Choosing the right point of view for a work of fiction is, in my opinion, the most important decision a writer makes beside choosing the protagonist. It not only dictates what pronouns to use, and how much of the protagonist’s thoughts the reader gets to see, but also determines the distance between reader & protagonist. And not just that. It determines the importance of the narrator, the importance of characters vs. events, and it positions the reader within or without the story.
The right POV is much more than just a technical decision. It can make or break a story.
Each POV has its own advantages and disadvantages, and it’s important to know them and make them work to our, and the reader’s benefit. This post is not my first on POV, and probably not my last, because I strongly believe in the importance and the consequences of choosing the right POV for a certain character or story. That’s why I decided to pull all my notes together (from a couple dozen writing books, articles, the internets, and my humble experience), and write a comprehensible post about the most used POVs in fiction. (sans their weird cousin, the second person POV)
Hope it’s of some use to you too. 🙂
The narrator can see everything in the story world, regardless if there is a character present to see it or not. The narrator is not part of any scene herself, thus omniscient narration feels slightly distant and dispassionate. We are never inside the scene, we are always watching from a safe distance.
Also, the omniscient narrator can look into every character’s mind, and inspect their motivations, goals and thoughts. Which does not mean head-hopping in every scene with multiple characters, but rather a subtle form of telepathy where the narrator shares those thoughts with the reader which have the greatest weight in a scene, regardless who they belong to. Yet, omniscient narrative is not heavy on internal monologue and a jumble of feelings and thoughts. It is rather more focused on the events.
Omniscient POV is best suited for stories following a group of people (family, nation, species) rather than a small number of characters. It’s also typically used if the story spans more than a lifetime, or a larger region of space that can be traveled in a lifetime.
(io9 has a really good post on omniscient narration)
Since true omniscient has become a rare animal in modern days (at least in science-fiction), the only pertinent example I can give you is an excerpt from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. She’s about the only non-science-fiction writer I’ve ever had the patience to read more books of. 😉
Elinor, resolving to exert herself, though fearing the sound of her own voice, now said, “Is Mrs. Ferrars at Longstaple?”
“At Longstaple!” he replied with an air of surprise. “No, my mother is in town.”
“I meant,” said Elinor, taking up some work from the table, “to inquire after Mrs. Edward Ferrars.”
She dared not look up—but her mother and Marianne both turned their eyes upon him. He coloured, seemed perplexed, looked doubtingly, and after some hesitation, said, “Perhaps you mean—my brother—you mean Mrs.—Mrs. Robert Ferrars.”
“Mrs. Robert Ferrars!” was repeated by Marianne and her mother, in an accent of the utmost amazement—and though Elinor could not speak, even her eyes were fixed on him with the same impatient wonder.
First Person – Past Tense
The narrator is remembering events that have happened to her in the past. She is the protagonist, and we are inside her mind as she recounts the events she has experienced, as she believes them to have happened. We still watch from a distance, because all the events have happened in the past and we already know the narrator has lived to tell the tale. But our experience of the story is more intimate than through omniscient POV because we become involved with the narrating protagonist, and must trust her to remember things accurately.
The quickest example that comes to mind is from Octavia Butler’s Kindred, an absolutely enthralling read that kept me up at night:
I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.
And I lost about a year of my life and much of the comfort and security I had not valued until it was gone. When the police released Kevin, he came to the hospital and stayed with me so that I would know I hadn’t lost him too.
But before he could come to me, I had to convince the police that he did not belong in jail. That took time. The police were shadows who appeared intermittently at my bedside to ask questions I had to struggle to understand.
“How did you hurt your arm?” they asked. “Who hurt you?” My attention was captured by the word the used: Hurt. As though I’d scratched my arm. Didn’t they think I knew it was gone?
First Person – Present Tense
A modern POV, and one I’ve also adopted in my WIP because of its advantages. The narrator is the protagonist, but she is not remembering past events from a safe place, she is narrating them as they happen to her, the way she believes them to be happening. We are directly involved in every scene she is part of, experience everything through her eyes, and are invested in the same things she is. This is the POV with the least distance between reader and character, but also with the greatest limitations. Because it’s all happening right now, the narrator might not always be reliable since she’s emotionally engaged, and the reader rarely if ever gets the benefit of a ripened, mature perspective on her experiences.
The latest story I read in first person present tense was the Hunger Games trilogy. Suzanne Collins used this POV masterfully.
It’s time for the drawing. Effie Trinket says as she always does, “Ladies first!” and crosses to the glass ball with the girls’ names. She reaches in, digs her hand deep into the ball, and pulls out a slip of paper. The crowd draws in a collective breath and then you can hear a pin drop, and I’m feeling nauseous and so desperately hoping that it’s not me, that it’s not me, that it’s not me.
Effie Trinket crosses back to the podium, smoothes the slip of paper, and reads out the name in a clear voice. And it’s not me.
It’s Primrose Everdeen.
Also, how could I not jump to the occasion and give you a sample from my WIP, eh? That’d be silly of me.
For an endless moment, none of us moves.
They stare at us with beady green eyes that glow faintly against the darkness behind them. Their bodies are massive, riddled with tendons and large muscles that bulge out from under dark-green fur. It covers them from their unshapely heads down to the talons on their elephantine feet. Their lack of movement makes it hard for me to estimate their intentions.
I take a slow breath through my mask, defeat the resistance building in my body, and jump out of the hatch.
Gravity pulls me right down to my knees. It’s almost twice as strong as I’m used to, and it feels as though my muscles and skin are slipping off my bones. I push myself up slowly, my knees shaking and my thighs burning with strain, and try to stand upright.
The alien in the middle steps forth, heaving its hefty limbs with natural ease. It’s not much taller than me, but considerably stronger, probably weighing a ton, and I realize we stand no chance against them on foot. I try to stay calm and keep my breathing leveled, but I’m not sure I can keep this up for much longer.
Third Person Objective (or Cinematic POV)
The narrator is like a documentary camera, following the viewpoint character around quietly presenting the events she partakes to, but never glimpsing inside her or anyone else’s mind. This may sound like a stripped down omniscient, but it is a quite different technique. While in omniscient, the narrator is outside of all events and shares with us information about the world and the characters of the story in an unmitigated way, in third person objective the narrator is virtually invisible. We get no information other than what the camera captures as it follows the viewpoint character, and we get no interpretations from either the narrator or the character, thus remaining free to form our own opinions. Of course it’s the least emotionally engaging POV, but distance also has its advantages when the events are the focus, and not the characters.
This is a rather rare POV, and I admit I haven’t personally read a novel in this POV. Except maybe In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, but that’s considered a “non-fiction novel”, whatever that is. To give you an “official” example of cinematic point of view, I’ll go for The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett:
Spade rose bowing and indicating with a thick-fingered hand the oaken armchair beside his desk. He was quite six feet tall. The steep rounded slope of his shoulders made his body seem almost conical—no broader than it was thick—and kept his freshly pressed grey coat from fitting very well.
Miss Wonderly murmured, “Thank you,” softly as before and sat down on the edge of the chair’s wooden seat.
Spade sank into his swivel-chair, made a quarter-turn to face her, smiled politely. He smiled without separating his lips. All the v’s in his face grew longer.
The tappity-tap-tap and the thin bell and muffled whir of Effie Perine’s typewriting came through the closed door. Somewhere in a neighboring office a power-driven machine vibrated dully. On Spade’s desk a limp cigarette smoldered in a brass tray filled with the re-mains of limp cigarettes. Ragged grey flakes of cigarette-ash dotted the yellow top of the desk and the green blotter and the papers that were there. A buff-curtained window, eight or ten inches open, let in from the court a current of air faintly scented with ammonia. The ashes on the desk twitched and crawled in the current.
Third Person Limited
The narrator is like a reality TV camera, following the viewpoint character around through the events, but getting occasional comments and thoughts on what’s happening. Just as if the character would occasionally turn around and speak to the audience through the camera, giving us her thoughts and feelings in brief glimpses, then returns to her business. We don’t experience the scenes through her eyes, we are still on the outside just like in third person objective, but now we get occasional glimpses into the mind of the viewpoint character. Usually these thoughts are written in italics, or in an obviously different voice than the rest of the narrative.
An excellent example of the serial use of third person limited is Peter Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star (and its sequel, Judas Unchained). It spans thousands of square light years and hundreds of worlds, and boasts a cast of dozens of well-rounded point-of-view characters.
Now that he’d seen that the envelopment [of the star] was instantaneous, Dudley was left with a whole new set of uncomfortable questions about the composition of the shell structure. An eight-year construction period for any solid shell that size had been assessed as remarkable, but obviously achievable. When he’d begun the observation he’d expected to note a year-by-year eclipse of the star’s light as more and more segments were produced and locked into place. This changed everything. To appear so abruptly, the shell couldn’t be solid. It had to be some kind of force field. Why would anyone surround a star with a force field?
[…] Dudley was ninety-two, in his second life, and fast approaching time for another rejuvenation. Despite his body having the physical age of a standard fifty-year-old, the prospect of a long, degrading campaign within academia was one he regarded with dread. For a supposedly advanced civilization, the Intersolar Commonwealth could be appallignly backward at times, not to mention cruel.
Maybe it won’t be that bad, he told himself. The lie was comforting enough to get him through the rest of the night’s shift.
Third Person Intimate
We experience scenes through the eyes of the viewpoint character, as she thinks they are happening. We are closely involved with her, and don’t need to get distinct and obvious glimpses of her thoughts, because we never leave her mind. The world and the events are filtered through her perspective, similar to first person present tense. Everything described in the narrative carries the character’s voice and is filtered through her background knowledge. This is the deepest form of third person POV, very similar to first person present tense in technique, and if done well, equally engaging to the reader. The distance resulting from the use of third person pronouns can almost be erased by the depth of the POV.
Luckily, the book I’m reading at the time is a superb example of third person intimate. Here’s a tiny excerpt from Vernon Vinge’s A Fire Upon The Deep:
The three travelers were headed west, down from the Icefangs toward Flenser’s Castle on Hidden Island. There were times in his life when he couldn’t have borne the company, but in the last decade Peregrine had become much more sociable. He liked traveling with others nowadays.
This afternoon, they’d finally come in sight of the coastal islands. Peregrine had been here only fifty years before. Even so, he wasn’t prepared for the beauty of this land. The Northwest Coast was by far the mildest arctic in the world. In high summer, with unending day, the bottoms of the glacier-reamed valleys turned all to green. God the carver had stooped to touch these lands… and His chisels had been made of ice. Now, all that was left of the ice and snow were misty arcs at the eastern horizon and remnant patches scattered on the near hills.
I’m sure you have examples of your own, from your favorite books or your own stories, which show the richness and typical characteristics of each POV in part. Inspect them carefully, see if they make use of their respective advantages to the fullest, and in case of your own work, see that you use what your chosen POV has best to offer.
There are many ways to write, and each author has his own signature in the way he handles a certain POV. Hopefully, this posts helps clarify any doubts you might have about the distinctions between the basic POVs. Learning everything I could about POVs was one of the first things I did when I started writing seriously. It’s paid out in full.
Also, there is a great tool to add variety to these points of view and that’s the narrative voice, but that’s the subject of another post. 🙂