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Old 09-28-2007, 04:53 AM View Post #1 (Link) Point of View
Andy (Offline)
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Point of View

A story’s point of view (POV) is the way a story is presented to the readers. When someone is taking your picture, your point of view is different from the photographer’s, and also different from other people who might be watching the picture being taken.

Why is point of view important in a story? Because all characters do not see and feel the same things. If two characters split up and go their separate ways, you have to decide if the story will follow neither, one, or both of them.

Here’s an example: There's a wedding. Let’s say the story is being told from the POV of the wife-to-be, who is extremely nervous, yet excited. She will have her own thoughts on the wedding, and her experiences and motives will not be the same as another character’s. But if the story is being told through the POV of an angry mother-in-law who never wanted her son to marry her, the thoughts and actions will be vastly different. She may even have good reasons why the wedding is a bad idea – reasons that the wife-to-be probably hasn’t considered or thought much about. In the same way, a random guest’s experience with the wedding will be different from both of them.

The main idea: The point of view of a story will affect how readers respond emotionally to your characters and their actions.

Point of view will deal with the following aspects of a story:
- Who is telling the story: the narrator or a character?
- Whose eyes are seeing the events of the story unfold?
- Whose thoughts does the reader have access to?
- From what distance are the events being viewed?

Here are the different kinds of POV:

First Person

A story told in first-person is narrated by a character in the story, usually the protagonist.

The main problem with this option is that the narrator has to be present at all the important scenes. A narrator who merely hears about a story’s major events is no good, and it will sound awkward. Therefore, the narrator has to be a key player in the story – someone who sees and hears most or all the important stuff. For that reason, the protagonist is the most common choice of first-person narrators.

When a character is the narrator, it’s important to make sure that the way the narrator speaks reflects his/her attitudes in the story. For example, if the narrator returns to his home village and finds all his family dead, he’s not going to be calm at all. He’ll be devastated, and the narration should show it! In fact, the narrator might even start sounding crazed or nervous shortly before reaching that part of the story.

There are many ways to describe such a scene in first-person.
  • The narrator might use long descriptions to demonstrate what a gruesome scene it is, but that might make him seem gruesome himself, since he approves of using such a gross descriptions.
  • The narrator might be so overwhelmed that he can barely focus on telling the story, but then the reader might not be able to receive enough information about the scene.
  • The narrator might even describe it briefly or coldly, but that could make it seem like he doesn’t care.
  • It’s even possible that he’ll skip over the part where he finds his family, and merely summarize it later.
Whatever way you choose, make sure it fits with the character’s personality, and make sure the reader still learns the important stuff.


First Person – Multiple Narrators

Another option is to use first-person, but then to use two or more people to narrate the story. This option is almost never used in short stories, where space is so tight, but it’s not uncommon to see this with novels.

One good reason to use this is when something important happens, and multiple witnesses tell their own versions of what happened. Crime novels do that a lot.

Another is when two characters separate and go their own little ways, and it’s necessary for both of them to tell their stories so the reader learns all of what’s happening.

A more rare use is when a story is about two people exchanging letters, and the reader sees letters from both people – all written in first person, of course.

Even more rare is the first-person plural, where two or more characters (we) tell the story together instead of just one (I). William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is one such story. Yes, they do exist.

One of the strengths of first-person with multiple narrators is that the reader has to examine what the different narrators are saying and piece things together, instead of just listening to one narrator tell everything. Depending on how the different accounts fit together, it can make for an interesting experience.


First Person – Peripheral

Although the narrator is usually the protagonist, this doesn’t always have to be the case, such as in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

This option is useful when the protagonist dies and there’s more to be told after the death. Dead characters can't talk, so it's necessary to narrate with someone else.

An even better use is when the protagonist has some flaw that would prevent him/her from telling the story effectively. In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby is blind to his own actions and has some serious flaws – we wouldn’t be aware that he had such flaws if Gatsby was telling the story because he wasn’t aware of them. Thus, it is told by another character.

The key thing an author must grapple with here is that the narrator needs to be someone who has frequent meeting with the protagonist, or can learn what is necessary about him/her. Otherwise, the narrator won’t be able to say much about the protagonist, and the story will suffer.


Unreliable First Person

It’s possible to have an unreliable narrator - someone who disguises the truth or hides information due to his/her motives and goals. It could also be someone with serious storytelling limitations whose version of the story cannot be completely trusted due to age or medical conditions (like a psychopath).

The most famous example is Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”. In this story, the narrator is insane, though he tries very hard to convince the reader otherwise.

The advantage, or disadvantage, of an unreliable narrator is that the readers have to figure out for themselves what is true and false, since the narrator will not do it for them.

The writer might even be required to make 2 versions of the story – one true and one that’s been distorted. However, that can make for a very interesting story.


Third Person – Single Vision

With the third-person POV, the narrator is not a character in the story. The narrator is merely a voice created by the author to tell the story.

The most common form of third person is the kind where the narrator has access to only one character’s mind. Thus, the narrator views the story’s events through the eyes of a single character. The story is told by the narrator, from the perspective of that character.

That character is often referred to as the point-of-view character.

The Harry Potter series is one of the most well-known examples of this type of POV. We see everything through Harry’s eyes (except a few scenes), but he is not the person telling the story.

With this POV, you have the option of letting the narrator seem very close or very distance from the POV-character. It will determine just how much of that character we know about, and how much of their thoughts are revealed. If the POV-character has a secret that is not revealed until the climax, you won’t want a narrator who gets into his/her mind a lot. In this case, the narrator should be a little distant, knowing just enough of the character’s thoughts to keep the story moving, but not enough to ruin it.

Third person is an ideal choice if the POV-character is not someone who would be able to tell the story effectively, such as a child or someone with little formal education. They may see what’s happening, but if they were to narrate, the story might seem childish or awkwardly told.

Third person is also used with sword-and-sorcery fantasy a lot, because the protagonist has no idea what the evil ones are doing. The reader won’t, either, because they’re stuck viewing the story through the protagonist’s mind. This creates a sense of mystery and fear: what are the evil ones doing while the protagonist’s experiences are being followed?

Just like first person with a single narrator, the main disadvantage of third person-single vision is that the POV-character needs to be someone who will have access to all the information and events that are important in the story. If there is a major conflict where the POV-character is not present, the narrator will not be able to talk about it unless the POV-character hears about it from someone else.


Third Person – Multiple Visions

Just like with first person, your story might be better told through the perspectives of two or more characters, with the reader following the experiences of one character, then another, then another. This option lets you tell the story from multiple angles.

And it is often used for longer pieces of fiction. Short stories don’t usually have the room necessary to switch back and forth between characters and develop them fully.

Keep in mind, you don’t ever want the readers to ever get confused over who is telling the story. You should never switch POVs in the middle of a paragraph. Most authors use a line break or a new chapter so the transition is cleaner-cut. Sometimes they’ll even start a new section with the name of the character whose POV is about to be told, although the section’s narration should reveal that on its own.

There have been many clever ways in which authors switch points of view. In the story In Happenstance: Two Novels in One About a Marriage in Transition, by Carol Shields, the husband and wife tell the complete story in two separate halves, but the transition is impossible to miss: the reader must flip the book over to begin the other half. There is no instruction regarding which story to read first. Thus, the reader’s experience of the story is determined by which half they choose.

Whichever POVs you choose, there’s no sense in having multiple POV-characters if their views of the world are almost identical. With most multiple-vision stories, the interest is generated by the differences and similarities between the POV-characters and what they experience.

Third person multiple vision can give readers a wider view of a story, and give you as the author more flexibility. Your story may seem more roomy once you get outside a single character’s head. While each character’s experience is interesting, you should highlight what is most interesting by juxtaposing the various viewpoints.

Remember, the flexibility you gain with multiple viewpoints can cost you focus. The reader’s attention and concern are spread more thinly, but this can be turned to your advantage. That’s because the reader is automatically engaged in a more complex way. He/she has to observe and draw conclusions based on how the different characters’ beliefs contradict or confirm each other. The reader’s divided sympathy may be the point of the story.

For example, there’s a man struggling to support his two kids, and he’s finally found a job that can help their family. There’s also a woman living not too far away who’s handicapped, and she needs money to get herself out of the debt caused by her husband – and she applies for the same job. In this case, the readers feel sympathy for both of them, and they’ll experience a great deal of anguish. Both people cannot win, and a victory for one is a defeat for the other. This type of complexity is a great use for multiple POVs – who should the reader root for?


Third Person Omniscient

Omniscient means all-knowing. The writer, of course, is already all-knowing - he/she knows everything about the characters, the setting, and what will happen in the story. In the omniscient point of view, the writer is free to share with the reader some or all of that information with the reader.

In the POVs already discussed, the reader experiences the story through one character at a time. But with omniscient, the story is told through the consciousness of the all-knowing narrator. With this option, you can do any of the following: enter the mind of any or all the characters, interpret characters' actions and draw conclusions about them, describe things which are not seen or noticed by any of the characters, provide historical information which is helpful to the reader, and describe events that have not yet happened in the story.

Tolkien is possibly the best-known omniscient writer. In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, we get into the minds of Frodo, Gandalf, and other characters. Tolkien gives hints that things might happen later in the book, and "Concerning Hobbits" is a chapter filled with historical information.

Omniscience represents complete freedom, in a way. You can't make mistakes about accidentally getting into the mind of a non-POV character, or tipping off the reader too soon. It is very helpful for explaining the actions of a character - when none of the characters know how to explain it. You can also give information about bizarre customs that exist in your society.

However, there are downside to this. Omniscence can often draw attention to the presence of the writer. That's not what you want if you want readers to get sucked into the story. It is also a lot easier to get confused when you're getting into the minds of multiple characters. For that reason, most writers find it easier to write about just one POV, instead of giving the reader everything.


Third Person Objective

With objective, the writer is not allowed to enter the mind of a single character. This can prove to be a great challenge. You can only write about things regarding the five senses. You can't reveal what a character's hopes are (unless it is clear by their dialogue and actions) or reveal that they are lying (unless, again, it is clear by their dialogue and actions). All you can give are the cold hard physical facts.

One of the strengths of this POV is that it offers a sense of impartiality. The reader has to decide for himself what all the characters are like and what they think about them, without the narrator being able to influence the reader with the characters' thoughts.

There are ideal times when this POV is necessary. Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" is a story about a town with a secret. All the characters know the secret, however, the reader doesn't learn what it is until the very end of the story. For that reason, anything other than an objective POV would not work. If the reader got into a character's mind, they would learn what the secret was too early, and the climax would be ruined.

The downsides: one of the things that makes fiction so attractive is that the reader can see through the eyes of people they have never known. They can get new insights about life, and learn how people besides themselves think. Not in objective: these insights are denied. Unless you can present the reader with an objective story where the actions and dialogue are able to hook them, the reader will feel too distant from the entire story, and they'll put it down.


Second Person

In second person, the narrator tells what you did.
You are at home, moving the lawn. Suddenly, you hear a faint buzzing noise. The noise gets louder. You turn off the mover and listen. It gets louder and louder. Then, you see something falling from the sky. It is falling right into the neighbor's backward. It lands with a crash, and the buzzing stops.

What do you do?
Investigate.
Ignore it.
Choose-your-own-adventure stories are one of the most common types which use second person. As you can see, it makes it seem like you are the protagonist, the person exploring new worlds and living a different life.

There are other kinds of stories which use second-person. They cover all genres, with characters and plots, except that everything is happenning to you, and you don't get to decide what you do. You just do whatever the author says you do.

Self-help books are another variety. They tell you what to do, often in an imperative voice ("You see him standing there, with nothing to do just like you. Instead of standing silently,approach him and ask him his name").

Because the second POV is unique and very rarely used, it can give the reader an interesting and new experience. But proceed with caution. Unless you find some way to hold the reader's attention and use the 2nd POV in a clever way after the novelty of being directly addressed wears off, the 2nd POV will begin to sound stale and gimmicky after a while.


Be Careful With POV

POV is important, and maintaining the POV you chose throughout the entire story is even more important. The reader is trusting you to only reveal what you're allowed to reveal. If they're following a character throughout the entire story, and you suddenly describe something the character should not know about, the reader will notice, and they'll feel betrayed. The story will beel wrong to them, and their faith in you will diminish.

It's very easy to make mistakes like this. This is a scene from my story, in which Imelda spotted a POV error. It's being told through the eyes of Vadd, a boy, who is with a girl named Saxen. They were captured by creatures, and they are tied to a tree.
As the creature stared at Vadd, he noticed a sudden looseness in the ropes holding him down. He realized Saxen must have broken through the ropes on the other side. A second later, they fell to the ground. He wiggled through the remaining strands and dashed away from the creature.

“Hey!” the creature yelled. “They broke the ropes!” It pursued Vadd, who ran a short distance into the woods, not daring to look back at the vile beast. He could hear its legs thundering after him.

Saxen was free, too. Taking a handful of ropes, she formed a whip and struck the beast’s back as it pursued Vadd. It stopped and turned around, but not fast enough. Saxen jumped up and wrapped the ropes around its neck, pulling it back and choking it.
Did you catch it? If Vadd is running away from the creature, how would he be able to know Saxen has begun to attack it? Small as it was, it would have dealt a serious blow to maintaining the POV.

In order to help prevent errors like this, it may be a good idea for you to write down the rules you intend to follow: which POV will you use? Which characters will you be able to see into? How many of the character's thoughts do you intend to reveal to the reader: all of them, or only the ones which are absolutley necessary?

Whichever you choose, make sure you stick with it, all the way to the end.
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