What’s your point of view?
“I did some reading the other day,” my friend Albert told me. “What does Point of View mean?” Emboldened by our earlier conversation about dialogue, he decided he was going to write stories. He approached me with a notebook in which he had scribbled down story ideas and snatches of conversations. There were still no signs of an actual story.
“Point of View is how your characters see the story.” I could tell that he was confused, so I closed my laptop and thought about it for a minute. “It’s though whose eyes we are seeing the story.”
“Ah, so it’s the main character.”
“Often, but not always. The place to start is with spelling out what your options are.”
“Should I write this down?” Albert asked, pulling out his notebook and flipping to a blank page.
I appreciated the zeal with which he was approaching this new endeavor. “Probably. There are four types of POV:”
The four Points of View
- Third-Person Limited
- Third-Person Omniscient
“Every story has two narrators: the author and one or more characters. As the author, we are in control of what is going on and we know everything.”
Albert quickly scribbled notes and then scratched his head. Looking up at me, he said, “Looks kind of complicated.”
“And we’re going to add in emotional distance and trustworthiness to the mix as well, because they affect the point of view for a story.”
“We’ll get second-person out of the way quickly because it isn’t very common. In these stories, the narrator is telling another character what he or she did. ‘You went here’, ‘you thought this’, ‘you did that’. These stories may also include third person pronouns if the story calls for it. There may be an ‘I’ in these stories, but never as the protagonist. We are still experiencing the story through the eyes of the narrator.”
“That sounds awkward,” Albert said.
“It’s an attempt to bring an immediacy to the reader by treating them as the main character in the story. One way we can use this is to convey the thoughts of the narrator by how he speaks to the other story characters. The article, ‘8 great novels written in the second person’, written by Kim Forrester, talks about second-person and gives several excellent examples.”
“That’s me,” Albert said.
“Yes, but you aren’t always the protagonist of the story. The story is told through the eyes of one or more characters.”
“Wait a minute, I thought….”
“Many people do. It’s fairly common to have a single narrator in a story, especially in shorter fiction. Because we have access to the thoughts of the main character, writers can find it challenging to keep readers interested in their viewpoint character for hundreds of pages. In ‘Managing Point of View: Mythbusting‘, Sharon Short discusses Point of View and the challenges associated with each one. I’ll send you the link.”
“How about the cliff notes version?” Albert asked.
“We will talk about emotional distance in a little while. For now, I’ll summarize it this way:”
- First person is told from the viewpoint of the narrator. We get to hear his or her thoughts.
- The narrator may or may not be the main character. In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway is the narrator telling the story of Jay Gatsby. A lot of detective fiction uses this format as well (e.g., Sherlock Holmes and almost all of Agatha Christie’s books).
- First person may follow only one narrator or several.
- First person is always limited.
“Before you ask, I said that there are four points of view. Third person encompasses the last two. In third-person, we experience the story through the eyes of he/she/they. ‘He did this’, ‘she felt that’. There is a subtle difference between omniscient and limited point of view. In omniscient, the narrator knows the thoughts of most or all of the characters. In a limited point of view, the narrator only knows the thoughts of one character at a time.”
Albert had forgotten to take notes and so he now scrambled to write everything down. I flipped open my laptop and glanced at the story I was working on.
Emotional distance and trustworthiness
Albert sat, scrutinizing his notes and nibbling the eraser on the end of his pencil. He looked up and saw the heading for this section.
“What? I thought we only had one more thing to talk about.”
“They’re related,” I said. “I’ll try to be brief.”
“Emotional distance has to do with how close we are to a character’s emotions. Do we get to see them?”
“So, first-person will be the closest emotional distance,” Albert said.
I really wanted to simplify things for him but couldn’t. I shook my head. “It often is because we are inside the narrator’s head. He is a character in the story. But he could be an impartial observer. The impartial observer is most often used with third-person omniscient, but that isn’t always the case.”
“Blows your mind, doesn’t it?” Albert asked.
Yes, it does. “Trustworthiness is a little easier. In any situation where we have a limited viewpoint, we are dealing with an unreliable narrator.” Albert opened his mouth to object, but I raised my hand to stop him. “Because we have a limited viewpoint, we can only see what the narrator is seeing. We need to trust that his observations are correct, because we are seeing things based upon how he is observing, processing, and revealing them.”
Which point of view do I prefer?
Albert sat back, closed his notebook, and then rubbed his eyes. “That’s a lot to take in. How do you figure it all out?”
Good question. “A lot has to do with the story. I like limited points of view because I want to explore what the characters are thinking while they are going through things. I switch back and forth between first and third-person points of view. Omniscient point of view doesn’t really interest me, but that’s not to say I wouldn’t use it for the right story.”
“How do you choose between first and third person?”
“Good question. When I have an answer, I’ll let you know. What about you? Now that you are a writer, what point of views are you going to use?”