Elements of Fiction: Point of View (P.O.V.)

 

Consider point of view carefully.

Begin by jotting down what you wish to accomplish by, for example, using first person, present tense:

I decided to use First Person because my narrator is unreliable, and I wanted that information to dawn on the reader slowly and come directly from the character, not some Third Person entity. I used present tense because I wanted to create a sense of immediacy – that the action is happening right now, not twenty years ago.

Try out different points of view for the same story.

Which might work best for your story idea?

Consider the following options:

 

First Person

“I.” This point of view is excellent for achieving a rapport with the reader and/or establishing a certain speech pattern that might reveal important details about the speaker. The reader identifies with the character when he/she/they sees “I.”

However, there are limitations: everything is filtered through this character, and, therefore, the reader must depend on the narrator alone for all important details.

Also, it is difficult to get a physical description of the narrator without resorting to tired literary tricks, such as,

I see myself in the mirror and notice how tired I look...

Still, the writer establishes an “intimate” relationship with the reader, by allowing the narrator to reveal to the reader what the narrator reveals to him or herself. Thus, the reader has access to the narrator’s internal thoughts.

In a sense, the reader becomes the narrator by experiencing what only the narrator experiences, such as feelings, thoughts, actions, physical sensations, etc.

All other characters/events are filtered/revealed through the narrator’s physical world, such as his or her observations (the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch) and world view (religious and political views).

As in the real world, the reader does not have access to the internal thoughts of other characters, and, thus, the reader cannot know firsthand what takes place outside of the narrator’s narrow world.

Interestingly enough, the “I” narrator does not need to be the protagonist or antagonist. In fact, the narrator can be a relatively minor character. The writer decides who will best tell the protagonist’s story.

 

Third person, singular

“He,” “She,” or “They” (singular for characters who identify as binary). The story is told by a single narrator who is, in a sense, an extension of the protagonist, but the protagonist does not narrate his/her own story but is referred to by name or by “he,” “she,” or “they.”

As in the first person, the reader knows what feelings the protagonist is willing to reveal to him, her, themself (as the singular referring to a binary person, thus a valid dictionary word).  Thus, the reader has access to the protagonist’s internal thoughts.

Conversely, this third person singular allows the writer to pull back and make observations about the protagonist and/or surroundings that the “I” narrator could not or would not feasibly do (physical description of self, for example).

As in first person, other characters/events are filtered/revealed through the narrator’s physical world, such as his or her observations (the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch). Again, the reader does not have access to the internal thoughts of other characters, and, thus, the reader cannot know what takes place outside of the protagonist’s small world.

The third person narrator creates a distance between the protagonist and the reader by creating a wall between the protagonist and the reader through the filter of the narrator’s observations.

 

Third Person, Limited

“He,” “She,” or “They” (singular for characters who identify as binary). (“They,” in the plural, is usually reserved for novels, novellas, and/or long stories).

The story is told by two or, rarely, three alternating narrators who are, in a sense, extensions of the protagonist, antagonist, and, perhaps, another character who may act as a go-between for the protagonist and antagonist, but these narrators do not narrate their own stories, but are referred to by name or by “he,” “she,” or “they.”

As in the first person and third person singular, the reader knows what feelings the protagonist, antagonist, or other character are willing to reveal to themselves. Thus, the reader has access to the internal thoughts of the protagonist, antagonist, and, perhaps, a third go-between character.

Conversely, this third person limited allows the writer to pull back and make observations about the protagonist and/or surroundings that the “I” narrator could not or would not feasibly do (physical description of selves, for example). As in first person and third person singular, other characters/events are filtered/revealed through the two or three narrators’ physical worlds, such as their observations (the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch).

Again, the reader does not have access to the internal thoughts of any other characters (other than the proscribed two or three narrators), and, thus, the reader cannot know what takes place outside of the protagonist’s, antagonist’s, and/or go-between narrator’s worlds. The third person narrators create a distance among the protagonist, antagonist, and/or go-between character and the reader by creating a wall between the narrators and reader through the filter of the narrators’ observations.

 

Third Person, Omniscient

“He,” “She,” or “They” (singular for characters who identify as binary). (“They,” in the plural, is usually reserved for novels, novellas, and/or long stories).

This gender-neutral point of view, often called the “God” or “force-be-with-you” narrator, is a distant and powerful figure who gives the reader “the long view” and knows what is going on inside of each character’s head; often, the narrator will slide in and out of each character’s psyche, sometimes in the same paragraph.

The omniscient viewpoint is very difficult to pull off successfully in a short story and is rarely used in modern fiction of any kind.

This gender-neutral narrator knows everything about all characters, including what they are thinking and feeling. This narrator can move freely about the story, making observations about everyone and everything. Many beginning writers use this viewpoint but do so clumsily, mostly an attempt to worm out of character and/or plot difficulties. Avoid the God narrator whenever possible; this viewpoint, in the hands of beginning writers, tends to sound cheesy, unfocused, and amateurish.

 

Third Person, Objective

“He,” “She,” or “They.” The narrator, usually gender-neutral, acts as a “movie camera,” recording all the tangible details (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures) in the scene and setting. “Records” dialogue, body language, surroundings, but does not comment on them, either from the narrator’s perspective or the characters’ viewpoint. The reader must fill in the “subtext” (the emotions, meaning, and messages between the lines), which is usually accomplished via dialogue. If done well, this point-of-view can be very effective, as Ernest Hemingway has exhibited in his short story “Hills Like White Elephants.”  A very difficult viewpoint to pull off, the objective is often referred to as the “dramatic viewpoint” or “journalistic” viewpoint because it shares many characteristics of playwrighting and newspaper writing, with its emphasis on reportage of dialogue, detailed description of the physical world, and observable action. This means that feelings, abstractions, and emotions are not articulated, except through that which can be directly observed in the physical world. The narrator is neither the protagonist nor antagonist but is often an unknown minor observer who makes observations about the major characters but often does not reveal any personal information about the gender-neutral self. In fact, the narrator will probably not even refer to “I” at all because this isn’t the observer’s story. Thus, the reader knows little or nothing about the observer, including the internal thoughts of the narrator. If done correctly, the objective is a very powerful viewpoint, because, as in real life, actions and dialogue (or lack of dialogue) can speak louder than all the feelings and articulated angst in the world.

 

Second Person (Rare)

“You.” This is really a variation of the first person. The narrator wishes to develop a somewhat close relationship with the reader, but not quite an intimate one. The narrator, by placing the “onus” on the reader, does not own up to his/her actions. For example,

You walk to the café, where you buy a mochaccino with three sugars and three creams. After slurping down the drink in one swallow, you decide you’ll visit your mother who hasn’t seen you in six months. What will she say to you after all that has happened since Joey’s funeral?

(Another example: Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.” Some critics, however, argue that this story is just a sophisticated variation of the first person, but technically, “Girl” is a second person story, incorporating the “command” tone and process [“how to”])

 

A combination of First and Third Person Viewpoints

Some professional writers mix and match first and third person to create a mixture of true intimacy and a “pulling back” from the reader. This mixture can create a powerful story, but the writer must be skillful enough to know when the mix of viewpoints has been overused. In her novel Good Enough to Eat, Lesléa Newman quite effectively switches back and forth between first and third (limited) person:

Let’s see, 500 calories. Think I’ll start with English muffins. Liza looked them up: plain, 120 calories; raisin, 130. A tablespoon of butter had 100 calories, so two teaspoons would be about 66. That makes 200 calories for breakfast. I could have an apple for lunch. She turned to the first page of the book: apple, medium (all varieties) two-inch diameter, 80 calories. So, if I had an apple and a carrot for lunch that would be 105 calories, plus 200 makes 305. Liza paused to grab some more cookies. I could have an eight-ounce container of vanilla yogurt for dinner. That has 200 calories in it, so that would make 505 altogether. Hmm. Liza finished the pile of cookies in her lap and stuck her hand into the bag of potato chips. I really shouldn’t go over 500. I could have a plain English muffin and save myself 10 calories. Maybe I should let myself have 550. (From Good Enough to Eat,  by Leslea Newman, 61).

 

A combination of 1st and 2nd person viewpoints:

Less common is the mixture of 1st and 2nd person; if a narrator is “avoiding” an emotion or situation, he or she might begin addressing him or herself as “you.” For example,

When I saw that I had spilled the milk, I went ballistic. You ditz. How could you be so careless? What will John say when he sees you have spilled his precious his lactose-free milk all over the kitchen floor? You’d better get this mess cleaned up and your butt off to the store. Where’s my damn car keys, anyway?

We often do this in real life, no?

My favorite: “Oh, Jennifer, you dimwit. Where have you left your cellphone now? How could I be so forgetful?”

Writers have many choices of P.O.V. when developing their characters. But choosing the right point of view for the story you need to tell can be tricky. Therefore, in your planning, it’s okay to try on several personas and points of view before diving into that first draft.

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More Elements of Fiction:

Elements of Fiction: Characterization 

Elements of Fiction: Point of View 

Elements of Fiction: Story Structure

Elements of Fiction: Other Elements

Elements of Fiction: Building a Character (Character List)

 

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