Apr 2 2011

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.

Voice

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?

24 Responses to “Point-of-view (POV), Part 1 of 3”

  • Kira Morgana Says:

    Now that’s nice and clearly sorted out! I had no idea what 2nd person was until I had to find out for a short story competition!

    I found out that it’s really rather hard to write in that voice, you can’t get inside the character’s head properly…

    • Robb Says:

      Kira, thanks for stopping by. Yeah, if I’m reading a book and it says, “As you were walking down the street, you were thinking to yourself…”, that’s when I’ll be thinking to myself, “Time to find a different book.”

      • -sry Says:

        LOL, Robb, I can’t imagine someone actually writing something like that. Then again, I still can’t quite figure out how I managed to write Dicky’s story in the first person male voice–and after 3 years away from it, picking it up last November to start the final edits, I was shocked at how WELL I managed to do it. It took me a couple or three weeks to get back into the swing of it.

        My normal or “natural” mode seems to be multiple POV, third person limited voice. I really enjoy that combination of storytelling as the easiest on me, the author.

        I think that, regardless of what any author feels is “most comfortable” or “most natural” for them as an author, each story has its own voice and it is up to us, as storytellers to find and select the right one. In a weird way, I feel picking voice and POV is akin to a sculptor looking at a block of stone and seeking out the shape of the statue that needs to emerge from it. If we pick the wrong voice or POV for even so much as a scene, then our story shatters, as though our chisel has struck at a wrong angle and destroyed what could have beena work of art, had it been executed properly.

        Storytelling is -always- in the execution choices, which is why if you give 5 writers exactly one idea and have each of them try to write the story, you’ll get 5 distinct and different executions. The concept of a unique story idea (or that n00bs think a story idea can be “stolen” and somehow “rob” them of a great storyTELLING opportunity) is balderdash. Every writer does it differently, like every painter or sculptor or artist of any other medium.

        I found your remarks in the opening of this article a little alarming. You keep -almost- implying that a Reader is going to actually be aware of the Author while reading a book. In my experience, if a Reader is -ever- aware of the Author, even in that they are aware of the Author’s “absence” from the expositive, then the Author is too visible and has bled on the page in an inappropriate way. I think any Author who is “visible” needs to do more editing until they are completely INvisible to the Reader.

        That’s my opinion. YMMV – and clearly from this article, it does.

  • Mona Karel Says:

    There has been a recent (to my reading knowledge) trend toward first person present. When done well, it draws me in and I soon ignore the voice choice. When not done well it’s irritating and throws me right out of the story.

    • Robb Says:

      Mona, 1st person present used to put me off a bit too, but I’ve read some that has been done very well. I’ve tried some writing in that voice as well. It’s not easy, but it has some unique advantages at times.

  • Phillipa Says:

    I like a good old bog standard third person omniscient because it allows me to go all over the place and bring in stuff that I think the story needs. I’ve always hated to read first person pov, but that’s changing and I’d say that MJ Hyland is responsible for that. I like having my prejudices broken down.
    I was stuck for my current main character’s voice so I wrote her in first person and found it much easier to get a hold of, and then switched back to third to tell the story. I think I’ll be using it as a tool from now on if I need to get further into someones head. And maybe one day using first person to tell a story will feel right and I’ll do it.

    • Robb Says:

      Phillipa, that’s a great tip. Writing in 1st person is an excellent way to get to know a character and develop the character’s voice, even if you’re planning on writing the novel in 3rd person.

  • Robb Says:

    @Sarah, we’re saying the same thing, I think. When a reader picks up a novel, she’s rationally aware that it’s fiction and that the author wrote it, but immediately suspends her disbelief and believes in the characters and narrator, forgetting that there is an author. If the writing reminds the reader that there is an author, that it is fiction, that interrupts the story for the reader. Characters, narrator, voice, perspective, point-of-view — these are all part of the process of creating fiction that allows readers to forget there is a writer and immerse themselves in the story.

  • Darke Conteur Says:

    I’ve written 2nd person before, but it was for an editorial, and I agree, an entire novel in 2nd would be irritating at best. Good post. Can’t wait to read the other entries. :)

  • scott simon Says:

    Thanks, Robb. Great blog.

    Something I gleaned from young writers during a class: Our generation is used to many voices. Head hopping is a common occurrence in film. Is writing headed in that direction?

    Like to hear your thoughts,
    Scott

    • Robb Says:

      There are definitely generational differences, and film and TV affect literary styles. Although I might have thought it was the other way around. 3rd person omniscient is a much older literary style, and for the past number of years the trend has been to 3rd person limited. I feel like I see a lot more 1st person today than 10 or 20 years ago (and maybe that’s just an incorrect impression based on what I read). With film and TV, recent trends have been to a lot more jump cuts, multiple characters (think reality shows such as Jersey Shore), so I’m wondering if the new trend in voice/POV will be to more characters and back to a more omniscient narrative that dives in and out of multiple characters. In the next segment on POV, I mention author Chuck Palahniuk’s book ‘Rant,’ in which he has 42 (yes, 42) FIRST person narrators. And it works.

      But I’ve not studied this or have any statistics to back up what is just a ‘feel’ that the younger, upcoming generation of readers will be more accepting of larger cast of characters and more omniscient voice.

      Anybody out there have more info on this topic?

    • Robb Says:

      Not directly related to POV, but there also seems to be a growing use of, and readership acceptance of, present tense.

  • Dan Holloway Says:

    Great set of initial outlines, Robb. Of course, the debate has already moved way beyond your post and pre-empted subsequent parts as is inevitable on such a hot topic :)

    Random thoughts:

    2nd person. I agree it can’t take a novel witout much strain, but Murakami uses it very well in parts of Kafka on the Shore. One of the best short stories I’ve read, Kit Habianic’s The Cardiff Dead, was written second person. Utterly breathtaking as a way of evoking a feeling of complicity

    Which leads to the voice you missed – 1st person plural which, to answer your last question, I think will become more widely used in the gaming generation, precisely to evoke unease, disquiet, complicity. I don’t mean the use of “we” that’s actually just omniscient 3rd person in disguise (“we could easily imagine not a soul had set foot in the house since the day the old lady dies”), I mean the uncomfortable, involving the reader in the scene kind of we that Murakami pulls off brilliantly in After Dark (which I tried to emulate in some passages of The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, and is an essential part of bringing things to a head and suddenly disrupting the narrative at the end). It is most effective when producing the effect of that infamous moment in Man Bites Dog when the camera crew who’ve been trailing a serial killer round place the camera on the sideboard and leave it there while they join the killer in a gang rape – a moment of jaw-dropping discomfort for the audience who suddenly realise the part they’re playing in what’s happening on screen.

    1st person – it’s very common to say that when it’s done badly it’s awful, but I really don’t understand that as a comment. What’s awful is bad writing, and whether it’s “I did this then I did that” or “she did this then she did that” it’s equally awful. I think what people mean is it’s embarrasing when a 20-something man writes 1st person as a 50-something woman and it’s utterly clear that it’s a 20-something man speaking. It’s a very obvious form of bad writing, but the tics and affectations that plague many third person manuscripts annoy me just as much.

    I don’t know if we’re moving towards more omniscient 3rd person, but it most definitely IS true to say there’s a backlash in the English media against 1st person. Philip Pulman unleashed an extraordinary and rather daft outburst against it, as being a fad beloved of the trendy Goldsmiths Creative writing set after the Booker list contained so many examples. Attacking it has become one of those critical tick-boxes in cultural criticism, like “show don’t tell” or “don’t use adverbs” have become, and its use is equally lazy. There are two problems with modern UK literary fiction. The first is that it’s slick, superficial, and one-dimensional, of which 1st person POV is only a very minor symptom. The second is that cultural media chooses to use a zoom lens to focus on a tiny subsection of contemporary UK literary fiction, and then deems its problems to be representative of the whole.

    • Robb Says:

      Dan, excellent comments as always, thanks! I’d forgotten about Murakami’s ‘After Dark,’ one of my favorite novels of recent years, and one of my fave writers. That was definitely an experimental piece in POV and Murakami, being as brilliant a writer as he is, created something entirely new as far as I know. When I read a novel that says things like, “We watch the girl as through a camera lens mounted on the ceiling,” and that he was able to pull me into that story so well with such an unusual technique, I found it genius.

      I don’t understand the backlash against 1st person, either, as you noted, other than some very superficial, slick 1st person pieces have drawn the ire of the literary community. I also agree with your comment that bad writing is bad writing, whether in 1st or 3rd, past or present, or whatever. And good writing is good, no matter the voice.

      I still think that ‘most’ readers are more comfortable with 3rd limited and 1st person than they are with 2nd person or with the unusual (such as 1st person plural), but that’s no reason to ignore or not use them. But it definitely takes a writer of a different mindset and a very high skill level to accomplish them successfully.

      Of course, I’ve read your stuff, and you are one of those writers. A pleasure to have you stop by.

      • Dan Holloway Says:

        It’s nice to find other people who loved After Dark – and are probably as excited as me about the translation of 1Q84!

        I am still trying to figure out whether the POV preference is genre specific. It’s a not very well kept secret that as well as lit fic I love mysteries and thrillers, and I’ve surprised myself a couple of times with my reaction. A while ago Patricia Cornwell switched from 3rd person to 1st (in Last Precinct) and I couldn’t get beyond the 5th page – it was just awful. I was convinced it was the change of POV at the time but I then convinced myself I wasn’t so sure. Then just recently I discovered Lee Child (whose writing, in a “literary” sense is better than 99.99% of so-called “literary” writers). I read 61 Hours first, which is 3rd person. then read Gone Tomorrow, which is 1st. And again it jarred. His writing is so good it didn’t take long to get over it, but I wonder what my problem is with genre fiction and 1st person, or whether it exists at all. I know I find some protagonists annoying as people, maybe that’s it, I love the chase but don’tnecessarily care about the people chasing or being chased – I really can’t get to grips with the “everyman on the run” Harlan Coben and Simon Kernick books because there’s too much angsting. I don’t know what it is. It feels different – and it feels like it shouldn’t feel different!

  • Sian Says:

    Hi Robb,

    Very interesting post.
    I usually prefer good, old fashioned third but occassionally 2nd, present tense can work brilliantly. In Ian Banks book, Complicity, he uses it to great effect by making the reader complicit in some very gritty violence.

    Look forward to more of these.

    • Robb Says:

      Sian, great to see you here. I completely agree – there are those writers out there who will take risks, do something very different, and pull it off magnificently. I never intend to say “don’t ever do this” just because it isn’t standard technique. Those who break new ground or use the more non-standard techniques, and do it beautifully, create a whole new level of literary accomplishment. My comment about 2nd person voice is more of a “if you’re going to try this, know what you’re doing,” as it’s more difficult to pull off in a way that engages readers, and it’s not a standard style or voice that the average reader of commercial, mainstream or genre fiction is familiar or comfortable with. But there are always brilliant examples of writers who have done it well.

  • Robb Says:

    Dan, I figure it almost always comes down to personal taste. What one person enjoys, someone else finds poorly written or jarring or just irritating.

  • Ali Cooper Says:

    Funny how Dan should mention a feeling of complicity re 2nd person because ‘Complicity’ by Iain Banks contains short sequences of 2nd person narration, where the main character is clearly addressing the perpetrator of dreadful deeds (though not to his face). It builds suspense because we learn about this character but don’t know who he is.

    I find it interesting that many successful songs are written in second person. They address the listener directly and cut straight to their emotions.

    It’s easy to assume that first person is all me me me about the main character but I particularly like it when it’s restrained observation of other characters eg Brideshead Revisited.

    • Robb Says:

      Ali, good point about songs. Usually ‘I love you’ rather than ‘I love her’ or ‘He loves her.’ Although of course there are great songs in all those different voices. I guess ‘I love you’ is still in first person but breaks the wall between song and listener, something that isn’t done as often in novels. Pure 2nd person songs (‘You love her’) are also out there in abundance. Song lyrics are usually so much more intimate and direct than a novel. I think novelists could take some pointers from songwriters in lots of ways, including succinctness. I always think of how Lucinda Williams can paint an entire picture of scenery, setting, and characters in a single line or two of verse.

      I also agree with your comment on 1st person in writing. Stories that are 1st person and all about ‘me me me’ can become self-indulgent or the character can become irritating to listen to. But if the story is about some set of events or some other group of people as viewed through the narrator’s eyes, it can be more interesting (like Great Gatsby in which the 1st person narrator isn’t the main character).

  • Dr Anne Says:

    Hi Robb, thank you for this article. I would just like to comment on use of second person, I agree it can be very irritating.
    I have used it myself, in fiction, but mainly in article writing, and have seen it used successfully in SS.
    I also use first person a lot in my writing, and first person present.( I used to detest present tense and would never buy a book written this way).
    F P is hard to do well, and I tend to use it in my ghost stories to give immediacy.
    Mixing viewpoints is also hard and can lead to reader confusion. I feel it is best kept to separate chapters.
    Thanks again.
    Anne.

  • Kimberly Gould Says:

    My husband keeps daring me to write in second person and I keep daring him to take a long walk off a short pier. When I write him his ‘choose your own adventure’ he can have second person. LOL

    I’m looking forward to the rest of this series. In first person it is nearly impossible to ‘head-hop,’ but I look forward to your insight on this in third person limited and omniscient.

    • Robb Says:

      Kim, the whole series is up now. You can follow the links at the end of each article to the next one. Thanks for stopping by!