Writer’s Corner: Point of View

By: Rebecca Lang

Through whose eyes does the story unfold? Is it the hero in the center of the stage or the frightened child standing at the sidelines? Are multiple characters contributing to the story? Does the author tell the audience exactly what they’re seeing and what they should feel? Or does she more subtly invite the reader into the character’s head? How close is the audience to the story-teller?

Point of View is important because it establishes who is telling the story and how close the audience is to the character’s or characters’ thoughts and feelings. There are three basic points of view: first person, second person, and third person.


FIRST PERSON
“I”

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.

I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once. Or so they tell me.

–Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games


ADVANTAGES

  • Immediate intimacy. (You are right there in the main character’s head)
  • Character’s voice rings loud and clear.
  • Audience always knows who’s telling the story.

CHALLENGES

  • Lose perspective. (It’s hard to see anything going on outside the character’s world.)
  • Choose a character central to the action.
  • Audience won’t believe main character will die. (Though I have read one book where a first-person narrator was killed off 3/4ths of the way through the book.)
  • Be careful about withholding key information from the audience; what the narrator knows, the reader should know.

OFTEN USED IN

  • Young Adult: The audience feels instant connection to the character. (Example: Twilight, Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, etc.)
  • Literary: Establishes a strong and distinctive character voice. (Example: Catcher in the Rye) Or, gives us a narrator to observe events. (Example: The Great Gatsby)
  • Mystery: Use a person close to the detective to give us access to the clues without solving the mystery. (Example: Sherlock Holmes short stories)

SECOND PERSON
“You”

The first time the doctor smilingly tells you that you’re dying, it comes as a shock. It doesn’t matter how much you thought you prepared yourself, those dreaded words hit like a punch to the gut. Acute heart disease, perhaps, or a malignant tumor. Maybe cancer. Your mind flashes back to all those twentieth century films depicting chemotherapy, bald women, and missing body parts. Your nerves go numb.

–Rebecca Lang, original draft of “What No One Ever Tells You About Becoming Immortal”

This is a notoriously hard point of view to pull off and, aside from Choose-Your-Own-Adventures, isn’t frequently used. I think the main problem is that its difficult to create a complex character and maintain the belief that it’s really the audience doing and feeling these things. Since it’s used infrequently, I won’t go into it.


THIRD PERSON
“He/ She”

Third person is further split up into two different categories:

THIRD PERSON OMNISCIENT

The author or a narrator floats god-like from the heavens, describing the action below and occasionally drifting in and out of character’s heads.

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

The planet has–or rather had–a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.

–Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy


ADVANTAGES

  • Gain perspective. (You know absolutely everything that’s going on, immediately)
  • Quick and easy explanations.
  • Can tell the reader information that the characters don’t know.

CHALLENGES

  • Lose intimacy. (You don’t feel close to the characters)
  • Ends up telling the reader instead of showing them an experience.
  • Going into multiple character’s heads can lead to reader confusion and fatigue.
  • Best used sparingly.

OFTEN USED IN

  • Humor: Distance helps show the ridiculousness of the situation. (Example: The Princess Bride)
  • Children’s: The narrator explains information directly to the children. (Example: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)
  • Period/ Historical: Gives audience a broad overview of the mood of the era. (Example: A Tale of Two Cities)

THIRD PERSON CLOSE/ LIMITED

The author stays inside one character’s head at a time. Sometimes they switch to another character, but they usually indicate the change with a space break, chapter break, * * *, or some other clue as to the change.

The monitor lady smiled very nicely and tousled his hair and said, “Andrew, I suppose by now you’re just absolutely sick of having that horrid monitor. Well, I have good news for you. The monitor is going to come out today. We’re going to take it right out, and it won’t hurt a bit.”

Ender nodded. It was a lie, of course, that it wouldn’t hurt a bit. But since adults always said it when it was going to hurt, he could count on that statement as an accurate prediction of the future. Sometimes lies were more dependable than the truth.

–Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game


ADVANTAGES

  • Balances intimacy and perspective.
  • Can create connections with multiple characters.

CHALLENGES

  • Takes longer, especially when establishing a new point of view.
  • Even with space breaks, an audience can still be confused about who’s pov they’re in.
  • Beware creating too many characters with point of views; it can dilute the story and add unnecessary subplots.

OFTEN USED IN

  • Epic Fantasy: Use multiple characters to give a broad view of the world and plot. (Example: Game of Thrones)
  • Mystery: Show suspects acting suspiciously without giving away the murderer. (Example: And Then There Were None)
  • Romance: Go back and forth between the feelings of the lovers. (Example: Pride and Prejudice)

EXERCISE

Read the passage below and answer the following questions.

1. Which Point of View is this written in?

2. How many Point of View Switches do you see? Identify them.

3. How do you feel about the Point of View Switches?


“Want some buttermilk?” July asked, going to the crock.

“No, sir,” Joe said. He hated buttermilk, but July loved it so that he always asked anyway.

“You ask him that every night,” Elmira said from the edge of the loft. It irritated her that July came home and did exactly the same things day after day.

“Stop asking him that,” she said sharply. “Let him get his own buttermilk if he wants any. It’s been four months now and he ain’t drunk a drop–looks like you’d let it go.”

She spoke with a heat that surprised July. Elmira could get angry about almost anything, it seemed. Why would it matter if he invited the boy to have a drink of buttermilk? All he had to do was say no, which he had.


ANSWERS

1. Third person point of view. It can be argued that it’s an omniscient point of view or a badly written close/ limited third person.

2. Three switches.

Joe’s point of view
Elmira’s point of view
July’s point of view

“Want some buttermilk?” July asked, going to the crock.

“No, sir,” Joe said. He hated buttermilk, but July loved it so that he always asked anyway.

“You ask him that every night,” Elmira said from the edge of the loft. It irritated her that July came home and did exactly the same things day after day.

“Stop asking him that,” she said sharply. “Let him get his own buttermilk if he wants any. It’s been four months now and he ain’t drunk a drop–looks like you’d let it go.”

She spoke with a heat that surprised July. Elmira could get angry about almost anything, it seemed. Why would it matter if he invited the boy to have a drink of buttermilk? All he had to do was say no, which he had.

3. Opinions may vary. However, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, where I pulled the passage from, has this to say about it:

“Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is a powerfully written book, yet some readers find it hard to get involved in the story, in part because of passages like the above. The characters are clear, the dialogue has an authentic feel to it, but in the second paragraph we’re seeing the scene as Joe sees it, in the third we’ve switched to Elmira, and in the last paragraph we’ve switched to July. We never settle into a single point of view.”

FOR FURTHER READING

Characters and Viewpoints by Orson Scott Card

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King

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