NaNoWriMo: Narrative Point of View (POV)

So you have your characters, your conflict, and your resolution.

You have a rough outline of how your story is going to go, and where the rising and falling action is.

When you started writing, whether you did it consciously or not, you made decisions about the point of view of the story. Point of view, or POV, describes the “view” which the reader has of the story’s events.This can be up close, limited, or very broad. The POV you use can help shape the story. It can help you reveal events, or conceal them. It can let the reader get very close to a character or prevent the reader from getting ahead of the plot.

Narrative Person

Your story is being “told” to the reader. It can be told by a character in the story, or by a “narrator” describing the events. If the character telling the story is part of the story, this is a first-person narrator, which means the character is describing the events using “I, me, we.” If the voice telling the story is not part of the story, this is a third-person narrator, using “he, she, they.“ The Hunger Games is a first-person narrative; Game of Thrones is third-person.

First-person narrators can only relate what they experience and think. If Katniss is in her house, she cannot know what is happening at the bakery until and unless someone tells her. She can think about her feelings for her sister, or talk about her fears of being selected as Tribute, but the reader doesn’t know what Peeta is doing until Katniss goes to where Peeta is. First-person POV is always limited.

If you want to do flashbacks, it’s harder in first-person, although not impossible.

Third-person narration can be omniscient, limited, or objective.

  • Omniscient means “all-knowing.” In POV terms it means means the story is told by a narrator which is not part of the story and uses he/she/they, and presents the thoughts of many characters, in succession or together. Any information can come from anywhere because the narrative view can be anywhere. Very popular in the 19th and some of the 20th century, and still heavily used in SF/F.
  • Limited third-person means the story is told by a narrator which is not part of the story and uses he/she/they, but sticks with one character. The reader can hear that one character’s thoughts, but no one else’s, and anything which happens in the next room which the viewpoint character can’t see is unknown to the reader until it’s known to the character. A lot of 21st-century stories are told this way, such as the Harry Potter series (with I think two opening chapters not from Harry’s POV).
  • Objective third-person means the story is told by a narrator which is not part of the story and uses he/she/they, and there are no thoughts in the narrative. The reader only knows what a character is thinking and feeling by the description of the narration. Technically almost all TV and movies are “objective third-person,” unless the character turns to address the camera or we get a voiceover of the character’s thoughts. Good for mysteries.

It’s very easy to move about in time using this POV: just announce the date at the top of a chapter and off you go.

I Me Mine

Why use first-person?

First-person is intimate. It’s immediate. It allows you to tell the story of one really important person (or, in the case of someone like Nick in The Great Gatsby or the second Mrs. DeWinter in Rebecca, to show how unimportant the protagonist feels in comparison to another character). If your conflict is Person vs. Self, this is a no-brainer, because so much of the action is going to be internal anyway. Your reader is swept up into what your narrator thinks and feels and experiences, so it can be very exciting and emotional.

A first-person narrator has the greatest tendency to be an unreliable narrator. This means that the character has his/her/their own biases and flaws, and so doesn’t see the world with perfect objectivity (or at least the objectivity of a third-person narrator). If you are trying to conceal information from the reader, or if the narrator is being self-deceitful, well, the reader only knows what the narrator presents. If the narrator interprets Tameeka’s text That’s fine. as angry instead of agreeable, we have only the narrator’s perception to go on — we can’t get Tameeka’s perception unless she tells the narrator that she feels strongly about using full sentences in texts.

This POV can be useful to conceal some details from the reader, such as in a mystery, while still allowing the reader to identify with the protagonist emotionally.

Why shouldn’t you use first-person?

Your narrator only knows what’s going on in the immediate vicinity, so you have to figure out a way to get information to the person. The narrator can’t know what’s happening across town, or in someone else’s mind. If your conflict is Person vs. Society, it might get kind of whiny if the narrator is just wailing about all the terrible things happening without the reader learning about the revolt being quietly planned. If it’s Person vs. Nature, a first-person view restricts the reader from seeing the greater scope of the disaster.

The Eye in the Sky

Why use third-person omniscient?

It was the gold standard for well over a century. This POV allows you to get the maximum information to the reader, including asides for history, worldbuilding, culture, and scenery. You can show events that the characters may never know about or interact with because they have a later effect on the story, or give broader context to your characters’ lives by showing how the events of the story affected other people.

Why shouldn’t you use third-person omniscient?

One of the difficulties of third-person omniscient is the tendency towards head-hopping. This means that the narration is giving us the thoughts of several people all at once. It’s distracting. If you have multiple protagonists, you should wait for some kind of scene break to change viewpoint characters. The Game of Thrones books do this by changing the POV character with each chapter. Missandei may show up in Daenerys’s chapter to advise her, but we only get Daenerys’s thoughts, not Missandei’s. We won’t know Missandei’s thoughts or feelings until we get to her POV chapter. (You can argue whether this is “serial limited third-person“ or “omniscient focused third-person,” but whatever you call it, only one head at a time, please.)

Also, if you have room to describe history and scenery, it’s easy to spend four pages going on about history and scenery while your character is still standing in the door waiting to come in the room. That’s called an infodump, where you’re dumping a lot of information on the reader rather than spreading it out or attaching it to some character action.

Looking Over Your Shoulder

Why use third-person limited?

More immediate than third-person omniscient, but more reliable than first-person. The reader gets all of the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings, but not necessarily all the character’s biases and flaws. The character will of course act and think according to those biases and flaws, but there’s a difference between “I knew Snape hated me. No matter how good I was, I’d never brew anything that would satisfy him” and “Snape peered disdainfully into the cauldron and pointed out that the potion was blue when it should be purple.” One is an opinion; the other is fact colored by perception. The first quote leads the reader to believe that Snape irrationally hates Harry for no reason. The second allows the reader to see that Snape is, albeit rudely, correcting a student who made a mistake in the assignment (and Harry is taking it personally).

You can have multiple third-person limited POV characters in a story, as long as each scene/chapter etc. only has the POV of one character. I sometimes describe this as ”the camera is sitting on one person’s shoulder at a time.” In the Harry Potter series, the camera is always on his shoulder: we see what he sees, and only what he sees. In Game of Thrones, the camera moves to a different shoulder in each chapter. This can allow the reader to see a plot unfolding in different cities, or see the effects of Person A’s actions on Person B, but we can only see one person’s thoughts at a time.

Why shouldn’t you use third-person limited?

As in first-person, your reader only knows what the POV character knows. Anyone else’s thoughts or feelings have to be communicated to the POV character, in words, actions, or expressions. If you want to seed little details which may be important later, your POV character has to see and remember those details. Anything important has to happen “on-camera,” regardless of how small or whether the event’s importance isn’t clear for a hundred pages. If something happens in the next room, or the next state, the main character has to learn about it for the reader to know about it.

The Camera Never Lies

Why use third-person objective?

To conceal the most possible information from the reader, and only reveal it when you as the writer are ready, for maximum impact. This is good for mysteries and action stories. A third-person objective narrator is completely reliable because there are no thoughts or emotions to cloud the observations. (By “reliable” here I mean only that what is presented to the reader is factual, not that the facts can’t be misleading or red herrings.)

Why shouldn’t you use third-person objective?

You have to be really committed to ”show, don’t tell,” and never even once give the reader a character’s thoughts. We can only know expressions, words, and actions. You have to show everyone’s emotions on their faces and in their actions, or the story will be bloodless. The characters have to talk about their feelings a lot, or the reader may not know what’s going on internally. (That is, of course, if what’s going on internally is relevant to the story!)

E Tu?

You can tell a story in second person, where there is no “I“ character but there is a “you” character. The popular Choose Your Own Adventure books are written this way, and there are plenty of Tumblr story-posts in this POV as well, but not many novels. Part of the Hugo-winning The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin is in second-person. (These blog posts are written in first person — that’s me! — addressing you the reader, which is not the same as “second-person POV.”) The reader is made into the main character, so the reader is told “These are your thoughts, emotions, and actions.” It can be hard to pull off, but don’t let that stop you if you have your heart set on it.

Can You Change?

Well, yes. It’s your story.

Stephen King’s Christine changes from first person to third-person limited and back to first again, to allow King to show what happens in the life of a different character. Jemisin’s novel, as noted above, is partly in second person. Gael Baudino’s Water! trilogy cycles POV repeatedly, from a standard third-person omniscient to first person (but a different character in a different time and place) to a stonecutting manual with lines increasingly crossed out… it’s very weird.

But that’s rare. The more salient question is: If you start writing your story in one POV, can you re-do it some other way?

And the answer is resoundingly yes, of course!

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal was originally a first-person romance with a dash of coming-of-age. Maggie Hope, the main character, is an American math student who puts off graduate school to travel to London in 1939 to sell her late grandmother’s house, but World War II breaks out and she can no longer leave. She makes the best of her life in Britain, works as a typist, and pursues an RAF pilot; the affair ends badly, but she’s grown wiser.

After multiple drafts and attempts to get published, MacNeal first re-imagined the story as a thriller, making it much leaner and more action-oriented, and then changed the POV from first-person to third-person limited.

Ten books later, it’s safe to say that was a good call.

So by all means, if your story is not accomplishing what you want it to, feel absolutely free to rework it in a different point of view, a different voice, a different narrator. Sometimes starting from some other assumption is all you need to break a writer’s block or get out of a corner.

Since we’ve spent time focusing on choosing to show or conceal what a character thinks, next week we’ll talk about how you can build a fully-fleshed, individual character — as many as you need, in fact.

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Images from United Artists, HBO/George R.R. Martin, Warner Bros., STX Films, Bantam

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