The Basics of Point of View for Fiction Writers

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Note from Jane: This post is an excerpt from Writing Your Novel from Start to Finish: A Guidebook for the Journey by Joseph Bates, just released by Writer’s Digest Books.

Point of view, or POV, has to do with the narrator’s relationship to what’s being said:

  • Is the narrator a participant in the events being told, an observer of those events, or someone reconstructing the events from a distance?
  • Does the narrator announce its presence openly or try to remain invisible?
  • Is the narrator seemingly dispassionate and detached, or does the narrator have a clear opinion of, or stake in, the story?
  • Is the narrator qualified to tell the story in terms of access to information and the ability to provide that information to us? And do we trust what’s being said?

All are questions you have to ask yourself of POV, as each kind opens up and allows certain freedoms in telling a story while limiting or denying others. The goal in selecting a point of view is not simply finding a way to convey information but being able to tell it the right way, making the world you create understandable and believable.

The following is a brief rundown of the basic forms of POV available to you and a description of how they work.

First-Person Singular

Characterized by the use of “I,” this POV reveals an individual’s experience directly through the narration. This is the most common form of first person, with a single character telling a personal story and what it means or meant, how it feels or felt, to him or her. The information given is limited to the first-person narrator’s direct experience (what she sees, hears, does, feels, says, etc.) and a certain degree of indirect experience (hearsay, conjecture, deduction, emotions, and anything else that has to do with interpreting or inventing information rather than witnessing it).

The payoff of first person is a sense of reader immediacy with what the character experiences—particularly useful in genres that truck in suspense—as well as a sense of intimacy and connection with the character’s mindset, emotional state, and subjective reading of the events described.

Consider the closeness the reader feels to character, action, the physical setting, and emotion all within the first paragraph of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games via Katniss’s first-person narration (an immediacy furthered by the use of present tense):

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

Other examples of classic first-person singular novels include The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (though this last might fall just as easily into the unreliable narrator category).

Pros: The first-person singular can make for an intimate and effective narrative voice—almost as if the narrator is speaking directly to the reader, sharing something private. This is a good choice for a novel that is primarily character-driven, where the character’s personal state of mind and development are the main interests of the book. It can also be an effective choice for novels wherein suspense plays a role in the basic plot, such as detective or mystery novels, so the reader shares in the protagonist or narrator’s level of tension.

Cons: Because the POV is limited to the narrator’s own knowledge and experiences, any events that take place outside the narrator’s observation have to come to her attention in order to be used in the story. A novel with a large cast of characters, or several crucial characters all doing and experiencing their own equally important things in different places, might be difficult to convey in a first-person novel unless the narrator happens to be a voyeur, or a spy, or a psychic who can observe different people in different locations at once. (This is a joke. Please don’t have a psychic first-person narrator who gets around this problem by saying, “I psychically intuited Bob was across town getting a haircut.”)

First-Person Plural

Characterized by the use of “we,” this POV uses a collective of individuals narrating as one. This is far less common than the first-person singular, but it can be powerful in that it combines the personality and intimacy of first person with some of the abilities of omniscient third person. This is a POV you might use when a community endures some common experience and begins relating it, trying to understand it as a group. The ready example is William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” in which the fictional town of Jefferson, Mississippi, comes to terms with the eccentric life, death, and secrets of its most unusual citizen, Miss Emily Grierson, a holdover from an Old South that no longer exists. Note the communal, even gossipy, feel of the opening line of the story, fueled by the town’s morbid curiosity about the reclusive old woman:

When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant—a combined gardener and cook—had seen in at least ten years.

Some contemporary examples include The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides and Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. The latter novel begins with the collective POV of office workers.

We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen.

Pros: Behaves like first-person singular in its personality and subjectivity but also like third-person omniscient in that it’s made up of not one person but many, able to witness more than a single person could. Individuals pop out of the “we” to provide needed information and then recede back into the collective.

Cons: Still a first-person voice and thus limited to the direct experiences of the members of the collective. It can also become tedious with the constant collective presence, so the author should take care to utilize both the intimate and public aspects, even letting the reader occasionally forget that the story is first person and not the more expansive third.

Second Person

The second person takes as its main character “you,” telling us what you do or who you are (“You walk to the sink and brush your teeth.”) or sometimes coming in the form of commands or instructions (“Walk to the sink. Brush your teeth.”). You’ll more frequently see this POV used in short stories, where there’s less room for error and redundancy; it can be especially difficult to sustain in a longer work for two (related) reasons: The novelty might be distracting for a reader in the long run, and the reader might rebel against being part of the narrative in the way the POV suggests, thinking to himself as the narrative orders him around No I don’t. No I won’t. No I’m not.

Nevertheless, the second person can create an unusual relationship between reader and text: On the one hand, the “you” character is always a distinct personality unto itself, with traits, motivations, and an identity all its own, but on the other hand, the reader slowly begins identifying with, and feeling close or even equal to, that persona. The character is separate from us but also the same. This can be particularly effective when we’re faced with a character who is in some way flawed and who we might be inclined to dismiss in the first person or the third. It’s more difficult to dismiss such a character in the second person because the character is, to some degree, you.

An example is Italo Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveler, which places the reader in the position of the main character:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room.

Other examples of second-person POV include the novels Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerny and Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins, as well as the short story collection Self-Help by Lorrie Moore.

Pros: This POV creates a close bond between reader and character, with the second-person character both its own autonomous entity, separate from us, and at the same time an entity we identify with and feel equal to. This unusual relationship between reader and character—and the novelty of the voice and how it functions—can be interesting and engaging when it works.

Cons: The novelty of the voice alone isn’t enough to sustain a full novel. The second person must also be purposeful, bringing us in close to a character or situation that we might not automatically feel close to or identify with in other POVs; we believe it in the second person because it happens to us.

Third-Person Limited

This POV is characterized by the use of “he” or “she” and the character’s name, as in, “John hated math. He hated it immensely.” Unlike third-person omniscient, the third limited spends the entirety of the story in only one character’s perspective, sometimes as if looking over that character’s shoulder and sometimes going inside the character’s mind, and the events are filtered through that character’s perception (though less directly than first-person singular).

Thus, third-person limited has some of the closeness of first singular, letting us know a particular character’s thoughts, feelings, and attitudes on the events being narrated, while also having the ability to pull back from the character to offer a wider perspective or view not bound by the protagonist’s opinions or biases, thus being capable of calling out and revealing those biases (in often subtle ways) and showing the reader a clearer way of reading the character than the character himself would allow. Third-person limited is also useful in a novel where the protagonist is in a state of not-knowing regarding some aspect of plot, such as we see in mystery and suspense novels, and the tension that comes from the protagonist’s trying to piece things together, from his limited view, becomes the reader’s.

Saul Bellow’s Herzog offers a great example of the balance in third-person limited between closeness to a character’s mind-set and the ability of the narrator to nevertheless maintain a level of removal. The novel’s protagonist, Moses Herzog, has fallen on hard times personally and professionally and has perhaps begun to lose his grip on reality, as the novel’s famous opening line tells us. Using third-person limited allows Bellow to clearly convey Herzog’s state of mind, and to make us feel close to him, while employing narrative distance to order the prose and give us perspective on the character.

If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.

Some people thought he was cracked and for a time he himself had doubted that he was all there. But now, though he still behaved oddly, he felt confident, cheerful, clairvoyant, and strong. He had fallen under a spell and was writing letters to everyone under the sun. He was so stirred by these letters that from the end of June he moved from place to place with a valise full of papers. He had carried this valise from New York to Martha’s Vineyard, but returned from the Vineyard immediately; two days later he flew to Chicago, and from Chicago he went to a village in western Massachusetts. Hidden in the country, he wrote endlessly, fanatically, to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead.

Some other useful examples of third-person limited narration include Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (though Rowling sparingly enters omniscient mode to cover all of the events and significant backstory of the books, even if the novels are primarily presented through Harry’s perspective via the third limited).

Pros: It offers the closeness of first person while maintaining the distance and authority of third and allows the author to explore a character’s perceptions while providing perspective on the character or events that the character himself doesn’t have. It also allows the author to tell an individual’s story closely without being bound to that person’s voice and its limitations.

Cons: Since all of the events narrated are filtered through a single character’s perceptions, only what that character experiences directly or indirectly can be used in the story (as is the case with first-person singular).

Third-Person Omniscient

Characterized by the use of “he” or “she,” and further characterized by having the powers of God, this POV is able to go into any character’s perspective or consciousness and reveal his or her thoughts; able to go to any time, place, or setting; privy to information the characters themselves don’t have; and able to comment on events that have happened, are happening, or will happen. The third-person omniscient voice is really a narrating personality unto itself, a kind of disembodied character in its own right—though the degree to which the narrator wants to be seen as a distinct personality, or wants to seem objective or impartial (and thus somewhat invisible as a separate personality), is up to your particular needs and style.

The third-person omniscient is a popular choice for novelists who have big casts and complex plots, as it allows the author to move about in time, space, and character as needed, though this is also a potential drawback of the voice: Too much freedom can lead to a lack of focus, spending too many brief moments in too many characters’ heads so that we never feel grounded in any one particular experience, perspective, or arc.

Here’s a good guiding principle: As a general rule, each chapter—and perhaps even each individual scene—should primarily focus on one particular character and perspective. Imagine how exhausting it would be to read a scene with five characters sitting around a table, each with something to hide, and the narrative moving line by line into each character’s shifty mind: “I wonder if Johnny knows about Bob?” “Kay is looking at me funny. I wonder if she knows what Johnny knows.” “If only Johnny knew that I know about Bob and Kay.” “I’m Kay and I’m not sure why everyone is looking at me and Bob.” Yikes. So you want to use the powers of the POV selectively and for a reason, without abusing those powers. In other words, don’t use the freedom of omniscience as a substitute for, or as a shortcut to, real tension, drama, and revelation.

An example is the novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, which uses an omniscient narrator to manage a large cast. Here you’ll note some hallmarks of omniscient narration, notably a wide view of a particular time and place, freed from coming through solely one character’s perspective, and it certainly evidences a strong aspect of storytelling voice, the “narrating personality” of third omniscient that acts almost as another character in the book (and will help maintain book cohesion across a number of characters and events):

SOME YEARS AGO there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.

Other examples include The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith.

Pros: You have the storytelling powers of God, able to go anywhere and dip into anyone’s mind-set or consciousness. This is particularly useful for novels with large casts and where the events or characters are spread out over, and separated by, time or space. A narrative personality emerges from third-person omniscience with the narration becoming a kind of character in its own right, able to offer information and perspective not available to the main characters of the book.

Cons: Jumping from consciousness to consciousness—especially as a shortcut to dramatic tension and revelation—can lead to a story that is forever shifting in focus and perspective, like a mind reader on the fritz. To avoid this, consider each scene as having a particular character and question as its focal point and consider how the personality that comes through the third-person omniscient narrative voice helps unify the disparate action.

Making the Right Choice for Your Story and Genre

To a certain degree we don’t really choose a POV for our project; our project chooses POV for us. If we were writing a sprawling epic, for example, we wouldn’t choose a first-person singular POV, with our main character constantly wondering what everyone back on Darvon-5 is doing. If we were writing a whodunit, we wouldn’t choose an omniscient narrator who jumps into the butler’s head in chapter one and has him think I dunnit. Our story tells us how it should be told, and once we find the right POV and approach, we realize our story couldn’t have been told any other way.

For more on point of view in fiction from Joseph Bates, check out Writing Your Novel from Start to Finish.

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