Mastering Point of View in Fiction
Guest Post by Leonard Seet
Beginning writers tend to have trouble with Point of View (POV). The most frequent problem is shifting from one POV to another in the middle of a sentence or a paragraph. Often, just the awareness of the POV is enough to fix the problem. From writing my novels and short stories, I can appreciate the challenge to discipline the mind and focus on the view from which I am writing. But like other disciplines, practice will improve the awareness of POV.
We can divide POV into first person, second person and third person, but there are other dimensions such orientation, angle and access.
First Person Point of View
In the first person point of view, the readers are inside the head of the narrator and view the events from her perspective. In fiction, the perspective is usually from a character’s orientation, whether that be the protagonist or another character. In an autobiography, it would be in the author’s orientation.
The major advantage of the first person point of view is that the reader can identify and sympathize with the narrator. The reader knows her thoughts and would tend to accept her opinions through the intimacy of this point of view. The writer could share the narrator’s thoughts and feelings without having to resort to speech and action. And he can experiment with various writing styles to match the narrator’s thought patterns. Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is an example of dazzling prose written in the first person point of view.
The first person point of view tends to reveal the narrator’s subjective rather than objective account of the events and the reader has to depend on her honesty. In the extreme, the narrator may be deceptive, often unintentionally but sometimes intentionally. Creating an unreliable narrator is one of the major reasons for using the first person point of view, not only to create twists in the plot but also to build a multi-dimensional character. The butler in Kasuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Days is such a narrator.
Epistolary fiction is a special case of the first person point of view writing where the reader sees the letters that the narrator addresses to various other characters. An example of such fiction is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
So far, I have described the single angle first person point of view, i.e. a single narrator. But it is possible to have multiple first person point of views where, for example, each chapter of the book is from a different person’s point of view. The advantage of this technique is that the reader can understand and sympathize with more than one character. William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is such an example.
Second Person Point of View
In the second person point of view, the narrator addresses the reader. “You are walking into a room.” We seldom see second person point of view fiction since not every reader is willing to be a character or even the protagonist in the story. Especially when the author takes the character, who is also the reader, into a path that the latter wouldn’t want to go. The exception would be when the reader knows that he will be reading a role-play story.
Third Person Point of View
In third person point of view, the author separates the narrator from the viewpoint character. The narrator, who the reader usually couldn’t identify, would not be in the story. Even though the reader may see the events from the viewpoint character’s perspective, the narrator describes those events. There are various third person point of views depending on access—the penetration into the viewpoint character’s mind.
Third Person Objective Point of View
In this point of view, the reader sees the characters’ actions and hears their dialogue and can only infer from them the players’ thoughts and feelings without direct access to their mind and heart. Some call this the camera perspective, a video camera capturing the sights and sounds. The audience would watch and listen to the characters and deduce their thoughts and feelings. The reader almost never feels the presence of the narrator, just as the audience almost never thinks about the cameraman. The advantage of this POV is precisely that the author wouldn’t have to reveal the characters’ thoughts except through their actions and words. If the author is skilled in showing the characters’ behaviors, the reader can use her imagination to derive the thoughts. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is an example.
Third Person Limited Point of View
In this point of view, similar to that of the first person, the reader can access a character’s—usually the protagonist’s—thoughts. But the narrator is different from the viewpoint character. Like other third person point of views, the narrator is usually unnamed and unknown. The reader never knows him except through his prose style. The advantage of this POV is that the author can adjust the narrative distance between reader and character. The reader can be as intimate with the character as in the first person POV or almost as distant as the third person objective POV. And the author can use her own writing style rather than that of the viewpoint character as in first person POV.
As in first person point of view, the author can use many angles in this POV. For example, she can write each chapter of the novel in a particular character’s limited POV. The advantage is that the author can describe events without having to rely on a single viewpoint character being present in all of them—a useful tool for plot-driven novels.
Third Person Omniscient Point of View
In third person omniscient point of view, the reader has the God-perspective, that is, he is in all the characters’ heads all the time. The reader not only has access to all the actions but also all the thoughts and feelings. The advantage is that the author can describe vistas with unique angles and summarize events across time that can move the reader like no limited perspective can. This POV was popular in the previous centuries as in Henry Fielding’s novels, but is less so among contemporary writers. However, a master, using this POV, can dazzle the reader with his prose.
Form and Content
The writer would look at the content and the narrative structure to choose the appropriate point of view. When I read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I couldn’t imagine these novels written in another point of view without destroying their haunting moods. We can write most stories in more than one point of view but given the content and the author’s goal, we should rank the POVs and choose one on the top of the list.
Leonard Seet is the author of the novel Meditation on Space-Time. His article Creating Memorable Characters appeared on the issue of Blogging Author. While working overseas as Project Director for a consumer electronics company, he came upon a parchment, which he had drafted in college after booing a novel’s ending. The chicken-scratches had begun to fade, but he succeeded in deciphering the text. The writing was amateurish, but the plot had potential. So, to relieve work stress, he began rewriting the story, along the way learning the art of the trade. Several years later, he resigned from the company to write literary fictions.
Go to http://leonardseet.blogspot.com to learn more about Leonard’s novel and to read his book reviews.