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Point of View, the Full Story—Introduction

July 26, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified July 26, 2012

I’ve seen all sorts of definitions and advice for point of view (POV)—some great, some contradictory, and some unusual.

Terms have old names, new names, confusing names. But it’s not the names that are important—it’s how point of view is used and maintained in stories that’s important for a writer. You’re not (necessarily) going to be quizzed on the names of the different points of view. You could, however, lose readers if you don’t use POV correctly or if you switch between different POVs without need or without warning.

My intent is to show you options for point of view, to make you aware that you do need to choose one, or a combination of them, and not just let a story develop without a plan. While we could limit the basic POV options to three or four, there are shadings to be aware of as well.

And while I could simply name the options, give an example of each, that’s not useful enough for a writer struggling with a story or scene that needs something  more than the basics. If you need only the basics, that’s covered here. But there’s also more.

You do have options, even within a single point of view. Let’s explore some of those options and the nuances in point of view.

I’m going to try to make this both clear and exhaustive; please excuse the length. I’ve split this into several articles to make the read a bit easier.

To start, let’s keep in mind what point of view is. While sometimes used interchangeably with the phrase viewpoint character, the two are not the same.

The viewpoint character is the one whose eyes see a story, the particular character whose viewpoint a story is told from. Think who when talking of viewpoint character. Who is telling a particular story? Through whose eyes is a scene unfolding? What’s the name of the character?

The viewpoint character can and may change from scene to scene or chapter to chapter. The recommendation is to use the character with the most at stake as the viewpoint character in a scene. This may be protagonist or antagonist. In romance it may be the hero in one scene, the heroine in the next. So in one scene that may mean Miss Scarlett, and in another, Colonel Mustard.

The confusion between viewpoint character and point of view comes in the use of the terminology. We often ask whose point of view is this scene being told in or by when what we mean is who is the viewpoint character in this scene. Most people understand what is being asked, so you don’t need to be a stickler when it comes to asking or answering the question. Just understand that viewpoint character and point of view are different terms.

For point of view think how rather than who. How is the story being presented? The accent is not on a particular character but on a presentation or narration style—first person, second person, or third person.

In simple terms, POV tells the reader than an I, a you, or a he or she is telling the story or lending his or her experiences and senses to share the story. While it eventually matters which I, which you, or which he or she is doing the presenting, for definition’s sake, you just need to know the options. (Could a novel be told from a plural viewpoint, using we or they? Of course, though it would be more than unusual. Use the same options as for the singular viewpoints.)

What’s important for point of view and viewpoint character is making choices that best fit the story.

For the reader’s sake, make the point of view clear from a story’s first words.

Examples of different points of view—

I woke with a lizard on my shoulder. He wasn’t a normal lizard; he spoke to me in French. What was even more unusual, since my French didn’t reach beyond Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, was that I understood his words and his jokes. (First person)

You woke with a lizard on your shoulder. The lizard wasn’t a normal lizard; he spoke to you in French. What was more unusual was that you understood his words and his jokes; you’ve never spoken a word of French in your life. (Second Person)

Chester woke with a lizard on his shoulder. The lizard wasn’t a normal lizard; he spoke to Chester in French. What was more unusual was that Chester understood his words and his jokes; Chester didn’t speak a word of French himself. (Omniscient or third-person objective)

He woke with a lizard on his shoulder. What the hell? And the squirmy reptile was speaking. In French. Chester jumped out of bed and rubbed at his ear. He couldn’t be hearing right; he didn’t even understand that inane Frère Jacques nursery rhyme. And then he laughed. Well, the lizard’s joke was funny. (Third-person subjective with deep POV)

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A few quick details

Some genres favor one POV over another. And some POV options are better, or worse, because of the distance created, or erased, by the choice of POV. The first person point of view definitely allows readers to get up close and personal with a character.

Modern detective stories, chick-lit, coming-of-age novels, a lot of Y/A, some sci-fi and some literary novels favor the first-person point of view. Can you use other POVs in these styles of stories? Of course. You may hit on the perfect combination or balance with a different POV. But first-person POV does work successfully for these.

Epic adventures (with large casts or stories that stretch over long time periods), political thrillers, and heavily plot-driven adventure stories that criss-cross the world often use third-person omniscient. These stories can be objective—showing events but not dipping into the hearts and heads of characters—or they can be subjective—showing character thoughts and feelings as well as events.

Omniscient can show a viewpoint character’s face from the outside—first person and the other third-person narrations can’t do that unless the character is looking into a mirror. So if you’re relying on a viewpoint character’s facial expressions to convey emotion, you’re not going to be conveying too many emotions in first- or third-person points of view. The viewpoint character can see the faces of other characters—but he can only feel his own, not see it. (I mention this because it’s something I see quite often in manuscripts, a viewpoint character reporting something about himself that he couldn’t possibly know.)

Second person is still considered experimental. It’s also stylized. And it’s not used often for novels. A few often mentioned second-person stories are Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney, Diary by Chuck Palahniuk, and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino.

If you want to try something different, if you want to cast the reader as a character, second person allows for that.

Third-person POV is found in every genre for every age reader. Romance, mystery, literary, sci-fi, Y/A, literary, western, and suspense and thriller and horror can all use third-person POV. It’s the most flexible and it’s used most often for today’s fiction.

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The choice of POV can make or break your novel: third-person omniscient may be too distancing for your coming of age story; first person may be too close for your horror story; third-person subjective with deep POV for your epic may not allow readers to see the panoramic sweep of the narrative.

The good news is that you can try different points of view for the same story. If your story stalls out or doesn’t feel right, rewrite a couple of chapters in a different point of view. There is no law that says you must stick to the point of view you started with, and it would be foolish to do so if it isn’t working. (Not every foundational problem can be corrected through a change in POV, but it is one element to consider.)

Keep in mind genre allowances and expectations when you write. While many romances use third person, some are being told via first person. Most mysteries are told in first-person narration by characters with vivid personalities.

You can write counter to expectations, and that might be a plus for your novel, but readers often come to novels, especially genre novels, expecting certain consistencies. That’s something every writer should be aware of.

Now that we’ve got the topic introduced, let’s look at each POV option in depth.

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Part Two—First, Second, and Third POVs

Part Three—The Omniscient Narrator

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Tags: , ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Definitions

12 Responses to “Point of View, the Full Story—Introduction”

  1. This is by far the most comprehensive explanation on this topic than I’ve ever come up. I feel like I’ve experienced a mini-course. Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to help us struggling writers.

    And bless your efforts and works!

  2. Bill A says:

    Thank you. Best overview I’ve come across.

  3. Lorraine and Bill, thanks for stopping by.

  4. Very nice article and straight to the point. I am not sure if this is actually the best place to ask but do you people have any thoughts on where to hire some professional writers? Thx :)

  5. Eric, I’m not sure what kind of writer you’re looking for, but check out the Editorial Freelancers Association at http://www.the-efa.org/. They may have some links.

  6. Erica says:

    I know you wrote this a while back, but I just want to say it’s a fantastic set of articles on pov, and it’s something I refer writer friends to when they have questions about the different approaches to pov.

    I did have a question, because it seems like there is a LOT of contradictory information and differential terminology floating around, especially about the various forms of third person point of view. When I took a creative writing class back in college (in the 80s–we used Burroway as a text), they didn’t mention limited third or subjective third at all–just objective third, omniscient third, and something called limited omniscient (the way it was described sounds a bit like halfway between limited third and omniscient). Most of the older books on my shelves that are written in third person seen to be more in that limited omniscient form. Some published writers still write this way, but it tends to get you dinged in critting groups nowadays. The idea now seems to be that for new writers, there’s no in between allowed on the omni to limited third continuum.

    So when did limited third (or subjective third, if that’s the same thing) first become something writing instructors and editors actually defined, and when did the stricter version of limited third (where you can’t show or describe anything that doesn’t originate from the pov character in a scene) first arise?

    I love your site. I think it’s the most comprehensive catalog of information I’ve found so far on the web–better than a lot of craft books I’ve shelled out money for :)

  7. Erica, thanks for letting me know the site is helpful. That’s what I strive for.

    I honestly can’t tell you how or why or when the POVs changed. It may simply be that there are new terms for the standard POVs. Or it may be that some sources don’t get into as much detail as others do about the different POVs. So some may be content with first person, third person, and omniscient in their explanations.

    I do think that movies and video games may have been one influence, showing us that we could clearly imagine ourselves as a character in a story. Written fiction can do that so very well, drawing readers inside a story, and I’m sure that writers pushed for that, making it work, until it became a standard storytelling style. So rather than a narrator telling a story, we now have characters, even those outside of first-person narration, living the events of story right in front of us. Readers are not outsiders watching events unfold, but participants. Stories that immerse readers into the mood and feel and emotion of story are vastly different from those that merely paint a picture. I think that both readers and writers wanted more from their fiction and found a way to get it.

    But when readers gained in their intimacy with and knowledge of a character—his thoughts and emotions in response to story events—a writer had to be careful not to include what a character couldn’t know. That’s only logical. If you’re in a character’s head, if the reader is imagining himself as the character going through all those adventures—seeing through his eyes, feeling through his heart, thinking with his knowledge and understanding his prior experiences—nothing could be quicker to destroy the suspension of disbelief than a shift to the head and heart of another character. Or even just to a line of information that the viewpoint character couldn’t know.

    Readers who are inside a character, truly inside him, are slapped out of the fictional aura (no, that’s not a standard term) when information appears that couldn’t have come from the viewpoint character. The closer a reader is to the character, the more jarring it is when something doesn’t fit. Just as a first-person narrator couldn’t tell what he doesn’t know, a third-person viewpoint character who is telling the story also can’t tell what he couldn’t know. And if he’s the viewpoint character for a scene, anything that happens in that scene is filtered through him. Readers would be jarred by knowledge that comes out of the blue, knowledge suddenly rendered by an omniscient narrator who has never before been present.

    When a reader is truly inside the head and heart of a character, seeing through his eyes, knowledge from outside that character may actually stop the reader and have him wondering who is saying that.

    Yet writers can still use the omniscient to ease into a scene. It’s tougher to do if you’re using deep POV or if you’ve put every line of every scene in a viewpoint character’s viewpoint, but it can be done. Especially at the top of a scene or chapter.

    It really depends on how close you want readers to get to the characters. If you want that closeness, you have to give up some knowledge. If you want universal knowledge, you’ve got to give up some of the closeness. There is a range, but there are also end points on the range, and it’s at those points where a lot of fiction lives.

    As is true in many instances in many fields, something not diluted by something else often has the strongest impact. So a fully omniscient narration or a fully deep-third POV narration may have a stronger impact than something found along the middle of the range. And since writers want to create an impact, it’s likely that they’ll seek out the extremes to create that impact.

    A long way to say that I’m guessing that use of deep POV and the narrowing of the distance between reader and character gave rise to the prohibition on including details that don’t originate with the viewpoint character.

    I hope there was something useful in that long answer.

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