When I write, and read, narrative POV is the first thing I consider and notice. I am not exaggerating when I say I think it is the most important decision a writer makes when writing fiction. (When teaching, it is always the first topic I introduce to students, via James Wood’s very insightful How Fiction Works.) There is not only the question of “which POV?”—first person (singular or plural), second person, third person (omniscient or limited)—but also narrative distance, reliability, consistency and/or shifts. When settling on a narrative POV(s), you are essentially determining the work’s “aboutness.” If you are writing from an unusual POV like first person plural (“we”) for instance, or, say, the second person (“you”), this is especially evident. Or if your narrator is unreliable, this is not simply a “formal” decision but rather a driving force of content/meaning as well. (Think of novels like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime or The Remains of the Day, for instance.) Finding the right POV for your fiction is often, necessarily, a trial-and-error process (I read once that Ishiguro “auditions” various narrators throughout the entire first year of working on a novel); it happens simultaneously as your story and characters find their own aboutness. Form and content shape each other.
When I started writing my first novel, Long for This World, I did not begin with a clear plot: what I knew was that the story would be intercultural and intergenerational, and that it would feature an ensemble cast. What became clear early on was that the older Korean characters—whose scenes were set mostly in a small town in South Korea—would be written in a somewhat distant third person. While I would enter those characters’ intimate thoughts, I would do so—for lack of a better word—respectfully. I could not at all imagine writing them from the first person, or via a close/informal third person. One character—an American-born Korean woman, about my age—was written from the first person, and that seemed most natural. There was a character—a male Korean painter, who was very cosmopolitan and just a little older than myself—whom I started out writing in first person, but ultimately he materialized in close third person.
Recently I gave a reading at the First Person Plural Reading Series in Harlem. In an interview, I was asked if I’ve ever written from the “we” POV (I haven’t), and I thought about how “we” is fundamental to my cultural upbringing: in the Korean language, it is a grammatical rule that one must say “our” house, “our” mother/father/grandmother/uncle/aunt, “our” church, “our” teacher, “our” town, etc. Since I am American born and educated, through and through, the communal-vs-individual tension is always, always pressing for me—in life and in art. The characters in both my novels struggle with this as well: Charles (an African American male) and Hannah (a teenage daughter of Korean immigrants) in The Loved Ones for instance are shaped by and beholden to their family cultures, while at the same time deeply, conspicuously at odds with them.
Because my own personal world view has been shaped by multiplicity and heterogeneity, I have not been inspired to write a novel from a single point-of-view. Until recently. The novel I’m currently working on does feature a single protagonist, and I am writing her in first person. Frankly I’m having a heck of a time with it (!), but the challenge/struggle is endlessly interesting.
Sonya Chung is the author of the novels The Loved Ones (Relegation Books, 2016) and Long for This World (Scribner, 2010). She is a staff writer for the The Millions and founding editor of Bloom, and is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination, the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, the Bronx Council on the Arts Writers’ Residency, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and a Key West Literary Seminars residency. Sonya’s stories, reviews, & essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, Tin House, The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, Short: An International Anthology, and forthcoming in the anthology This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home (Seal Press), among others. Sonya has taught fiction writing at Columbia University, NYU, and Gotham Writers’ Workshop. Currently she lives in New York City and teaches at Skidmore College.