The POV Commitment

Readers will follow you anywhere if you create interesting characters who inhabit intriguing situations, and unify the whole with choice point of view.

Characters and situations are gifts of the gods; the right point of view takes work. One of the most important decisions you’ll make for the life of your story or novel is the appropriate point of view. Is the main character a major player in her fate, or is she a pawness of it? Do you want readers to empathize with her or analyze her? Is the narrator reflective or reactive?

Point of view, then, is the consciousness in which the story exists. This intelligence will dwell within the story in a state ranging from complete omniscience to total objectivity. It also will assume the guise of one of the three basic persons in English: first person (I, we); second person (you); or third person (he, she, it, they). Although frequently thought of as a single element of fiction, POV is a complex of techniques and effects involving grammar, rhetorical strategies and emotional involvement.

It’s important to maintain a consistent POV because writing is an act of trust between the reader and the author. Readers want to be transported—what Coleridge calls the “willing suspension of disbelief … which constitutes poetic faith.” An awkward shift in POV breaks the trust, and that suspension Coleridge talks about—or what others call the fictional dream—dissolves.

Janet Burroway in Fiction Writing calls POV a “contract,” and she adds that “a writer signals amateurism in the failure to make a contract and stick to it.”

The persons

  • First person. This is the “I” of fiction. This person is both character and narrator. When the “I” character is an active player in the plot, she is a central narrator. Simple enough. On the other hand, when the “I” character seems to occupy the sidelines, she’s a peripheral narrator.

    Nick in The Great Gatsby is such a narrator; however, remember that even a peripheral first-person narrator should be changed by the plot. That’s the case with Nick. Most of Gatsby is about Jay Gatsby, of course, but because Fitzgerald makes Nick a first-person figure (as well as beginning and ending the novel with his soliloquylike statements), he is the “turned” character.

  • Second person. This is “you.” Second person produces some funky effects. It’s not the same as the direct address I’ve adopted in this article, gentle reader. Nay, in the narrative second person, you become a character and participate in the action while plugging into the controlling consciousness of the story. This example of second-person narration is from Carlos Fuentes’ Aura:
    You’re reading the advertisement: an offer like this isn’t made every day. You read it and reread it. It seems to be addressed to you and nobody else. You don’t even notice when the ash from your cigarette falls into the cup of tea you ordered in this cheap, dirty caf&#233. You read it again. “Wanted, young historian, conscientious, neat. Perfect knowledge of colloquial French …” All that’s missing is your name.

  • Third person. This is the traditional “he” or “she” of storytelling, with clear distinctions between the characters and the author. Its advantage is that the author gets to call all the shots. The author can opt to be as close or as distant to the protagonist as the theme or authorial vision requires. This approach goes back at least as far as Homer. This example is from Book V of the Odyssey in which Odysseus washes ashore after surviving Poseidon’s storm:
    His knees buckled, his arms gave way beneath him, all vital force now conquered by the sea. Swollen from head to foot he was, and seawater gushed from his mouth and nostrils. There he lay, scarce drawing breath, unstirring, deathly spent.

    … Then the man crawled to the river bank among the reeds were, face down, he could kiss the soil of earth, in his exhaustion murmuring to himself: “What more can this hulk suffer? What comes now?”

The omnisciences
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to master the proper use of person. Now comes the tricky part. The key to successful POV is consistency of the controlling consciousness. John Gardner writes in The Art of Fiction that you can do anything you want—there are no rules in writing—but “avoid like the plague all that might briefly distract from that [fictional] dream—a notion wherein a multitude of rules are implied.”

Once you establish your controlling consciousness, you must maintain it. Otherwise, your story will read like one of those medieval pre-perspective paintings looks, that is, the buildings are out of kilter with their neighbors.

Point of view is easier to control in first- and second-person narratives because the narrator tends to be the consciousness through which the action is realized. There are more options, however, with the third-person POV. Here are the three basic third-person points of view, noted here from closest to farthest psychic distance:

  • Omniscient. In this POV, the author can enter any character’s head, see through any character’s eyes or muck around any character’s heart. It is sometimes said that the author becomes God. Aside from sounding vaguely blasphemous, I don’t think the premise is correct because the best characters retain an element of mystery. Readers need to be told as much as they need to know.

    Gardner, however, says that the third-person omniscient POV gives the writer the greatest range and freedom. The writer “can dip into the mind and thoughts of any character, though he focuses primarily on no more than two or three … this narrator can speak in his own voice, filling in necessary background or offering objective observations; yet when the scene is intense and his presence would be intrusive, he can vanish for the moment from our consciousness.”

    Tolstoy uses this approach in The Death of Ivan Ilyich. In his story, Tolstoy reveals the thoughts of at least three characters. For example, on one occasion, Peter Ivanovich feels uncertain about something he has to do, but he knows “that at such times, it is always safe to cross oneself.” However, “he was not quite sure whether one should make obeisances while doing so.”

    Praskovya Feorovna, another character, warns Ivanovich to take a seat, “but felt that such a warning was out of keeping with her present condition and so changed her mind.”

    Finally, Ivan Ilyich, the protagonist, realizes that his life hasn’t been what it was supposed to be, but that he can change it: “He asked himself, ?What is the right thing?’ and grew still listening. Then he felt that someone was kissing his hand.”

    My advice is to reserve the omniscient POV for longer fiction.

  • Limited. In this POV, cognizance is limited to one character, the protagonist. It is by and large the most widely used POV, and is nearly the universal POV of the short story. Typically, the author is objective toward secondary characters, but she has the perquisite to rattle around within the deepest confines of the main character. This example of limited omniscient POV is from James Joyce’s The Dead:
    Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. … A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again.

  • Objective. This is the most distant of the points of views—it’s like watching somebody else’s home movie. It creates a cool, impersonal tone, and it makes no value judgments. The author leaves those moral distinctions up to the reader. The author not only objectively describes secondary characters, but applies that same objectivity toward the main character.

    Two of Hemingway’s well-known stories, “Hills Like White Elephants” and “The Killers,” use the objective POV. This from the latter:

    Nick opened the door and went into the room. Ole Andreson was lying on the bed with all his clothes on. He had been a heavyweight prizefighter and he was too long for the bed. He lay with his head on two pillows. He did not look at Nick.

    “What was it?” he asked.

    “I was up at Henry’s,” Nick said, “and two fellows came in and tied up me and the cook, and they said they were going to kill you.”

    The best self-editing you can practice to maintain POV is consistency. At the top of each of your manuscript pages jot down the story’s POV character to help you keep focus. Also, an exercise to keep your chops up is to rewrite a well-known story from another character’s POV—a chapter of Moby Dick from the whale’s perspective or “The Cask of Amontillado” from Fortunato’s view.

    Once you learn to maintain consistent control over consciousness—you can start to create your own unwavering “fictional dream” for readers to embrace.

Michael Orlofsky teaches creative writing and literature at Troy State University in Alabama. He is currently working on a novel set in 16th century Italy.

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