Monday, February 1, 2010

Point of View: more personal than pronouns

Point of view is typically categorized in terms of pronoun types. First person, second person, third person. Then comes the point where people start wondering about the difference between omniscient and limited points of view, and what narrative distance is, and pronouns stop helping. There's a small degree of closeness that can be gained through the switch from third to first, but that's a minor tool in the grand scheme of things.

I think of three different types of tools for point of view:

1. personal pronouns
2. position words (believe it or not, these are adverbs!)
3. judgment words

Personal pronouns are precisely what you'd expect - I, me, my, myself, you, your, he, his, her, etc. Position words are words that locate the point of view character in time or space - here, there, now, last night, come, go, out, over, etc. They're cool, and I can go back to talk about them sometime if you'd like, but today I think I want to put some serious attention on judgment words.

What is a judgment word?

It's a word that shows the judgment of the point of view character or narrator - and I think these words are unrivaled in their ability to create a feeling of internal, personal point of view. If you've got pronouns alone working for you, you'll get a distant feeling. If you bring in position words and center them on your main character, you'll take a big step closer. If you then bring in judgment words, the feeling takes on a whole new level of power.

How do I know a judgment word when I see one?

You might find them easy to recognize, and you might not, but I'll try to give you a sense of the range of judgment words that you can use. These can appear anywhere in the narrative, on the assumption that all description is relaying what the character perceives, and judges, for him or herself.

1. Adjectives, nouns, and verbs that imply judgment.
Say the character sees a person doing something. Instead of saying "Monu came in wearing a hat," you can say something like, "Monu sneaked in, trying to hide himself behind his stupid hat." Sneaked implies the pov character's judgment, as does trying to hide himself, and stupid. The extra connotations behind words that you use in description will be understood as having been chosen by the point of view character.

2. Adverbs.
At this point, many of you may be getting alarmed because you've been told not to use adverbs. Ignore this. The people who rail against adverbs are railing only against improper use of those adverbs that end in -ly. I'm against improper use of adverbs too - grammatical tools should, after all, be used with maximum effectiveness.

All right then. Here I'm talking about adverbs that indicate how a point of view character feels about a situation. Probably is one, because whenever you use it, you're essentially saying that the point of view character has judged something to be probable. The list goes on: certainly, surely, obviously, fortunately, unfortunately, etc. We're not changing the manner of a verb so much as talking about how a character judges the source and reliability of information, and how it impacts him/her emotionally - and that's valuable information.

3. Articles.
You'd be surprised how much a little switch from "a" to "the" can do for you. The choice of article expresses the point of view character's knowledge of a situation - their judgment of whether something is known or new. If someone says "A bear came into the room," it implies that the bear is new information, but the room is known: likely, the point of view character is in the room ("came" also gives this impression) and being surprised by the bear. If someone says "The bear went into a room," that implies that the bear is known information, and the room is not. I can't use "came" in that sentence because it doesn't make sense - which only goes further toward showing that "a room" can't be a place where the point of view character is currently standing. To take it further, "The bear came into the room" implies that both bear and room are known, while "A bear walked into a room" can only rightly be said by a distant narrator establishing both bear and room for the first time.

4. Conjunctions.
Which one will you use: and, but, or or? You might not make the decision consciously, but these little words are working for you by implying judgments of logical relation on the part of your point of view character. "We'll go by the main road and pass by Tikon castle" implies that passing by the castle is a natural, following consequence of going on the main road. "We'll go by the main road but pass by Tikon castle" might imply that Tikon castle is on the main road, but probably should be avoided. "Shall we go by the main road, or pass by Tikon castle?" implies that these are two separate routes. All of those options are demonstrating the knowledge and judgments of your main character.

I'll stop there for now, but if you have any questions or feel I've missed anything, feel free to comment. The discussion is still open...

I discuss point of view issues at length, with examples from science fiction and fantasy classics, in a 2006 article in the Internet Review of Science Fiction, if you want to go check it out.


  1. Some good points on pov. I'm still somewhat averse to adverbs outside of dialogue or first person, but I completely agree with your other points.

  2. Great points on judgement words. They say so much - indirectly! I think they are the best way to create voice.

    Linking back to this one!

  3. Atsiko,

    You'll find I've further modified the section on adverbs above to address your concerns. This is a very common aversion but I find that avoiding adverbs tends to lead to lost opportunities (in addition to avoiding certain specific types of awkwardness).

    Deb, thanks for the link!

  4. Thank you for the great post! You've made some wonderful points on the use of judgement words that I never thought of before. :)

  5. Cool, Sandy! Thanks for coming by.