The narrator’s relationship to the story is determined by point of view. Each viewpoint allows certain freedoms in narration while limiting or denying others. Your goal in selecting a point of view is not simply finding a way to convey information, but telling it the right way—making the world you create understandable and believable.
The following is a brief rundown of the three most common POVs and the advantages and disadvantages of each.
This guest post is by Joseph Bates and is featured in his book, Writing Your Novel from Start to Finish. Bates is the author of Tomorrowland: Stories and The Nighttime Novelist. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such publications as NEW OHIO REVIEW, SOUTH CAROLINA REVIEW, IDENTITY THEORY, THE RUMPUS, THE CINCINNATI REVIEW, and SHENANDOAH. He teaches in the creative writing program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
This POV reveals an individual’s experience directly through the narration. A single character tells a personal story, and the information is limited to the first-person narrator’s direct experience (what she sees, hears, does, feels, says, etc.). First person gives readers a sense of immediacy regarding the character’s experiences, as well as a sense of intimacy and connection with the character’s mindset, emotional state and subjective reading of the events described.
Consider the closeness the reader feels to the character, action, physical setting and emotion in the first paragraph of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, via protagonist Katniss’ first-person narration:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
Pros: The first-person POV can make for an intimate and effective narrative voice—almost as if the narrator is speaking directly to the reader, sharing something private. This is a good choice for a novel that is primarily character-driven, in which the individual’s personal state of mind and development are the main interests of the book.
Cons: Because the POV is limited to the narrator’s knowledge and experiences, any events that take place outside the narrator’s observation have to come to her attention in order to be used in the story. A novel with a large cast of characters might be difficult to manage from a first-person viewpoint.
Third-person limited spends the entirety of the story in only one character’s perspective, sometimes looking over that character’s shoulder, and other times entering the character’s mind, filtering the events through his perception. Thus, third-person limited has some of the closeness of first person, letting us know a particular character’s thoughts, feelings and attitudes on the events being narrated. This POV also has the ability to pull back from the character to offer a wider perspective or view not bound by the protagonist’s opinions or biases: It can call out and reveal those biases (in often subtle ways) and show the reader a clearer understanding of the character than the character himself would allow.
Saul Bellow’s Herzog exemplifies the balance in third-person limited between closeness to a character’s mind and the ability of the narrator to maintain a level of removal. The novel’s protagonist, Moses Herzog, has fallen on hard times personally and professionally, and has perhaps begun to lose his grip on reality, as the novel’s famous opening line tells us. Using third-person limited allows Bellow to clearly convey Herzog’s state of mind and make us feel close to him, while employing narrative distance to give us perspective on the character.
If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.
Some people thought he was cracked and for a time he himself had doubted that he was all there. But now, though he still behaved oddly, he felt confident, cheerful, clairvoyant and strong. He had fallen under a spell and was writing letters to everyone under the sun. … [H]e wrote endlessly, fanatically, to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead.
Pros: This POV offers the closeness of first person while maintaining the distance and authority of third, and allows the author to explore a character’s perceptions while providing perspective on the character or events that the character himself doesn’t have. It also allows the author to tell an individual’s story closely without being bound to that person’s voice and its limitations.
Cons: Because all of the events narrated are filtered through a single character’s perceptions, only what that character experiences directly or indirectly can be used in the story (as is the case with first-person singular).
Similar to third-person limited, the third-person omniscient employs the pronouns he or she, but it is further characterized by its godlike abilities. This POV is able to go into any character’s perspective or consciousness and reveal her thoughts; able to go to any time, place or setting; privy to information the characters themselves don’t have; and able to comment on events that have happened, are happening or will happen. The third-person omniscient voice is really a narrating personality unto itself, a disembodied character in its own right—though the degree to which the narrator wants to be seen as a distinct personality, or wants to seem objective or impartial (and thus somewhat invisible as a separate personality), is up to your particular needs and style.
The third-person omniscient is a popular choice for novelists who have big casts and complex plots, as it allows the author to move about in time, space and character as needed. But it carries an important caveat: Too much freedom can lead to a lack of focus if the narrative spends too many brief moments in too many characters’ heads and never allows readers to ground themselves in any one particular experience, perspective or arc.
The novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke uses an omniscient narrator to manage a large cast. Here you’ll note some hallmarks of omniscient narration, notably a wide view of a particular time and place, freed from the restraints of one character’s perspective. It certainly evidences a strong aspect of storytelling voice, the “narrating personality” of third omniscient that acts almost as another character in the book (and will help maintain book cohesion across a number of characters and events):
Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.
Pros: You have the storytelling powers of a god. You’re able to go anywhere and dip into anyone’s consciousness. This is particularly useful for novels with large casts, and/or with events or characters spread out over, and separated by, time or space. A narrative personality emerges from third-person omniscience, becoming a character in its own right through the ability to offer information and perspective not available to the main characters of the book.
Cons: Jumping from consciousness to consciousness can fatigue a reader with continuous shifting in focus and perspective. Remember to center each scene on a particular character and question, and consider how the personality that comes through the third-person omniscient narrative voice helps unify the disparate action.
Oftentimes we don’t really choose a POV for our project; our project chooses a POV for us. A sprawling epic, for example, would not call for a first-person singular POV, with your main character constantly wondering what everyone back on Darvon-5 is doing. A whodunit wouldn’t warrant an omniscient narrator who jumps into the butler’s head in Chapter 1 and has him think, I dunnit.
Often, stories tell us how they should be told—and once you find the right POV for yours, you’ll likely realize the story couldn’t have been told any other way.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.