Point of View, Part II: Way More than You Ever Wanted to Know About POV

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Herewith, the obsessive-compulsive POV breakdown I promised last month. My aim here is to provide an organized and thorough description of the viewpoints available to you as a fiction writer, along with their variations.

As I pointed out last month, different authorities on the subject tend to refer to the same viewpoint by different names (is it third person omniscient, authorial omniscient, or omniscient observer?). In the interest of clarity, I’ve defaulted to the terms that are most widely used and recognized by writers, editors, and other literary professionals. There are also two terms I’ve coined myself—the types of essayist-narrator voices—to reflect a distinction I feel is important.

The two major divisions in viewpoint are OMNISCIENT and LIMITED, the latter also known as subjective. Within those divisions, there are several variations and sub-variations:

THE TYPES OF POINT OF VIEW IN FICTION

I. Omniscient, also known as Third Person Omniscient. There are two main types of omniscient POV, authorial omniscient and essayist-narrator.

  • Authorial Omniscient:If only they had known enough to avoid the love triangle that would tear their lives apart that summer. OR…Bill was delighted when Nicole arrived unexpectedly at his beach house, but Karen couldn’t help but be suspicious of Nicole’s motives.

    OR…Karen, sprinting toward the waves, didn’t notice the flirtatious look Nicole aimed at Bill as she handed him the Coppertone.

    With the classic authorial omniscient POV, the narrator is godlike, all-knowing. Few novels today are written entirely in omniscient, although it can be used to excellent advantage in small doses. For example, often a novelist will include bits of present tense/authorial omniscient in a book that is otherwise written in the ubiquitous past tense/third person limited. Thomas Harris made liberal use of this “historical present” technique in his novel Hannibal, as in the opening of Chapter Seven:

    Buzzard’s Point, the FBI’s field office for Washington and the District of Columbia, is named for a gathering of vultures at a Civil War hospital on the site. The gathering today is of middle-management officials of the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI to discuss Clarice Starling’s fate. [Note how Harris now shifts from present to past tense and from omniscient to third person from Clarice’s point of view.] Starling stood alone on the thick carpet of her boss’s office. She could hear her pulse thump beneath the bandage around her head. Over her pulse she heard the voices of the men, muffled by the frosted-glass door of an adjoining conference room.

  • Essayist-narrator, also known as Essayist-omniscient: Here, the narrator isn’t godlike, but a very human, subjective presence with a distinctive voice. Whether the narrative reads like first person, third person, omniscient, or a combination thereof, it generally has an omniscient scope.
    • Defined essayist-narrator: It was like Days of Our Lives between Bill and those two women that summer I rented the beach house next to his.The story is related by a (usually minor) character in the story who acts as an observer and recorder of events. Examples of essayist-narrators include Nick in The Great Gatsby and Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories.
    • Undefined essayist-narrator: I guess you’d have to say East Hampton was never the same after Bill and those two women spent the summer in that beach house of his.The story is told in a distinctive voice, as if by someone who knows the characters involved, or at least is part of their world, however we never find out who he is. Think about Mark Twain and his chummy, colloquial tone. Fannie Flagg used this approach in Welcome to the World, Baby Girl.

II. Limited or Subjective. The three major limited viewpoints are first, second, and third person.

  • First Person, also known as First Person Limited/Subjective:
    • Classic First Person: Bill and I were steaming clams on the deck when my old college roommate, Nicole, showed up uninvited with an overnight bag, a magnum of vodka, and a jar of olives .First person is a recounting of events by a major player in the story, usually the protagonist. Mysteries are often written in first person in order to withhold information from the reader that the sleuth himself doesn’t have, thus serving the puzzle the reader will be trying to solve. The highly subjective nature of first person narrative can be a big plus in boosting the entertainment value of the story. For instance, what if your viewpoint character is unreliable—say he’s got a criminal bent, or can’t be trusted? This would make your reader doubt that his version of events is the way it really went down.First person can give the narrative a freshness and verisimilitude that other POVs lack, but be forewarned that your reader is always aware of the viewpoint character as the author. It’s assumed that the person tell­ing the story is picking and choosing events from the past that have already been resolved, whereas with third person, it’s as if the story is just happening. Also, suspense can be compro­mised because there is always the assumption, in a story with some physical danger for the nar­rator, that he or she will survive the events of the story and “live to tell the tale.”Beware of crafting prose that’s too “writerly” if it doesn’t reflect the voice of your first person narrator. And finally, keep in mind that for your story to be effective, your narrator has to be involved in the important scenes that you want to play out; he can’t just hear about them later.
    • Epistolary Story: July 7
      Dear Diary,
      It seems to me that Bill and Nicole have been running a heck of a lot of late-night errands together.The story is told through letters, journal entries, articles, and the like. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon are epistolary novels.
  • Second Person, or Second Person Limited/Subjective:You realized when you found the motel bills what those “errands” were really about. The blame was all Nicole’s, you knew. She’d always gotten off on stealing your boyfriends. Bill was just an innocent pawn.This point of view, in which the protagonist refers to himself as “you,” is very rarely used. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City is the only book that comes to mind.
  • Third Person Limited/Subjective:“It’s a secret ingredient,” Karen replied when Nicole asked her what she’d put in the funny-tasting lemonade.Point-Counterpoint: Herewith, the pros and cons of the most popular and widely used POV as argued by John Gardner and Orson Scott Card:Gardner: The third person subjective point of view has its uses, but it also has severe limits, so that something is wrong when it becomes the dominant point of view in fiction, as it has been for years in the United States. It locks the reader inside the character’s mind, however limited that mind may be, so that when the character’s judgments are mistaken or inadequate, the reader’s more correct judgments must come from a cool withdrawal.

    Card: It’s no accident that the overwhelming majority of fiction published today uses the limited third person narrator. Most readers read for the sake of the story. They want to immerse themselves in the lives of the characters, and for that purpose, the limited third person is the best. It combines the flexibility of omniscience with the intensity of the first person. It’s also an easier choice for a beginning writer, partly because it doesn’t require the same level of mastery of the language, and partly because it will simply be more familiar and therefore feel more “natural” to writers who have grown up in a literary community where limited third person dominates.

    In fact, some writers find first person to be a more natural, easy-to-write voice, some third; it’s highly subjective. You can use one point of view for the entire novel or switch points of view among as many as six or eight characters, or even more. This is called third person multiple, or third person plural.

    If you do use more than one POV, you’ll have to decide which viewpoint character is going to narrate which scene. The answer might be obvious, or you might not have a clue who to pick. The common wisdom is to write the scene from the point of view of the character who has the most to lose in that situation, so as to ratchet up dramatic tension. It’s a good rule of thumb, but I actually follow a simpler guideline that has worked out well for me. I write the scene in whichever point of view will make it most entertaining for the reader. Usually that does end up being the character with the most to lose—but there are exceptions, so think it through.

    Always clearly establish the new POV at the beginning of that character’s narrative. Don’t leave your reader guessing about who’s head she’s in.

    Switching points of view only at scene breaks and/or chapter breaks is increasingly favored by editors and readers, although a mid-scene switch can work if it’s clean and obvious—and necessary. Yes, there are authors who switch back and forth repeatedly within the same scene or even the same paragraph, but in doing so, they run the very real risk that their reader won’t inhabit the skin of any one character long enough to develop empathy with him. It can also lead to confusion. Did you ever stop reading to ask yourself, “Omigod, now whose head am I in?” The more you jerk your reader out of the story, the less engrossing that story will be. If you do opt for frequent POV shifts, you should know that most editors and agents who read your manuscript will assume that your head-hopping is just sloppiness rather than a conscious and informed artistic choice. Not telling you how it should be, just how it is.

    Within third person, whether multiple or single, there are varying levels of penetration into the mind of your viewpoint narrator. Most novels involve all of these levels to one degree or another, the balance dependent largely on the author’s style. The level to which you naturally gravitate is probably an intuitive rather than conscious decision, but by being aware of these distinctions, you can play around with them to create certain effects.

    • Cinematic: Karen smiled as she rowed the dilapidated little boat miles offshore, moonlight glinting on her plastic-wrapped cargo.The ultimate “show, don’t tell” approach, cinematic third person depicts mostly action and dialogue without delving too deeply into the viewpoint character’s head. Contrary to what you might think, cinematic fiction needn’t be distancing; quite the contrary. Conclusions drawn by your reader based on what your characters are doing and saying tend to have a much stronger emotional impact than those that are spoon-fed to her.
    • Light penetration:Time to deep-six the trash, she thought as she tied a cinderblock to the bundle and heaved it over the side of the boat, which promptly capsized, plunging her into frigid black water. We know the viewpoint character’s thoughts and feeling, but in a neutral way, not as if they were really happening to us.
    • Deep penetration: Gotta hand it to you, Nicole. I didn’t see that one coming . Karen growled every swear word she knew as she watched the boat disappear beneath the waves, knowing she was way too far from shore to swim back. You think this is over, Nicky? You think you got the last word? See you in Hell, bitch.We experience the scenes as if we are the viewpoint character.

See? I told you it was more than you wanted to know. If point of view is at the heart of fiction, then conflict, which is the subject of my next FictionCraft offering, is its backbone. Hope to see you again next month. Until then, as always, happy trails…

Louisa Burton
March 2009


“FictionCraft” © 2009 Louisa Burton. All rights reserved.

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