Different points of view in stories create useful individual effects. What is point of view and which point of view should you use when you write your novel? Read on for definitions of objective and limited POV. Understand the differences between these narrative voices and improve your command of point of view:
First: What is point of view?
Point of view in writing refers to the perspective from which a story is told. The great author of To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee said ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.’ Point of view can make readers see everything a character feels and experiences from their perspective. It can also lie outside the central actors of the story, describing them at a more objective remove.
Defining different points of view: First, second, third
First person point of view
This is narrative in which the narrator says ‘I’. The strength of first person narration is that the reader gets to inhabit a single character’s fully-fledged perspective. This point of view is common in novels written as fictional autobiographies, such as Dickens’ David Copperfield. Chapter 1 (titled ‘I am born’) opens:
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.
Second person point of view
Second person POV is rarer than first or third. It asks a bigger leap of imagination of the reader. In second person narration, the story is told from the viewpoint of the reader, using the second person pronoun ‘you’. This creates a ‘choose your own adventure’ type of effect, where the reader is asked to imagine being the central character. Italo Calvino uses this uncommon point of view expertly in his postmodern mystery novella, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. An example:
‘Now you are on the bus, standing in the crowd, hanging from a strap by your arm, and you begin undoing the package with your free hand, making movements something like a monkey, a monkey who wants to peel a banana and at the same time cling to the bough.’
Third person point of view
Third person POV (that describes characters’ actions using the pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’ or ‘them’) offers readers degrees of distance from the main characters of your story. Events can be described from outside a single character’s perspective, even if the narrative is still focused primarily on their experiences. Alternatively, you can roam freely between multiple characters’ points of view, even within a single scene. This is useful for multi-perspective, multi-character books. It does, however, lose some of the intimacy and immediacy of first person POV.
Alice Munro, the Nobel-winning Canadian author, uses third person POV often in her short stories. Here is an example from her short story ‘Deep-Holes’ in the collection Too Much Happiness:
‘He spoke gently, readily, yet with an effort, like someone speaking, as a courtesy, in a foreign language. And he stooped a little, to make sure she heard him. The special effort, the slight labour involved in speaking to her, as if making a scrupulous translation, seemed something she was meant to notice.’
In third person POV, the narrative voice can stay close to a single character or move between characters more freely:
Further point of view definitions: Limited, Objective and Omniscient
Third person point of view may be ‘limited’, ‘objective’ or ‘omniscient’.
In limited point of view, the narration sticks closely to a focal character. The narrator has access to and can describe characters’ feelings and thoughts. An entire book doesn’t necessarily have to be written from a single character’s point of view in limited third person.
J.K. Rowling uses this type of narration in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets novels:
‘Harry saw at once that it was a diary, and the faded year on the cover told him it was fifty years old. He opened it eagerly. On the first page he could just make out the name “T. M. Riddle” in smudged ink.’
Objective point of view, unlike limited point of view, does not give the narrator access to characters’ thoughts and feelings. As Ursula K. Le Guin says in her writing manual Steering the Craft:
‘There is no viewpoint character [in objective POV]. The narrator is not one of the characters, and can say of the characters only what a neutral observer (an intelligent fly on the wall) might infer of them from behaviour and speech.’
Characters’ actions and dialogues are simply presented to the reader. The narrator doesn’t explicitly tell the reader what a character thinks or feels.
Limiting narration to only what can be observed is useful for avoiding telling readers’ feelings more than showing them. Using explicit abstract words to convey characters’ thoughts and feelings without supporting action or dialogue can become bland. Objective narration in third person forces you to communicate to readers what is interesting about a scene without shorthand abstractions.
Omniscient narration is the narrative voice where the narrator knows and sees all. The viewpoint might shift between characters. The narrator can also describe settings and scenes in the story even when no character is around to observe them. This is the voice of the narrator who, in Le Guin’s words, ‘knows the whole story, tells it because it is important, and is profoundly involved with all the characters.’
Le Guin notes that omniscient narration has fallen out of favour to an extent, with limited third person being the most common modern point of view. She attributes this to the popularity of omniscient narration in Victorian fiction and the fact that this can be abused. An example of its abuse is Victorian moralists’ fondness for preaching to (and condescending to) the reader using non-character narrators.
Here is Le Guin’s example of omniscient narration that has no fixed POV:
‘The Tufarian girl entered the room hesitantly, her arms close to her sides, her shoulders hunched; she looked both frightened and indifferent, like a captured wild animal. The big Hemmian ushered her in with a proprietary air […].’
Now that we defined different points of view, here are 5 tips for choosing and using point of view wisely:
1: Use a point of view that will suit the style of your story
If your story has the character of a memoir, mostly focusing on one character recalling life experiences, first person POV makes more sense than third. Because your story will mostly concern a single character’s psychology and experiences, it makes little sense to create more distance between the reader and your main character.
If you’re writing a multi-character novel, you could use limited third person point of view where you can move between characters freely. Remember that you can also simply alternate between sections or chapters told in first person POV in a multi-character work. Third person is excellent for writing about a large cast of characters and creating a quasi-mythological feel. It’s often used this way in satire, where the story reads as though a narrator has a magnifying glass held over an entire community or town.
2: Think about the full implications of using a specific point of view
If you’re telling a story from a single viewpoint or different viewpoints, there are implications. A single first person narrator can only tell the reader what she knows. The narrator can prove unreliable because there is natural fallibility in the limitations of a single, subjective viewpoint.
In a multi-viewpoint story, characters’ knowledge and perceptions can contradict each other. This creates interesting narrative tension because readers are never certain whose version of events is closer to the truth.
3: Practice rewriting your scenes from different points of view
Take a scene written from one of your character’s perspectives and rewrite it from another character’s viewpoint. This is a healthy exercise because it will make you think more about how your characters experience the same events differently according to their personalities, motivations and goals.
Don’t be afraid to rewrite pivotal scenes in your novel or short story from a different point of view. You might find that a character who felt awkward or unreal in one point of view comes to life in another.
4: Take notes on your favourite authors’ use of POV
Whenever you read your favourite authors, take notes on what point of view they use throughout their stories. Ask yourself questions and keep a writing journal where you can reflect on this element of their craft. For example, when you read a novel, ask yourself:
- What is the primary point of view for most of the story?
- Does the point of view change during the course of the book? What does this contribute to the story’s overall effect?
- What would the story gain and what would it lose if rewritten using a different POV? Try rewriting a paragraph or even a page or chapter (if you’re feeling ambitious) using another POV
5: Don’t shift between objective and involved narration in a single story
This is excellent advice from Ursula Le Guin. As Le Guin says, ‘you really can’t shift between detached and involved authorial voice within one piece.’ The reason for this is that the two create very different effects and the transition is always jarring.
If you want to shift POV often in your story, it is best to either use third person point of view (either limited or omniscient) or to use first person but tell alternate sections from different characters’ perspectives. Michael Cunningham does this in A Home at the End of the World, simply titling alternate chapters using each of his three main characters’ names.
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