This post was originally published on Write Anything, October 21, 2008.
“The choice of the point(s) of view from which the story is told is arguably the most important single decision that the novelist has to make, for it fundamentally affects the way readers will respond, emotionally and morally, to the fictional characters and their actions.” David Lodge
Let’s talk a little bit about point of view.
When I first became interested in writing, point of view confused me.
First of all, I couldn’t keep them straight. I think the writing teachers I had back in school took great delight in watching our faces contort into all sorts of bewildered masks as they stood in front of the class and talked about the various points of views and when you should, or should not use them.
And if you learned NOTHING else from them, you did not, under any circumstances, combine them in the same story!
*insert horrified gasp*
That point was pounded so much into my brain I actually graduated from college with a lop-sided skull.
Now, you’re lucky if you read a story, any story and from any genre, that doesn’t have at least two different points of view in them. And in some stories, points of view change so fast that it leaves readers scratching their heads trying to figure out 1). which character they’re supposed to be following and 2). exactly whose story is it, anyway?
Even though I understand the difference between the points of view now, I still hesitate over which POV I should write my stories from, because a lot of times, picking the right point of view can make, or break, your story.
But first things first – let’s define the various points of view:
First-Person Singular POV
The most natural POV is the first-person singular, since all stories and trials originate with someone, an “I,” witnessing what happens.
The first person narrator can tell a story with herself as a central character or she can be one of the minor characters. Or she can tell somebody else’s story, barely mentioning herself except to show where the information comes from.
First-Person Multiple POV
You use several first-person narrators and alternate among them, usually beginning a new chapter with each change of narrator. This strategy offers a diversity of voices, viewpoints and ways of thinking without the arrogance of the omniscient sound.
Some pros and cons for First-Person POV:
Pro: It’s technically the least ambiguous. Readers always know who is seeing and experiencing the story. It’s subjective. You’re a bit more free with the voice – using slang, bad grammar, etc. And first person offers smooth access to a character’s thoughts. (You don’t have to worry about awkward switches in pronouns – which CAN get tedious).
Cons: We can’t take an outside look at our POV character. Sure, you could use a mirror, but that’s been overdone and is in fact, cliche – avoid that technique if at all possible. In a suspense story, it’s pretty much a given that an “I” character will survive – kill off your “I” character and the story dies with him/her. And it’s hard to create a compelling new voice for each story.
Third-Person Omniscient POV
In this POV, which is used infrequently in contemporary writing, the author knows everything about all the characters, places and events involved. The reader observes from many angles. The “camera” is conveniently set wherever the action is, akin to television coverage of a basketball game.
Third-Person Limited POV
This POV – and its variants – is the most common one used. There are at least three kinds of third-person limited POVs:
Third-person subjective POV – resembles first-person POV except it’s usually done in standard English rather than in the character’s voice.
Third-person objective POV – You don’t reveal the viewer – the way you don’t see the person holding a camcorder.
Third-person limited omniscient POV – this combines the objective and the subjective approaches.
Third-Person Multiple POV – this sounds like omniscient POV, and the difference may be subtle, but it’s best to see it as a series of third-person limted POVs minus authorial intrusions.
Objective POV (or theatrical POV) – this perspective is blurred under the third-person objective POV, but we should distinguish an objective POV, which does not focus on one person, from the limited objective POV.
The author makes believe that he is talking to someone, describing what the person addressed is doing. But the “you” is not the reader, though sometimes it’s hard to get rid of the impression that the author is addressing you directly. This POV is the least popular as it puts the readers on the defensive, most people do not like to be told how to think or what they are to do, even in stories.
(Source: Josip Novakovich, Fiction Writer’s Workshop)
There are a few more, but in essence, they are a combination of the ones listed above.
I think you get the point (of view – haha).
Here are a few POV exercises to try:
1. Take a piece of your own writing and rewrite it in
(a) a different viewpoint
(b) a different tense (changing from present to past, for example).
2. Take a passage from a favorite novel and rewrite it, changing viewpoint and tense. How does that change the story? Does it read better?
3. Relate one of the following scenes in 300 words, first from one viewpoint, and then from another:
The first day of school. A young teacher, fresh from college, faces his/her first class. (The viewpoint of the teacher, and then one of the pupils).
There has been a road crash. (Viewpoint of a by-stander, and then the crash victim).
A young woman helps an old blind man across the road. (Viewpoint of the woman, and then the man).
(Source of exercises: Nigel Watts, Writing a Novel)
It may take some time to settle on a particular POV for your story, but a POV that works for the story will make it better and more interesting to readers.
One word of caution: switching POVs often irritates readers and certainly most editors, unless you establish the pattern early in the story, writers should respect POV. Keep your readers inside one character head at a time and if you switch, make sure the switch is obvious by either starting a new chapter from another POV, or even a new paragraph – never in the same sentence.
Finding the best POV for your story is difficult and may take some experimenting. The only rule about POV is that there is no rule. If a particular technique works, use it. And if your story is not working with your current POV, rewrite it and change the POV and see what happens.