Point of View


There are two levels of point-of-view to consider when writing a story. In the larger sense, there is the perspective of the narrator. On the scene level, you should consider the perspectives of individual characters.

Narrative Points of View

Narration is said to be in first, second, or third person. Any text is writing about me, you, or they. Some genres dictate the perspective: autobiographies are always about “me” and user’s manuals state what “you” should do. Most fiction works are in third person, though there are some genres of fiction that work well from a first-person perspective. There have been successful second-person works of fiction, which prove that nothing is impossible for a good writer.

First Person

When a narrator is part of the action, the story is told from a first-person perspective. It is easy to recognize most stories told in first person: “I” and “me” appear within the narrative passages.

While this can be a useful narrative structure, adopting the first-person perspective means a good author does not drift into the minds of other characters. You are limited to what the narrator could believably experience for narrative passages. With rare exceptions, a first-person narrator cannot read the thoughts of other characters, so any passages about emotions or motives of others must rely on interpretation.

Watching her from across the room, I could sense her disappointment. She looked at every woman’s gown and then at her own. Most of the time, though, she simply looked at the floor.

In the above passage, the narrator is inferring how the woman at the ball feels. The reader must decide if the narrator knows this woman well enough to offer an accurate assessment of the situation. In most cases, we assume a first-person narrator is honest. This narrative tradition leads most readers to implicitly trust a narrator. A more curious twist is when a narrator is proven to have lied throughout the text, only to be revealed as deceitful at the end of the story.

Crime stories, especially the hard-boiled detective variety, have a tradition of first-person narrative. In these stories the narrative style is not conversational; the narrator is an exaggerated, metaphor-laden storyteller. His (rarely her) flaws are also on open display within the narration.

Any autobiographical work must, by definition, be composed in the first person. Most creative non-fiction works are composed in the first-person, though there are exceptions to this.

Third Person

The third-person narrator occupies an omniscient, all-knowing position while he or she is not part of the story. This “omniscient narrator” is the traditional perspective for most forms of writing, from textbooks to novels.

Authors have argued whether it is best to describe only the external actions of characters when writing in the third person or if descriptions can include thoughts of characters. Of course, omniscience technically has no limits, but withholding the exact thoughts of characters also makes the discovery of motivations more interesting.

She was angry. Very angry.

versus:

She slammed the door and stomped down the hallway.

Second Person

Writing anything other than a user’s manual in second person might seem impossible, but there have been novels written entirely about “you.” It seems like an interesting challenge, but the reality is that very few stories are better told to “you” than by “me” or about “them.”

I suppose you thought it was the perfect crime. You were wrong, or you wouldn’t be sitting across from me right now.

Characters and Point of View

Once the narrative point of view is established, there are further issues of point of view at the character level. Many inexperienced writers make the mistake of overlooking point of view issues. As with any issues of writing, an author needs to consider what choices best serve the story and the readers.

Dominant Character

Even in a third-person narrative, there is a dominant character in every scene. If an omniscient narrator is going to reveal the thoughts of characters, most writers choose a single character to reveal to readers. This may not be the same character in every chapter or even in every scene within a chapter.

The reason to allow one character to dominate the point of view is that readers seem to think that the character whose thoughts are mentioned is, in effect, the narrator of the scene. To move from one narrator to another within the same scene is jarring. There are some writers who do manage to switch points of view within a scene, but it is the rare author able to do so without creating a mess.

Narrative POV

A handful of books feature multiple first-person narrators. This can be very effective when multiple points of view are considered “honest” by readers. A single event, presented from multiple perspectives can add to the tension in a plot, making revelations more interesting to readers.

Narrators are always characters, even in the third person. Beyond issues of style, this personality helps determine what the narrator notices in a scene. A narrator might be very detailed oriented, especially in a historical novel, and comment on every minute feature of a scene. At the other extreme, many crime stories feature narrators more interested in human motives than what furniture is in a room — unless the furnishings are deadly.



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Writer: C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 30-Nov-2013
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach