Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

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stock-photo-37022840-sadnessWanna 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 creative writers are confused about Point of View 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 The Adventures of 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 Gerard Genette did in Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method and Narrative Dis course 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 creative writers learn how to master Point of View.

 

stock-photo-48322464-retro-typewriter-on-a-wooden-deskTraditional Divisions of Point of View

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 with which many of us grew up:

  • 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 godlike, written in grammatical third person: he, she, it, they
  • third-person limited, one version of which is also called the fly-on-the-wall or the camera Point of View, also in grammatical third person
  • Second Person Point of View, addressing a “you,” which is sometimes the reader

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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 her 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 “The 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 com fort, 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, sometimes transliterated as Dostoevsky).
  • 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 that describes her beauty. Likewise, changing Twain’s The Adventures of 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’ responses, controls the readers’ sympathies or empathies 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 be cause 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.

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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. In fact, Point of View has nothing whatsoever to do with the characters in the novel.

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 each of the various Points of View.

WHAT IS POINT OF VIEW?

So what is Point of View? Most simply stated, it’s how the fiction is written. That’s all there is to it: Point of View is HOW the author writes the work.

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HOW MANY POINTS OF VIEW ARE THERE?

So just how many Points of View are there? For simplicity’s sake, we are going to concentrate on the traditional divisions with a few distinctions for clarification (presented in order of difficulty of mastery, from easiest to most challenging):

  • Unlimited
  • First Person
  • Inner Limited
  • Second Person
  • Outer Limited

Note: Any work that uses more than one Point of View is written in Multiple Points of View.

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  • Unlimited: If the author uses he, she, it or they and tells the reader everything in every character’s head and heart, internal and external lives, then the novel is written in Unlimited Point of View. This is also sometimes called omniscient Point of View, since the author has been likened to an all-knowing creator God in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The author reveals every character’s thoughts, feelings, motivations, and actions. This is the only Point of View 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 work is written in First Person Point of View. The narrator may be singular (I) or plural (we), reliable or unreliable, but the events in the novel are limited to what the narrator can observe about the other characters’ lives, and to the narrator’s own internal psychological and emotional life.
  • Inner Limited: If the author shows the thoughts and feelings of one character as if he were in that character’s head, though writing in the grammatical third person (he, she, it, they) even to refer to the one character whose thoughts and feelings he’s revealing, and presents only the external observations of all the other characters, then the Point of View is Inner Limited. This Point of View is exactly like First Person but is written in the grammatical third person. It is limited to the inner life of one character, the protagonist, and has all the limitations of First Person Point of View though it is written in the grammatical third person: he, she, it, they. Sometimes authors use this Point of View for multiple characters, but each character must be shown individually and clearly separated from the others. The author should also indicate, in some fashion, that he is shifting from one character to another character while maintaining Inner Limited Point of View: using different chapters or sections of a work, for example. Without this obvious differentiation, the author will be using Unlimited Point of View. James Joyce and Henry James use this Point of View almost exclusively.
  • Second Person: If someone is directly addressed as “you” (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.
  • Outer Limited: If the author uses the grammatical third person (he, she, it, they) but stays out of all the characters’ heads, not revealing any character’s internal, psychological, emotional life; choosing instead to show only the external, observable behaviors and dialogue of all of his characters, the writer is using Outer Limited Point of View. The writer limits his presentation to the outer world of all of his characters. This is also been called the “fly-on-the-wall” or the “camera” Point of View since it never presents characters’ interior, psychological, or emotional lives unless revealed in dialogue or action (and when presented in action, it could be open to interpretation on the part of the readers, so writers need to be aware of that possibility). Ernest Hemingway and Alain Robbe-Grillet are two authors who used this Point of View extensively.

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 three people and gets three different versions of what happened, we say that he gets three 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 creative writing, however, Point of View is limited to how the fiction is written. So if the police officer in the previous example hears three 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 creative writers if they wish to master Point of View.

Different Perspective, Same Point of View

An author can change perspective without changing Point of View. I do this frequently in my first two novels, The Kommandant’s Mistress and Only with the Heart. Each section 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. 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 events as they remember it.

George R. R. Martin does this brilliantly in his Song of Ice and Fire [Game of Thrones] series. Heading each chapter with the name of a different character, while using Unlimited Point of View throughout, Martin shows us the action from various characters’ perspectives in every book of the series, successfully maintaining Unlimited Point of View while giving his readers different characters’ perspectives on the action. It is very effective.

Different Focus, Same Point of View

Beginning writers also 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 in Unlimited Point of View, however, and not varied from that, then the author has not changed Point of View. He has also not changer perspective since he is not giving us the same events from the different characters’ views of them. He has, instead, merely changed his focus from one character to another, but he has not changed how he has written about them, so he has not changed Point of View.

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 (he, she, it, they). 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. 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 Person (I, we) to Second Person (you), First to Unlimited (he, she, it, they), etc., that he is 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 Person, in which he calls attention to himself as the author/persona; to Second Person, in which he directly addresses his audience, critics, etc. At the end of that chapter, Fielding switches from Unlimited to First Person and Second Person, as he will continue to do throughout the novel.

William Faulkner’s masterpiece of different perspectives as well as multiple Points of View, The Sound and the Fury, is divided into four sections, the first three of which are all in First Person Point of View and the last of which is in Unlimited. So his novel has two different Points of View: First and Unlimited. The first three sections, all First Person Point of View narratives, provide three different perspectives, but the author does not change Point of View.

My first novel, The Kommandant’s Mistress, is divided into three sections; but the first two, though giving different perspectives on the story, are both written in First Person Point of View: the Kommandant of the title narrates Part One, while his enslaved “mistress,” Rachel narrates Part Two. In the third section of the novel, written in a different Point of View — Unlimited, which is in the grammatical third person — readers learn things that neither the Kommandant nor Rachel, revealed (either because they didn’t know or because they were attempting to be less than forthcoming).

What is important for our purposes here is the change in Point of View in these two novels. The Point of View in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury only changes in the final section of the novel, where the author switches from First Person to Unlimited Point of View. In The Kommandant’s Mistress, the same thing is true: only Part Three of the novel is in a different Point of View. The first two sections of the novel, since they are both written in First Person, are in the same Point of View. Since the final section of the novel switches from to Unlimited, however, it is a change in Point of View.

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FINAL WORDS ON 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. You can change the direction the camera is pointing — focus — or you can switch from black-and-white to color film — perspective — but to change Point of View, you would have to change the camera from a video camera to an 8mm camera. Changing Point of View changes the author’s experience of the novel as well as 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 novel.

 stock-photo-4792809-writer-s-deskFinal Words on Understanding Point of View

Knowing exactly what the Point of View terms actually mean will make your writing life so much easier. I encourage you to become familiar with the terms, to know what they may have sometimes been called in the past, and then concentrate on mastering Point of View itself rather than worrying obsessively about making up new names for the very few different Points of View that exist.

I realize that there are many writing teachers out there who do not know what they’re talking about, who draw bizarre diagrams about Point of View as if it were a mathematical problem or a graph, who do not even know the difference between “reliable” and “unreliable” narrators and so simply tell writers to use Unlimited Point of View, and who claim that using Multiple Points of View “simply isn’t done.” These uninformed teachers do a great disservice to their unsuspecting students.

Unfortunately, critics do it, too: they see something they’re not familiar with — as when commercial crime fiction uses a particular combination of Inner Limited Point of View when writing about criminals and their victims, and Unlimited Point of View when portraying the crime-fighters — and instead of simply calling it Multiple Points of View used in a special fashion for this genre, the critics make up names for the “new” Point of View, confusing writers who want to write commercial crime fiction.

Even authors do it, though sometimes I suspect that some of them do it to intentionally confuse critics because the authors feel insulted. For example, when asked what the symbolism of his novels and stories meant, Faulkner was known to faithfully respond that he “never used none of that there symbolism stuff” in his most drawling Southern accent. When asked what style his famous ground-breaking novel Jealousy was written in, Robbe-Grillet claimed it was written with a “omniscient third-person narrator,” which, of course, makes no sense and is, furthermore, mutually exclusive.

Yet at a writing conference once, after reading and critiquing the first 50 pages of a new writer’s novel, and telling the writer that he needed to work on Point of View since he was bouncing all over the place without any apparent reason, he told me, quite matter-of-factly, that he was using “an omniscient Second Person narrator who didn’t know everything that was going to happen.”

Indeed.

First of all, “omniscient” means “all knowing,” and that was the term formerly used for Unlimited Point of View. That means the author wants to reveal all his characters’ thoughts, feelings, history, conflicts, memories, etc. Unlimited Point of View is the only Point of View that allows an author to do this. But if the author is using Unlimited Point of View and showing his readers everything — including any moral judgments of his characters — then who or what “doesn’t know everything that’s going to happen”? Omniscient and Not Knowing Everything are, I fear, mutually exclusive. That part of his statement simply made no sense.

Additionally, First Person is the Point of View with a narrator, an “I” or “we” that is telling the story. It is a limited Point of View since all the events in the story are presented from the perspective of the narrator who is telling the story. The author is pretending to be inside the head of one character — his narrator — and relates all that character’s feelings, history, emotions, conflicts, etc. while observing the other characters’ actions and recording their dialogue. Because First Person Point of View is limited, it cannot be Unlimited at the same time: that means if the author chooses to tell the story using First Person Point of View, he has a narrator and is limited to presenting the story from “inside” that narrator’s head. Since no human being is omniscient, then omniscient and narrator are also mutually exclusive terms.

Last, Second Person Point of View directly addresses a “you” who may be many different audiences, including the author’s audience, a persona’s audience, a narrator’s audience, etc. Second Person Point of View uses the grammatical second person — you — not the first — I, we. Second Person and First Person Points of View are not the same thing. While an author can use them in combination with each other, as Henry Fielding does in Tom Jones and as Stephanie Meyer regularly does in the Twilight Saga, Second Person Point of View does not have a narrator, since the narrator of First Person Point of View uses “I” or “we.”

It’s these kind of bewildering ideas about Point of View that make new writers feel overwhelmed when writing fiction. It also prevents them from successfully mastering any Point of View since they don’t even understand the words they’re using, let alone the different Points of View.

Point of View is not that difficult to understand, and only some of the Points of View are difficult to master (e.g., Outer Limited) without ever lapsing. Successfully using multiple Points of View is a challenge for any writer because it implies a mastery of each of the different individual Points of View listed earlier in this chapter and then combining them, but it is certainly not impossible to do.

As for that writer at the conference who wanted to write a novel using “an omniscient Second Person narrator who didn’t know everything that was going to happen,” and who continued arguing with me when I attempted to explain, as politely as I could, that many of the terms he was using were mutually exclusive, I wished him luck with his writing project and sent him on his way.

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Mastering Fiction and Point of View: Create Conflict, Develop Characters, Revise Your Work, & Improve Your Craft; Revised, Updated, & Expanded, 15thAnniversary Edition © 2001, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman. (Shorter excerpt formerly included in Mastering Point of View: Using POV to Create Conflict, Depth, & Suspense. Story Press: 2001.)

May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written consent of the author or the publisher. Educators and Conference leaders may use materials with attribution to author and copyright information. Please do not support piracy of intellectual property.

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