What is Point of View?
Two weeks ago, I discussed what point of view (POV) is, and interpreted it in two varying ways: which character is telling the story, or which personal pronoun is being used in telling the story.
We talked about the first aspect, who is telling the story, why you might choose one character over another, and discussed why you might want to use multiple characters to tell one story.
What Personal Pronouns Are There?
When I first think of POV, I think not so much who is telling the story, but which pronoun is used to tell the story: I, he/she, or you.
There’s nothing wrong with this interpretation, but as I explained last week, there is so much more to point of view than simply which pronoun you use in telling the story.
There are strengths and weaknesses to each pronoun, but let’s first simply list out the different variations, with examples from modern-day literature.
first person POV
Most simply, this is the point of view written with “I.” In it, nothing can be revealed by the narrator (I) that I could not know. Of course, this means that I must be present in every scene of significance to the plot, or else I cannot possibly share that scene with the reader, as is my goal in relating this story. So I am severely limited to only my own knowledge in all areas, only what I can infer from the situation and my own observation skills, and what is said. If someone lies to me, unless I can tell that person is lying, I will relate what they say as truth. It is nearly impossible to hide information from the reader in this POV, unless the information is also hidden from me.
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
–The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Note the use of the pronoun “I.” Katniss only offers information that she could know or infer from circumstances. She doesn’t know for sure where Prim is, but assumes based on previous behavior that Prim has snuck into their mother’s bed.
second person POV
This POV is the most unusual. It involves writing directly to the reader as if the reader is the narrator themselves. Like first person, the narrator (you) can only share what you’ve witnessed, and must be present at each scene related. You cannot share something you don’t know. You can only interpret the scene as you read it, and only offer knowledge that you are privy to or have prior knowledge of. Hiding knowledge from the reader is difficult, for to do so would be to lie to yourself and interpret a scene untruthfully.
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head.
–Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
The interesting thing about second person POV is how well it can transport you into the story. Sometimes, it can be difficult to wrap your head around it, but if it is done well, there’s a sense of immediacy and intimacy in second person that is impossible to replicate in first or third person.
third person limited POV
In third person limited POV, similar to first and second POVs, the narrator (he/she) can only say what she knows. If she didn’t witness it, she can’t show the scene. She can hear about it from someone else, make assumptions based on that, but her knowledge is limited to what she knows, what she witnessed, and what she thinks. In her relation of the scene, she should relay information as she might think of it. To describe herself rings false, for she would rarely think of her eyes being blue, or her level of attraction, or the color of her skin. While there are ways to sprinkle this information in, “info dumps” regarding appearance are difficult to rightfully pull off, as they are rarely warranted.
The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationary and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope. Who even knew they still made such things? This single sheet had traveled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world. Mr. Fox had the letter in his hand when he came to the lab to tell Marina the news. When she saw him there at the door she smiled at him and in the light of that smile he faltered.
–State of Wonder by Ann Pachett
This example, from a literary fiction book, displays a limited viewpoint from the main character, Marina. Although it seems to open with a more sweeping view, under closure scrutiny, there is nothing in that opening few sentences that Marina would not know. She could know, from receiving the letter, what it looked like, and through the origin and destination of the letter, where it would have passed. We can even believe that she can see Mr. Fox falter at the door at her smile.
third person omniscient POV
“Omniscient” means all-knowing. Therefore, third person omniscient is a point of view told from the he/she viewpoint where the narrator is probably not the main character, but a being above all characters. (It would be possible for a character to be all-knowing, but probably in a Sci-Fi or Fantasy novel. In most third person omniscient cases, the narrator is not going to be the main character.) As such, this all-knowing narrator can know everything about everyone and everything. Thoughts from multiple characters can be shown (not all at once, or that is confusing), what many characters know can be shared, and this can create a sense of irony or even suspense.
The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette. Annette worked in Paris for the Duke and Duchess de Guiche, and it did not escape the Duke’s notice that someone extraordinary was polishing the pewter. The Duke’s notice did not escape the notice of the Duchess either, who was not very beautiful and not very rich, but plenty smart. The Duchess set about studying Annette and shortly found her adversary’s tragic flaw.
–The Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern
Here is a more modern day example of a third person omniscient POV (which can be difficult to find). This POV is popular in classics, and also fairy tales, such as this modern day one. These first lines to The Princess Bride display the sweeping knowledge of a narrator beyond Buttercup or Wesley or any other major character. This is an all-knowing narrator who can say, with certainty, who the “most beautiful woman in the world” is at any given time. Note also that we are given personal information about at least two characters in this small paragraph: The Duke and the Duchess.
The Pros and Cons
Basically, you have four choices. But very few authors use second person POV, and even fewer use it well. First person POV has become quite popular–but it can be a challenging POV to use as well. Third person omniscient POV is most often the voice of classic literature. Which leaves us with third person limited POV: the safest, and often least obtrusive voice.
But I’m a list person, so lets go through one by one and establish each one’s pros and cons.
First Person POV
- offers an intimate relationship between the reader and narrator
- often offers a strong character voice
- use of “I” can be repetitive
- limited viewpoint doesn’t allow for much interpretation of other characters unless you use a second POV character
- it can be difficult to put your character into every scene needed to develop subplots or even the plot
- if you use multiple POVs, it can be difficult to make each voice distinct enough to indicate a shift in viewpoint characters
Second Person POV
- if used correctly, can be enormously effective in putting you in the character’s head
- creates great intimacy between narrator and reader, perhaps the most powerful intimacy of all
- can create urgency
- most often tends to be jarring to the reader, especially if the reader has a difficult time connecting with the narrator
- can distract from the reader’s escape into another character’s head by use of “you” and putting the reader too much into the narrative
- like in first person, it can be very easy to overuse the pronoun “you”
- similar to first and third person limited, the reader is confined to one narrow viewpoint
Third Person Limited POV
- most common and easiest to accomplish for a beginning reader
- limited viewpoint creates intimacy with the reader, similar to first person POV
- doesn’t allow for knowledge outside of the narrator to be known
- can be too easy and far too tempting for the author to inject their own commentary with something known as “authorial intrusion”
- can be very easy to slip up and reveal something the viewpoint character wouldn’t know
Third Person Omniscient POV
- can allow for many subplots
- can be kept intimate by offering the character’s thoughts
- easy to shift viewpoints and maintain many viewpoint characters
- can be distant and keep the reader from getting involved
- can make a reader dizzy with the head-hopping that tends to occur with many viewpoint changes
So which POV is right for you?
This is a question that only you can answer. Look at the story you want to tell, and whether you can tell it from one point of view or if you need many. With that in mind, I’ve developed a list of questions to ask myself when considering POV.
- Can one character be present at all the necessary scenes in order to tell the reader the necessary information for the story? Or do I need many characters to do so?
- Do I want to tell an intimate, narrow storyline that mainly affects my one viewpoint character? Or do I want to tell an overarching story that affects many people, possibly a nation or the world?
- What viewpoint will offer the most poignant storyline?
- What viewpoint(s) will create the most suspense?
- Is this viewpoint unique or somehow special so that the reader connects with the narrator and the book stands out?