Point-of-view (POV), Part 1 of 3
I’ve received a variety of questions related to point-of-view (POV), so rather than answer each one individually, I’ve decided to compile a basic overview of the topic in three parts. A few of the questions include:
- Should I select a POV and stick with it throughout an entire novel? Or can POV change from one chapter to the next?
- I constantly see examples of successful authors changing POV, sometimes frequently and within chapters. Is there a definitive rule or a set of general guidelines on changing POV?
- How does one handle a situation where information needs to be conveyed that the first-person narrator can’t possibly know?
- Which POV is best?
- What is head-hopping and why is it a bad thing?
Ah, the oh-so-complex and ever-controversial point-of-view (POV) discussion. Books have been written on this subject, so there’s no way I can fully cover the topic in a blog, not that I know everything there is to know about POV anyway. I’ll break this up into smaller chunks, but I’ll still barely scratch the surface.
POV is one of the critical decisions a writer makes with a story, usually before writing a single word.
I have to state for the record that, as a rule, I don’t like ‘rules.’ I believe there are general guidelines, accepted standards and writing techniques that are common in writing. They are common because they’ve proved over time to make for better, clearer writing, keep readers interested and entertained, and readers are familiar and comfortable with these techniques.
But writing is part craft, part art. Art is often about stretching boundaries, redefining standards, breaking ‘rules’ or writing new ones. The answer to your POV question is “it depends.” It depends on the story, the genre, the writer’s style, and how deftly a talented writer can pull it off.
Let’s start with a definition and the basic building blocks that work up to POV: Persons, voices, and perspective.
POV is, in the simplest form, whose eyes we are seeing the story through at any given point.
Before we even get into the POV options, let’s look at the ‘persons’ involved in a story.
- The author
- The narrator
- The main character (or other characters)
These are obviously not the same. They can and do overlap at times, but they are not interchangeable. Understanding how these persons relate and interact is key to POV.
The author vs. the narrator
The author is you, the writer. The person at the keyboard or with paper and pen. When a reader sits down with a book, she knows someone wrote it. There’s a name on the cover. The reader opens up a novel and it starts out:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. – Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
The reader knows this isn’t J.D. Salinger, the author, speaking. It’s the narrator of the story. Yes, Salinger wrote those words, but the reader immediately separates the author from the narrator. In this case, the narrator is also the main character.
The narrator vs. the character
For a completely different example:
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. – The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
Here again, we have a narrator speaking, separate and apart from the author, but the narrator is speaking about the main character (the old man) rather than the main character speaking for himself. So there are immediately three ‘persons’ involved in this story: the author who wrote the words, the narrator who is speaking, and the old man.
Any story can be told from a variety of perspectives and viewpoints. Salinger could have chosen one (or several) of Holden Caulfield’s schoolmates or teachers or parents to tell the story. Hemingway could have had the old man tell the story himself. I doubt either story would be as good that way. These writers chose the right voices to tell their stories, and they made those choices for a specific reason.
In addition to the three ‘persons’ involved in a story (author, narrator, character), the writer also has to choose the voice to tell the story. This is not to be confused with the writer’s voice, which is more related to writing style, or a character’s voice, which is how a character sounds through dialog, dialect, and inner thoughts.
There are four basic voices to tell the story:
- First person
- Second person
- Third person limited
- Third person omniscient
Often you’ll hear these voices referred to as POV, but I like to differentiate the terms. They are related and overlap, but voice and POV aren’t always interchangeable.
A quick overview of each voice:
First person means the character is telling the story.
I walked down the dark street, frightened as the sound of ominous footsteps behind me picked up the pace.
Second person (rarely used, and I don’t recommend it, but I’ll include it here anyway) is when the writer tries to make the reader become the character.
You walked down the dark street, frightened as the sound of ominous footsteps behind you picked up the pace.
In third person limited, the narrator is outside the character, watching the action, but can also report on what the character sees, hears, feels, and thinks, and can maintain a fairly tight focus on the POV character.
She walked down the dark street, frightened as the sound of ominous footsteps behind her picked up the pace.
In third person omniscient, the narrator is outside the story, watching all the action, all the characters, and can drop in and out of the viewpoint of any character.
She walked down the dark street, frightened as the sound of ominous footsteps behind her picked up the pace. The man desperately wanted to catch up to her only to return the purse she’d left at the restaurant, but he didn’t want to scare her. The policeman across the street watched them both, waiting for the right moment to intervene.
A final note on second person (You walked down the street). It is rare, more frequent in short stories than in novels. Readers tend to find it irritating and unrealistic, harder to suspend their disbelief. This is especially true if the character of the story is the opposite gender from the reader, or a very different person in terms of age, ethnicity, background, etc. You read: You are a woman, thirty years old, recently divorced from a much older man, and think to yourself, “No, I’m a middle-aged happily married male.” It’s hard for readers to relate to a character in this fashion. In a short story, it can work. To get through an entire novel in this voice is difficult, and it’s seldom used so readers aren’t accustomed to it (and probably don’t want to be). Second person is often perceived as a bit of a gimmick, and readers tend to resent gimmickry in writing.
So that’s a quick overview of the persons and voices available to the writer.
Next up, Part 2: How do each of these persons and voices affect the writer, the point-of-view, and the reader?