, but you can. For instance, the example from the book is this (which is kind of written from a global first person POV, but uses language from all three):
“Yesterday I walked into a bar. You know how it goes. You walk into a bar, and you expect a bartender, maybe some video poker. A man needs his distractions. No guy wants to get off work and go into some bar and see a penguin mixing drinks…”
You can see the I’s, You’s, and the general third person POV clearly. This is the normal way we speak. We don’t change among them in a confusing manner, but as appropriate to “control authority, intimacy, and pace” (this is Chuck Palahniuk’s language).
It got me thinking about songs that do this.
The first song that came to mind was Harry Chapin’s Cats in the Cradle. It starts of with a lot of first and third person POV language, then ends with second person. Obviously, the overall perspective is first person, but the language is borrowed from other POVs. Here is the first verse:
"My child arrived just the other day <1st person>
He came to the world in the usual way <3rd person>
But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talking 'fore I knew it, and as he grew
He’d say “I’m gonna be like you, dad” <3rd person, but with direct quote 1st/2nd person>
“You know I’m gonna be like you” <1st/2nd person>
To me, this works wonderfully. It sounds natural. Introducing a fact from first person. Then using third person to establish a certain universality (He came to the world in the usual way). Then, ending with a direct quote in which the son is directly addressing (2nd person) the narrator, builds in intimacy.
Here are some other examples:
Andrew Bird - Imitosis : This one is fun. At first it looks like a third person narrative. Then he introduces plural first person (we are all basically alone) with a direct quote from the Professor of introduced in the first verse. But then, in the chorus, it seems like the whole thing is written in from a first person point of view, because he uses the phrase “Tell me, doctor, can you quantify”, which also brings a direct address!
Taking Back Sunday - Timberwolves at New Jersey : This one is primarily second person direct address. It starts with mandative/instructional language (Get up, come on, let’s go). Most of the verse is in second person, but introduces third person with “They’re all just laughing”. The chorus begins in third person describing what girls dream of. Then it ends in second person “You have it or you don’t”. In the second verse, you get this: “Was his demise so carefully constructed? Well, let’s just say I got what I wanted.”
Maroon 5 - She Will Be Loved : The song starts out describing the girl in third person. Then moves on to direct address. Then the chorus ends with third person again. This song got critiqued for doing this, but I think it adds an emotional element. Speaking of the person in third person somewhat makes her seem further away. Speaking in direct address makes her seem closer to the narrator. Like, when describing her at first, she seems unattainable. Then he’s addressing her. Then he is talking to himself in his head saying “She will be loved”, but not willing to tell her directly.
For a non song use, I thought of the novel Universal Harvester by John Darnielle, where it is third person, but occasionally, there is an “I” that shows up, like the narrator inserting himself into the story.
People have mixed opinions on this, but I think in many instances it does reflect the way we speak to each other and adds interest and the ability to broaden descriptions. How often, when you speak, have you referred to the universal “They”? How often have you interjected something like “You know what I mean” or had used mandative language to get attention “Listen up” or “Hey, come here”? How often have you used direct quotes where the I’s spoken refer to another person: "She said, “I can’t do this anymore. You are not worth the effort. Every one used to say it”.
For this exercise, write about something… anything… and try using some language from all three POVs. Then note why you consciously chose to the POV language when you did.