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Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

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Wanna see something scary?

Take a look at a few of the terms floating around in creative writing handbooks to explain Point of View: viewpoint character, focus character, referential and non-referential narrative, psycho-narration, subjective narration, overt or covert narration, anonymous narration from multiple character Point of View, zero focalization, implied or self-effaced author.

It’s enough to make you shudder. It’s no wonder that many writers are confused about Point of View, especially in fiction.

It doesn’t help to turn to literary criticism either. Some critics argue, for example, that every story is told by a narrator, even fairy tales and folktales which start with “once upon a time.”

Though it’s true that the technical definition of the term narrator is “one who tells a story” and the author is, indeed, the one telling the story, popular and traditional usage limits the term narrator to an “I” or “we” in the story, whether as an active participant, like Huck in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, or as an observer, like Nick in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Literary critics claim that “third-person narrators” stand completely outside the story they’re telling, speaking of the participants within the story in the grammatical third person, using he, she, it, they.

As if that weren’t confusing enough to someone trying to understand literary Point of View, some critics complicate the situation even further by presenting terms like “heterodiegetic narrator” and “homodiegetic narrator,” as Gérard Genette did in Narrative Discourse and Narrative Discourse Revisited. Knowing that those terms were based on Plato’s terms for authorial discourse (diegesis), which is differentiated from the imitated speech of a character (mimesis), doesn’t make the terms any easier to understand or remember. And it certainly doesn’t help writers understand or master Point of View.

So, despite rhetorician and critic Wayne C. Booth’s complaint in Rhetoric of Fiction that there are not enough divisions or distinctions to Point of View, most writers still understand the more limited terms that many of us grew up with.

• First person Point of View, with an “I” or a “we” telling the story;
• Third person Unlimited, also known as the omniscient Point of View since the author is considered God-like, written in grammatical third person: he, she, it, they;
• Third person limited, also called the fly-on-the-wall or the camera Point of View, in grammatical third person; and
• Second person Point of View, addressing a “you,” which is sometimes the reader himself.

Instead of adding any more divisions or complicated terms to the study of Point of View, this is a simplification or streamlined version of the few Points of View that there actually are. This is not an analysis of an author’s motive behind his choice of Point of View, nor judgment on the quality of any individual Point of View. It is simply some practical advice for writers on understanding Point of View.

Why Point of View is Important to Fiction Writers

Most nonfiction writing does not trouble itself with Point of View. Mostly, these works are written in the voices of their authors or in Unlimited Point of View, where the author provides all the information his readers may need.

Poetry concerns itself with Point of View (and voice), most often in dramatic monologues, like T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Journey of the Magi,” or like Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” in which the voice of the First Person narrator is so distinctive that it develops his character.

In fiction, however, Point of View is vitally important. It can completely alter the reader’s experience of the characters and events that take place. Examine these classic opening lines.

• All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy)
• You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter. (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain)
• Dear Father and Mother: I have great trouble, and some comfort, to acquaint you with. (Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson)
• Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. (Middlemarch by George Eliot)
• Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a landowner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place. (The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
• I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. (Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton)

Imagine, for a moment, these lines written from a different Point of View. Change the opening of Eliot’s Middlemarch from Unlimited to First person: “I have that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” What a different opinion we have of Miss Dorothea Brooke if it is her voice rather than an omniscient author’s which describes her beauty.

Likewise, changing Twain’s Huckleberry Finn from First person completely eliminates the distinct and unique voice of his narrator-protagonist.

Change the Point of View of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov or Wharton’s Ethan Frome, and we lose the delicious thrill and intimacy of hearing a neighbor, friend, or family member relate someone else’s secret and tragic history.

It is not an exaggeration to say that a novel is its Point of View, for Point of View determines the readers’ response, controls the readers’ sympathy or empathy for the characters, and engages or distances the readers’ emotional involvement in the fictional world.

Without Point of View we lose the rich texture and sheen of fiction’s fabric. Without Point of View, we do not have engaging, disturbing, or memorable fiction. In novels, Point of View is even more important than it is in short stories and novellas, if only because of the more extensive world the author is creating.

Point of view can help you create your fictional world more realistically and make your characters more alive for your audience, so it is essential to understand and master Point of View.

And although this post concentrates on Point of View in fiction, literary Point of View applies to all types of writing, from poetry to non-fiction, so these definitions, explanations, etc apply to Point of View in writing, no matter the genre.

What Point of View is Not

Point of view is not determined by the main character, whether you call him protagonist, antagonist, viewpoint character, focal character, or implied author. Point of view is not determined by any characters, no matter which of them the novel focuses on.

Point of view is not determined by setting, time period, or atmosphere, nor is it determined by whether or not the author’s personal beliefs in any way correspond with those expressed in the novel (by characters in thoughts, monologues, or dialogue, or by an omniscient voice in Unlimited Point of View).

Point of view is not regulated by whether the characters are speaking to themselves, to some specific listener, or to a more nebulous and distant audience.

It is not based on a narrator’s reliability or unreliability, participation in or observation of the events related.

Point of view is not themes, symbolism, or political agendas disguised as fiction. Point of view is not determined by whether the author shows or tells, by whether the characters are round, flat, evolving, or static.

Point of view is not determined by the novel’s genre, be it fantasy, science fiction, mystery, suspense, romance, western, or literary fiction. All genres have examples of novels written in various points of view.

What is Point of View?

Most simply stated, literary Point of View is how the novel is written. That’s all there is to it. How the book is written.

How many Points of View are There?

How many points of view are there? For simplicity’s sake, we are going to concentrate on the traditional divisions (presented in order of difficulty of mastery) with a few distinctions for clarification:

Unlimited

First Person

Inner Limited

Second Person

Outer Limited

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Points of View, Defined
Presented in order of difficulty of Mastery

Unlimited:

If the author uses he, she, it, or they, and tells the reader everything in every character’s head and heart, then it’s written in Unlimited Point of View, which has also been called the omniscient Point of View, since the author has been likened to an all-knowing God in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The author reveal every character’s thoughts, feelings, motivations, and actions. This is the only Point of View which is not limited in some fashion, hence its name.

First Person:

If there’s an “I” or a “we” telling the story, then a narrator is present, and the book is written in First person Point of View. The narrator may be reliable or unreliable, but in either case, the events in the novel are limited to what the narrator (singular I, or plural we) can observe or hear, as well as to the narrator’s own psychological and emotional life. No other characters’ feelings, thoughts, or motivations can be revealed unless the characters’ themselves make them known, in some way, to the First person narrator.

Inner Limited:

If the author shows the thoughts and feelings of one character as if he were in that character’s head, though still writing in the grammatical third person, using he, she, or it to refer to the character whose thoughts and feelings he’s revealing, and presents only the external observations of the other characters, as James Joyce and Henry James often do, then the Point of View is Inner Limited. This Point of View is exactly like First person in all its limitations but written in the grammatical third person. Though written in the grammatical third person (he, she, it, they) rather than in First person (I, we), it is still limited to the inner life of one character.

Second Person:

If someone is directly addressed as “you” (and not in dialogue), then Second person Point of View is being used. This directly addressed “you” may be the readers themselves; humanity in general; other actual or implied characters in the novel; or specific historical, political, or otherwise famous people outside the novel who are not the readers. But whomever the you represents, the reader must understand to whom the author is referring when using the direct address you.

Outer Limited:

If the author uses the grammatical third person but does not present an Unlimited view of the characters, choosing instead to show only the external, observable behaviors and dialogue of all of his characters, for example, as Ernest Hemingway often does and Alain Robbe-Grillet virtually always does, then the Point of View is Outer Limited. This is also known as the fly-on-the-wall or the camera Point of View since it never presents characters’ interior, psychological, or emotional lives. It is limited to the outer world of the characters. This is the most difficult of all the Points of View to master as the author must attempt (and appear) to remain completely objective, yet every word choice an author makes is subjective. This Point of View, because it must always remain focused on what characters do or say in order to show their feelings, thoughts, or motivations, can sometimes get repetitious in describing what the characters are doing.

Variations on Point of View

How many combinations of these basic points of view are there? Millions. How many subtle shadings exist within these points of view? Maybe billions. But you don’t have to count them all to use them. You don’t even have to be aware of all the variations and combinations to master Point of View.

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Why all the Confusion about Point of View?

In everyday conversation, we use the term “Point of View” to refer to different sides of a situation. For example, if there’s an accident and a police officer questions 3 people and gets 3 different versions of what happened, we say that he gets 3 different points of view. If we’re having a heated discussion with someone who disagrees with us, we say, “That’s your Point of View.” Each time we hear someone else’s version of events, we say we have a different Point of View.

In literature and writing, however, the term “Point of View” is strictly limited to how the fiction is written.

If the police officer in the previous example hears 3 First Person narratives about the accident then — in literary and creative writing terms — he’s heard three stories from the same Point of View: First Person.

Each of these First Person narratives, though, is from a different perspective. So, in literary terms, the police officer has heard three perspectives from the same Point of View.

That distinction is critical for writers to understand if they wish to master Point of View.

Different Perspective,
Same Point of View

An author can change perspective without changing Point of View. Here are two scenes from my novel, Only with the Heart, which illustrate a change in perspective while maintaining the same Point of View. Each is told in First Person, so there is no change in Point of View from a literary standpoint. Since each narrator is giving a different version of what happened, however, there are two different perspectives.

In this first scene, from part 3, Sam, one of the novel’s three narrators, is putting away a baby cradle and an unfinished rocking-horse after his wife, Claudia, has had yet another miscarriage.

Our dream of having kids was dead. After the last miscarriage, the doctor told Claudia to give up trying. He told her she was risking her own life with every pregnancy. That’s why I put all the baby furniture up in the attic… I went out to the hall with the baby furniture and carried it up to the attic. I set the cradle and [unfinished] rocking-horse down under the eaves, next to the bassinet, the changing table, and the bureau. When I stepped back, dust swirled around in the sunlight and made me cough. I picked up some of the old blankets, shook them out, and tucked them around the baby’s furniture. Those blankets were so big, and that cradle was so small. And it would never hold a baby. It was small and dead and empty. Like my life.

Sam was not aware that his mother, Eleanor, was watching him while he moved the baby furniture into the attic. In the corresponding scene in Eleanor’s section of the novel, Eleanor, who is terminally ill with Alzheimer’s, also describes Sam’s putting the rocking-horse and cradle up into the attic.

Since Eleanor has Alzheimer’s, she doesn’t remember the words for the items of furniture that her son is moving. She describes his emotional reaction to the event — something Sam neglects to do in his version of the story — and she, too, is upset, but she is unable to comfort him as he weeps over the loss of his unborn child.

He doesn’t see me. He goes past my room with it. I go after him. He goes up the stairs. To the top of the house. No one else is with him. He takes it to the corner. The sun shines on it. He makes his fingers go along the wood. When he touches it, it rocks. He wipes his face with his hand. He makes the blanket go all around it. But he doesn’t get up. He stays next to it. On the floor. He puts his hands over his face. His shoulders shake. He makes a funny noise… He makes that noise over and over. No one hears him. No one but me.

Since these two sections are both told from First Person Point of View, there is no change in the Point of View. We do, however, have a change in perspective since we have two different narrators telling the event as they experienced it.

Different Focus,
Same Point of View

Beginning writers often think that describing different characters is changing Point of View. So if one paragraph is about Charles, the next about Emma, and the third about Rodolphe, they believe that the author has changed Point of View. If the author has written about Charles, Emma, and Rodolphe (from Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary) in Unlimited Point of View, however, and not varied from that, then the author has not changed Point of View. He has changed his focus from one character to another, but not how he has written about them.

The following excerpt, from the first chapter of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, is a description of the protagonist, D’Artagnan, written in Unlimited Point of View, which is always in the grammatical third person.

A young man… a Don Quixote of eighteen… clothed in a woolen doublet, the blue color of which had faded into a nameless shade between lees of wine and a heavenly azure; face long and brown, high cheek-bones… the eye open and intelligent; the nose hooked, but finely chiseled. Too big for a youth, too small for a grown man, an experienced eye might have taken him for a farmer’s son upon a journey, had it not been for the long sword.

Later in that chapter, when D’Artagnan meets a stranger who insults him, Dumas — still using Unlimited Point of View — changes focus but maintains the same Point of View.

Nevertheless, D’Artagnan was desirous of examining the appearance of this impertinent personage who was laughing at him. He fixed his haughty eye upon the stranger, and perceived a man of from forty to forty-five years of age, with black and piercing eyes, a pale complexion, a strongly-marked nose, and a black and well-shaped mustache. He was dressed in a doublet and hose of a violet color.

Though the author has shifted his focus in order to describe different characters, he has not shifted how he has written about them, so he has not changed Point of View.

Different Points of View

An author can change his focus, describing different characters, without changing his Point of View. He can change perspective, giving different versions of the same story, without changing Point of View. It is only when an author changes from First (I, we) to Second (you), First to Unlimited (he, she, it, they), etc, that he is actually changing Point of View.

Henry Fielding does this in his masterpiece, Tom Jones, moving frequently from Unlimited, in which the bulk of the novel is written, to First, in which he calls attention to himself as the author, to Second, in which he directly addresses his audience (and others, at different points in the novel).

Here is an excerpt from the opening paragraph from Book One, Chapter Two, written in Unlimited Point of View.

In that part of the western division of this kingdom which is commonly called Somersetshire, there lately lived and perhaps lives still, a gentleman whose name was Allworthy… From [Nature] he derived an agreeable person, a sound constitution, a sane understanding, and a benevolent heart; by [Fortune], he was decreed to the inheritance of one of the largest estates in the county.

At the end of that chapter, Fielding switches from Unlimited to First and Second, as he will continue to do throughout the novel.

Reader, I think proper, before we proceed any farther together, to acquaint thee that I intend to digress, through this whole history, as often as I see occasion, of which I am myself a better judge than any pitiful critic whatever; and here I must desire all those critics to mind their own business, and not to intermeddle with affairs or works which no ways concern them.

Point of View, Focus, and Perspective

Point of view, then, is how the book is written, not who or what it is about. When the author describes different characters or settings but does not change how he is writing about them, then he is changing Focus but maintaining the same Point of View. When the author gives different versions of the same story, he is changing Perspective; he may or may not be changing Point of View.

Point of view is how the novel is written. Focus is what the particular passage is about. Perspective is a different version of the same story. Changing focus is like changing the direction your car is driving, going south instead of east, for example, as you’re driving through town. Changing perspective is like driving a car in some town, then driving another car through the same town: it has similarities to the previous trip, but the experience isn’t the same. Changing Point of View is like changing vehicles or the mode of transportation, walking or riding a bike instead of driving a car: it becomes a completely different experience of the town.

Changing a novel’s Point of View dramatically changes the experience for the author as much as it does for the readers.

When the author gives us different versions of the same events, perhaps all written in First Person Point of View, for example, then he is giving us different perspectives, but he is not changing Point of View.

Only if the author writes one section of the novel in First Person, with a narrator using “I” or “we” to tell the story, and another in Unlimited, using “he,” “she,” “it,” or “they” to tell the story and moving freely both inside and outside all the characters’ heads, (or writing any sections of the novel in any combination of multiple points of view), is the author actually changing literary Point of View.

Clarity about the difference between literary Point of View, common usage of the term “Point of View,” focus, and perspective will make your task easier when you write your short stories, novellas, or novels.

Lapse in Point of View

A lapse in Point of View is not changing the Point of View, nor is it using multiple Points of View in the same work. It is, literally, a momentary mistake in the Point of View the writer is using. To be honest, even the greatest writers, like Hemingway and Faulkner, occasionally lapse in their chosen Point of View.

Let’s say you’re writing in First person Point of View, using a single narrator. Everything is limited to what that narrator thinks and feels, to what the narrator can see and hear. No other characters’ thoughts or feeling are revealed unless they are shown to the narrator. Below is a sample I’ve made up. The lapse in Point of View is in italics.

I looked at the beautiful woman. She was taller than most women I was attracted to, given the fact that I was so short myself. Shorter than most men. And losing my hair. When she looked at me, she smiled. She liked me. I decided to ask her out on a date.

The narrator, limited to his own thoughts and feelings, cannot know that the woman likes him because she does not tell him, write him a note, or send anyone else to tell him. This is a lapse in Point of View. It is easy to fix. Simply change She liked me to I suddenly got the idea that she liked me. Now it is still within the limitations of First Person Point of View. Readers don’t know whether or not the woman likes the narrator: they know only that he takes her smile as an indication that she might like him. This maintains the limitations of the chosen Point of View.

Final Words on Point of View

A writer can tell his story any way he likes, in any Point of View that he wishes, but to be a good writer and to master Point of View, a writer must accept the fact that all literary Points of View are limited — except Unlimited Point of View. Once you accept the inherent limitations, you can practice improving your skill at various Points of View.

Or you can always write in Unlimited Point of View: that way you can write whatever you want about any of your characters, including your own moral judgments about them (which you wish your readers to share, as Tolstoy does in Anna Karenina when he compares Anna’s adulterous affair with Vronsky to a murder), as well as all your characters’ thoughts, feelings, pasts, and motivations.

It’s that simple.

There, now, you can be not afeard any longer.

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from Mastering Point of View: Using POV & Fiction Elements to Create Conflict, Develop Characters, Revise your Work, & Improve Your Craft; Revised, Updated, & Expanded; 14th Anniversary Edition; © 2001, 2011, 2012, 2014 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman (originally published by Story Press, 2001). All rights reserved. Please do not quote or excerpt without accompanying copyright information.

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