Notes for Novelists: Points of View

Point of view is the character whose eyes are observing what is happening.

novel writing: openings Partly this is convention (what readers expect) and partly commonsense (you can't portray what your point of view can't observe). You have a choice of first, second or third person, and the pros and cons of each are easily grasped:

Third Person Narrative

Narrative in the third person is told as though someone were recounting it, facing an audience. In the twentieth century, this point of view is often limited to what one person could theoretically see, though that view may include outward aspects of personality the characters are not aware of. In previous centuries, the 'third person omniscient' perspective was more popular, and here the storyteller held all the cards, including what the characters thought, felt or planned to do. An intermediate point of view is the 'third person objective', which allows the novelist to present all the characters, wherever they may be, but not to know their inner thoughts: the 'fly on the wall' approach. Other variations are possible: readers may be given access to the inner motivations of some characters but not to others, leaving those unknown quantities as intriguing or threatening aspects of the landscape. The third person narrative is the most flexible point of view but generally places some distance between reader and character. Even if inner motivations are given readers, it is difficult to identify fully with a long cast of characters, however engagingly drawn.

Second Person Narrative

The second person, where the reader is addressed as 'you' throughout, is difficult to manage, though experimental fiction sometimes takes the reader by the hand, like a Virgil guiding Dante through a strange and forbidding world. The present tense is more often used, and that separation between reader and narrator can operate as the tension in good dialogue.

First Person Narrative

The first person point of view sacrifices omniscience for a greater intimacy with one character: the readers see the world through his or her eyes, feel as that person feels, and share his or her motivations and dreams. That character is commonly the protagonist, but may be a close friend or wise elder. The author speaks through the narrator, which brings intensity but also the danger of losing what novels need in plot, dialogue, balance and overall shape. Occasionally, the narrator may directly address the reader, but this breaks the tacit understanding, and gives a distance or unreality to events: it is rarely done in modern fiction. In autobiographical fiction, the narrator is clearly the author, and may or may not be reliable.

Further Points

Controlling the point of view is essential for the intensity of a story, but the matter can be subtler than the above suggests. The third person is much used for action novels and commercial fiction, as the narrator can go anywhere, tightening the subplots, and adding to the suspense as characters come up against obstacles the reader is expecting. The difficulty is keeping the reader engaged with the characters, not as devices of plot but as breathing people whose aims readers sympathize with. What they experience, even simple observations, has to be real and important to them, and not third person observations from a neutral perspective.

It is possible to mix first-person points of view, but this is rarely successful within a scene, and even changes between chapters must have some point if readers are not to become confused. Naturally, since the narrator has clearly survived, the first person point of view is rarely used for thrillers, and there are also problems with the narrator's ego. If he comes over as too introspective he may seem weak, and so forfeit the reader's interest. If, on the other hand, he continually kicks his way through life, or presents his views too strongly, he may come over as a braggart, and be equally a turn off. It's usually better for readers to build their own sense of character from the varied response of others in the novel, having the narrator's self-perspective recast by what others say to or of him. More depth is created this way, though the narrator is not then entirely reliable.

Resources

What Point of View? Brief Absolute Write article.

Point of view (literature). Detailed Wikipedia article.

The Development of Point of View. Brief, but useful examples.

Critic's Notebook: The Limits of a Novel's Point of View. NYT article: influence of cinema and modernism.

Bakhtin's theory of heteroglossia and linguistic dialogism. TextEtc.

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