by Julie Eshbaugh
There are few decisions a writer can make that will have a stronger influence on their story than the choice of point of view. The point of view (POV) from which a story is told answers more than the simple question, “Who tells the story?” It determines “How much is the narrator allowed to know?” and “To what extent can the narrator perceive the characters’ thoughts and emotions and share them with the reader?”
There are four basic choices when it comes to POV:
1.) Third person omniscient
2.) Third person limited
3.) First person
THIRD PERSON OMNISCIENT may appear to a writer as the simplest means of telling a story, because the reader can know the thoughts of all the characters and therefore the writer can take the reader to any scene in the story and reveal as much – or as little – of the story as needed. Unlike third person limited or first person, the writer isn’t tied to what a single character sees or experiences.
Here’s an example of a scene from the classic story Hansel and Gretel told in third person omniscient POV. Italics are used to show the places the narrator conveys knowledge of a character’s thoughts or feelings:
“Hansel walked ahead of Gretel; after all, he knew he belonged in the front because Gretel was just a girl. Gretel dropped breadcrumbs behind her as she went, knowing that her bumbling brother couldn’t be counted on to find his way home from the outhouse, let alone from the middle of the woods.
Ahead of them, an old witch waited, her stomach rumbling at the thought of what a delicious dinner the two plump children would make.”
In this example, the writer is fairly liberal with her knowledge of all the characters. However, this doesn’t necessarily need to be the case. Some narrators may reveal the thoughts of all the characters but one, which raises the mystery and significance of the “unknown” character. Other times, a story might be told by a narrator that confines his observations to only one character at a time. This happens in the short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” by Richard Connell, where the POV shifts from Rainsford to Zaroff near the end of the story.
Third person omniscient gives the writer the most flexibility, and, when used well, it can enable a story to capture both depth and breadth. However, there are certain inherent dangers to omniscient POV. For one, the writer may come between her reader and her story by offering too many interpretations of events. The reader may become confused by an apparent inconsistency from shifting points of view, and the story may lose its realism by revealing so much more than what is experienced by the reader “in real life.”
THIRD PERSON LIMITED is similar to omniscient, except the writer can only access the thoughts and feelings of one character. The writer stays by the side of this character, so the story is limited to this one person’s experiences, and the narrator tells the story through this one character’s eyes and mind. Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is told in third person limited, with Elizabeth Bennet serving as the point of view character. By putting limitations on what the reader is able to know, suspense and mystery become much more available to the writer. Also, the narrator often takes on the attitudes of the point of view character, assuming that the character’s beliefs about the events of the story are true. This brings the focus in on this one select character and makes the story much more personal.
Here’s our Hansel and Gretel example, but from third person limited, with Gretel as the point of view character:
“Hansel walked ahead of Gretel. Gretel dropped breadcrumbs behind her as she went, knowing that her bumbling brother couldn’t be counted on to find his way home from the outhouse, let alone from the middle of the woods.”
Notice that the mention of the witch is gone, since Gretel has no knowledge of her at this point.
FIRST PERSON POINT OF VIEW takes the narration and moves it completely into the interior of one character. At first it may seem that the flexibility and limits of third person limited and first person would be the same, and they are very similar, but there a few key differences. Since in first person, the story is told by the character directly, the author as intervening narrator is completely eliminated, adding a bit of extra immediacy to the story and making the character’s “voice” much more discernible. However, the author who chooses first person over third person limited sacrifices the ability to interpret the character in any way that the character is not personally aware. Whereas third person limited allows the writer the opportunity to tell the reader things about the point of view character of which he or she may be only dimly aware, first person is limited entirely to what the narrating character asserts he or she sees. This makes the point of view very subjective, and if the first person narrator has a limited outlook, the reader will receive all the events filtered through the narrator’s limited ability to interpret his or her surroundings. One great example of a first person narrator who filters the story’s events before telling them to the reader is Holden Caulfield in Salinger’s CATCHER IN THE RYE. Holden isn’t the most objective narrator, so the reader is left to figure out the story’s events and their meanings while simultaneously figuring out the particular quirks of Holden’s personality.
Here’s our Hansel and Gretel example, but from first person, with Gretel as the point of view character:
“Hansel walked ahead of me. I made sure I dropped breadcrumbs behind me as I went, since my bumbling brother couldn’t be counted on to find his way home from the outhouse, let alone from the middle of the woods.”
Notice that the entire passage is italicized, because all of it is Gretel’s thoughts.
OBJECTIVE POINT OF VIEW is often referred to as Dramatic point of view, because the story is narrated by the author as if he is a mere spectator of events. Objective point of view contains no references to thoughts or feelings; it only reports what can be seen and heard. One way to imagine this POV would be to think of the narrator as a roving movie camera.
Objective POV has its own advantages and disadvantages. Of all the points of view available to an author, it could be argued that it offers the most speed and the most action. However, it doesn’t allow the writer any room to interpret events at all. This works well when writing stories with serious themes, because it removes the danger of the narrator coming across as “preachy.” Objective POV allows the reader to form his or her own opinions. It puts a lot of pressure on the writer, therefore, to convey all that needs to be conveyed with action and dialogue. A classic example of objective POV used to perfect effect is the short story “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson.
Here’s our Hansel and Gretel example, but from the objective POV:
“Hansel walked ahead of Gretel. Gretel dropped breadcrumbs behind her as she went.
Ahead of them, an old witch waited.”
Notice that none of the passage is italicized, because all of it is action, and no thoughts or feelings are included at all.
So which do you like the best? Have you ever attempted objective POV, or do you stick to a more standard approach? Do you always write in the same POV, or do you like to mix it up, depending on the project? I hope you’ll share your attitudes toward POV in the comments!