VIEWPOINT / POINT OF VIEW
Whose skin am I in? Dwight Swain
When we first sit down to write our story, we seldom ask ourselves, "who is my narrator, and how does s/he relay the story to my readers?" And that is okay - the most important part of writing is ... well ... writing! But once that story is down on paper and we start the revision process, we might see that there is something wrong, but we can't put our arms around what exactly that "wrong" thing is. There can be a variety of answers to that question, and one of them is how we pick our narrator (viewpoint) and how that narrator shares our story (point of view).
Many authors will look at these two techniques as the same thing, but they are definitely not the same. Although they are sutured to one another, they are not the same and the author needs to understand the difference in order to make the proper adjustments and get the story on the right road. So, let's talk about these two extremely important techniques.
The viewpoint selected will determine the distance between the reader and the narrator of events in the story, i.e., how intimate and involved the reader will become with the characters in the story. The successful author wants his reader to experience the story as a chosen narrator experiences it. The writer will determine one of two viewpoints (narrators) through which to relate the story. Easily one of the most important decisions the writer will make is to choose his narrator wisely. Choice will determine whether the story is told or shown.
The Author as Storyteller:
In this viewpoint, the reader does not climb into the mind of a character but rather learns of the story as the author relays it. The reader does not develop any relationship with the character(s). The story is told in the distant voice of thought and deliberation, it calls upon the reader to have an intellectual, contemplative reaction to the story. Through the author, the reader hovers over the story and follows the character(s) around observing them, while the author “reports” what is happening. Think of yourself as sitting around a campfire and listening to someone tell a story. The revelation can become pontificating in tone; this element may focus on the author’s passions/theme. This format was popular prior to the early/mid-twentieth century.
The Author-as-storyteller viewpoint is generally objective, remote writing and slow reading, and tends to be telling rather than showing in form. As Peter Rubie points out in The Elements of Storytelling (Wiley Press, 1999, p. 58), “Readers usually don’t respond well to an author acting as an interpreter of the action because it intrudes and disturbs the fictive dream taking shape.”
This is not to say that successful stories have not been written using this viewpoint. It should be noted that these stories are often written with lengthy narratives. The author-as-storyteller is all-knowing because he knows how things are going to turn out.
Nonfiction such as business writing, biographic, historic, or academic, is successfully written in author viewpoint. It is factual and does not require the reader to participate or become involved.
The Character(s) as Storyteller:
This is when one or more of the characters relate the story through their actions and thoughts. The reader becomes familiar with the character(s) through their own eyes. The reader may become one or more of the characters and experience the story as it unfolds, or may ride on the character’s shoulder and go along for the ride: i.e., the author shows the story through the mind of one or more characters.
Choosing the character as the narrator rather than the author brings the reader into that close relationship with the character(s). A close voice is the voice of the character(s) as they go through the experience and react to the events laid out before them. This character-as-storyteller has no idea of how things are going to turn out. The close voice is the voice of action. In order for the reader to react emotionally to the story, the author must go with the close voice. Close is showing, it is the voice of the character(s).
When choosing to use a character(s) as the narrator, there is another decision the author needs to make—one, or more than one, character? One viewpoint character for the entire story allows the reader to see the story through only one set of eyes, while multiple viewpoint characters give the reader the freedom to get into many heads, observe multiple perspectives, sense how other characters think. Multiple viewpoint characters also provide the author with the opportunity to further develop characters’ appearances as seen by others as well as provide an opportunity for more story details
Rule of Thumb:
When determining to use a character as narrator, the author should keep it simple. Select the clearest, least noticeable technique that will tell the story and carry the thesis/theme to the reader. As early as possible, the reader should look at the story through a particular person’s eyes, allowing the reader to become that person.
Point of View (POV)
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
This section will focus primarily on point of view (POV) as it relates to character viewpoint, not author viewpoint, as this is how most contemporary fiction is written.
Once it has been determined that the viewpoint will be the character’s (not the author’s), the author will then determine the point of view (POV) from which a story is told. This is arguably one of the most important decisions an author can make. POV should be transparent to the reader; no author wants his reader to finish the first page of a story and say, “Aha! A third person Omniscient story!”
Before an author determines POV, he should determine the relationships between the primary elements for the story—Character, Setting, Situation, or Theme. This decision will help determine an appropriate POV for the story. In particular, point of view is equal in importance to characterization. They are inextricably intertwined and writing any form of fiction—novel, short story, novella—will be problematic if the author does not understand the concept of point of view as it relates to these primary elements.
Character: Every scene in a story places emphasis on a particular character who is the most important in the scene. This may be the protagonist or antagonist, or some other major character. The point of view selected by the author will determine where and how this character comes to life in that scene.
Situation: The author must determine at what point the story starts and who is involved in that situation going forward. The POV character should have a large stake in the outcome of the story/scene.
Setting: The author will then decide which character(s) will be present during crucial scenes. Since the reader sees the action through the POV character’s eyes, the author will pick the character who is the most logical one to represent the setting to the reader.
Theme: Because readers identify with the point of view from which the story is told, whom the author chooses to tell that story will determine how its theme is delivered.
Point of view is the perspective from which a narrative is presented and the tense used to present the narrative. Think of the reader as a little person who rides inside the head of one of the characters. When inside a given head, the reader can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste everything that particular character is experiencing, and he or she can also read the thoughts of that one character.
Rule of Thumb:
Only one POV should be used in any scene and/or chapter. The author should avoid too many POV characters, as this can be confusing to the reader. Limited POV restricts extraneous material that can be distracting. POV should be transparent to the reader; she should experience her relationship with the character(s). POV is important to developing characters because it gives the reader insight into characterization.
The author has several options when choosing which POV to use: first, second, or third.
This is the “I” point of view. This is a very emotional point of view; it is the most intimate experience readers can have with a character. The first person point of view permits the author to tell the story from the perspective of any character in the story, major or minor. Before selecting first person POV, the author should carefully review his story and be certain that he has selected the proper person to carry his message. It’s important to consider how the story will affect the reader when making that decision. First person narrators are frequently the protagonist (the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca) but can be a close confidante (Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh) or a secondary character (The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald). The first person narrator can be the antagonist, although this is seldom done, (Agatha Christie—The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). The first person narrator can never be boring or the story will be boring. The narrator cannot tell the reader about his exploits; the reader must experience them as if they are happening to her.
First person can be difficult to write because the author cannot switch into another character’s mind, and therefore everything about the story is seen through only one person’s eyes. Actions and events outside of the first person’s experience must be related to that character through some other means—gossip, TV, radio, newspaper, and party conversations. The reader knows only how one character feels, what one character knows. All other characters and perceptions are filtered through dialogue. The first person narrator must have a reason for telling the story. He must have a vested interest in the story, a desire or need to share it with the reader.
The reader becomes privy to all thoughts, feelings, and emotions of only one character when reading in the first person. A reason to select first person is to give the reader the sense of experiencing everything through the narrator’s perceptions. The first person narrator is one who wears his heart on his sleeve. It feels natural and real to a reader because she is accustomed to hearing thoughts inside of her head and experiencing events happening to her. First person point of view puts the reader close to the action; as the narrator participates firsthand in the action of the story, the reader does as well. When reading stories in the first person, the reader must realize that what the narrator is recounting might not be the objective truth. If the author is writing in first person he is committing to one and only one character. First person puts the reader directly into the story, and she knows only what that character knows. The reader benefits from this point of view because the story lands a stronger punch than if the author had chosen third person. [It should be noted that many authors today write in the first person pov and use more than one character. In other words, one chapter in one character's pov, the second in another character's pov, and back and forth. I don't recommend this, as it can be confusing to the reader. Use third person pov if that is the case.]
Only those feelings, observations, and reactions that the narrator or character experiences or learns can appear in the story. The narrator can tell the reader only what the “I” character knows. If to heighten suspense, the author wants his readers to know that someone is stalking his narrating character, he will have to go to great pains to give the narrator some clues—sounds in the night, a glimpse of a shadow in the mirror, a car trailing the first person character, etc. The first person narrator must be present in all scenes, so the author must work him into the action in order to observe everything that happens. The first person narrator is telling a story that has happened in the past, so the reader automatically knows that the narrator, regardless of what crisis the author throws in his path, has lived to tell the tale and cannot die, but he can, and should, experience terrible, irrevocable situations throughout the telling of the story. The first person story should not be told using eccentric actions or heavily accented dialogue. Especially in longer fiction, when the reader follows the first person throughout the entire story, eccentricities or accented dialogue can be distracting. When using first person, the writer should not….SHOULD not… change point of view to third person, at ANY point in the story. [NOTE: this tactic is taken more and more in current novels, but it is distracting and disrupts the relationship the reader has established with that first person character.]
This is the “you” point of view. The second person POV is you. It is very experimental and very rarely is any story written from a second person point of view. The reader is very aware of the technique and this takes attention away from the story itself. You, the reader, are doing everything; there is no relationship with any of the characters. The theory is that it makes the story much more in the present than the other POVs do. Second person is difficult to sustain for any length. If the author’s goal is to keep the reader’s attention in a strong emotional state, this can be accomplished more easily and with greater effect by using the third person, present tense. Second person narrative leaves little room for “showing” the story; it is more often “telling” and therefore runs the risk of being boring. When done in a long piece of writing, second person can be exhausting to read.
It should be noted that the second person point of view has been used successfully, such as with Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1984).
More recently, the October 14, 2014 issue of The Atlantic presents a short story, “The Rhett Butlers” by Katherine Heiny. She tells the story of a seventeen-year-old high school student who becomes involved with a 40-something married teacher and tells it in the second person.
In both cases, the approach to storytelling is rich in the words that the author chooses and the manner in which s/he presents them. Successfully using the second person POV cannot be achieved by most inexperienced writers, but it should not be discounted entirely either.
This is the “he/she/they” point of view. Third person POV can appear in many forms, two of which are discussed below—the Limited or Subjective, and the Omniscient or Objective.
Third person POV is much more versatile than first person. It is not limited to one narrator character. The author can select one character to tell the story or change characters for different viewpoints. He can also write a story where the narrator can see all of the action, whereas first person shows information only as the narrator character experiences it. Third person POV evokes emotion, it is subjective and real, the reader senses the character’s flaws and is always involved in the action. Third person narration allows for viewpoint shifts without disturbing the flow of the story whereas first person, gives immediacy to a story.
Third person limited or subjective (TPL): Third person is generally presented in a “limited or subjective” format but may also be written in the omniscient POV. TPL is the dominant narrative voice in American fiction today. TPL point of view is easy to write and readily accepted by today’s readers. But what does limited or subjective mean? It means that each self-contained scene follows the viewpoint of one specific character.
In the third person viewpoint, the story is told almost exclusively through the eyes of the main character or one of the major characters. One of the biggest difficulties for beginning writers is staying in one POV. It’s all too easy to slip into the omniscient viewpoint without realizing it. Changing from a limited to an omniscient POV may be jarring to the reader.
By using third person limited, the author is committed to staying in one person’s head through the whole piece (the “piece” being a scene, a chapter, or the entire work). TPL narrative can move from one viewpoint character to another from time to time, but change requires clear transitional breaks such as chapter breaks or scene breaks (characters such as *** or ###, ellipses, line spacing, etc.). Although TPL may be shared by more than one character in a book, that character should remain in control during the entire scene, chapter, or book.
Third person omniscient or objective (TPO): The omniscient narrator is unseen and knows what all the characters are thinking (Hall, 1989, p. 39). Through this POV, the reader will know more about the facts of the story than any one character knows. This viewpoint gives the writer the most range and freedom.
An omniscient narrator has unlimited access to every character’s thoughts and actions—past, present and future, allowing the reader to jump into the heads of multiple characters in every scene. The TPO narrator can move quickly through space, providing insight into numerous characters, all within one scene. It has some drawbacks, though. It takes effort and is disorienting for the reader to move rapidly out of one head and into another. The reader may lose track of the action or, worse still, whom they are supposed to identify with. The omniscient point of view also makes it difficult to portray emotions effectively. The reader forms little or no emotional attachment to either the story or the characters.
The all-knowing, all-seeing point of view is almost always that of the author-as-storyteller. Only the author knows all, sees all, and understands all. Only the author can tell what each character thinks, knows, and feels. The reader cannot interpret a character’s thoughts but must accept what is presented. This style is normally one of control, of deliberation, or preciseness. It has the freedom to move anywhere, at any time, and is not restricted in any way. The TPO narrator visits only briefly in the minds of the characters.
Although at first glance, the omniscient narration might seem an ideal way to involve the reader in every aspect of the story, it actually ends up making the reader feel unconnected to all the characters and to the story. The omniscient author’s voice comments and describes events objectively but does not participate in them. For writing a big book, especially historical sagas, this viewpoint works well if there are many characters and sub-stories. This is a point of view that is good for covering great spans of time and space. TPO can fill in background information; it can reveal more about the story and characters in less time than it takes the TPL narrator because information is provided quickly and in snippets.
The all-knowing third person narrator can provide the details of the world of the characters, beyond the capabilities of the characters. Omniscient narration can be the kiss of death in various genres, such as mystery, where the reader must be kept ignorant of what the various suspects are thinking, or else it will be obvious which one is guilty. Omniscient POV allows the author-storyteller to guide or control the reader’s understanding of characters and the significance of their story, and the reader will accept the story and believe everything as told. This type of narrator may be either intrusive (commenting and evaluating throughout the story), or not intrusive (describing without much commentary), as the author chooses. With the TPO point of view, the author tells what happens without stating more than can be inferred from the story’s action and dialogue. The author-as-storyteller discloses little about what the characters think or feel; the author-as-storyteller remains a detached observer, not present, but standing outside of all activity and reporting what is happening to the reader. The omniscient voice tends to be passive and objective (removed), always apart from the action. TPO is often described as a camera-like approach. In omniscient viewpoint, the author is god-like and portrays everybody’s thoughts and feelings. The author manipulates what he wants the reader to know.
Point of View: Tense
An important aspect of point of view is that of tense, and this is one of the conscious decisions an author must make regarding the point of view he selects for his story.
Past Tense: The usual tense for fiction is past tense, for a lot of reasons, the most common being that it is what the audience expects. Past tense is the conventional choice; it provides transparency to the reader. Even though past tense tells the story what “has already happened,” it is a familiar format, and the reader lives the story as it is being told, not focusing on it being past tense.
Present Tense: The author would use present tense in his story when the action is happening as the story unfolds. Present tense displays conflict and tension. This is often seen in academic/literary genre. Present tense tied to first person narrative carries with it great emotion.
Future Tense: This is very experimental and could be an interesting experiment, probably more geared to Science Fiction. It could be jarring to the normal reader, especially in the hands of the inexperienced writer.
Rules of Thumb:
• Hook the reader with point of view immediately and be consistent.
• The author’s writing style should be transparent to the reader. When determining viewpoint: keep it simple.
• Determine what the story is about (theme) and which viewpoint will best carry that theme to the reader.
• Choose the viewpoint character with care:
1. As early as possible the author should let the reader see the story through a particular person’s eyes—the reader should become that person. The reader should live through the story as a chosen character experiences it. While most stories settle on the hero to be the narrator, the choice for narrator does not have to be the protagonist or antagonist. Secondary characters frequently make good POV characters.
2. Keep it simple, especially when working on the first draft. For any given scene, simply ask: which vantage point offers the most exciting, the most dramatic, and the most thrilling ride? That’s the head the reader should be in. Do not get into more than one character per scene.
3. How many narrators? The author must be careful regarding the number of narrators selected in order to not confuse the reader. The author is not tied into only one character in the third person, but he should not overload the reader. The author may need to revisit the story if there are too many narrators. The author is telling only one primary story and if he uses a multitude of characters to narrate, they could begin to run away with the story if not carefully controlled.
4. If using more than one character to relate events in various scenes/chapters, the author should look closely at these scenes/chapters to determine which character can best deliver the message and follow the entire scene through only his or her eyes.
5. Maintain focus. If during the editing process, the author feels the story has an unfocused air, or the main character comes across more like a minor one, then the author should first look for accidental shifts in viewpoint before changing anything else. (Does the narrator relate to the situation?)