Monday, February 28, 2011

What does choice of point of view (POV) mean? How does it challenge a writer?

I can't tell you how many lengthy discussions I've witnessed, and participated in, on the topic of point of view. With every visit to Absolute Write (a terrific site for writers, so check it out if you haven't) I'm almost guaranteed to find a discussion of point of view going on in one form or another... so I thought it was about time I revisited the topic.

Most people come to the topic of point of view through the basic categorization scheme of first person - second person - third person. It's not too hard to learn that first person means "I," second means "you," and third means "he" or "she." Where things get tangled up is in the further categories that get imposed, particularly on third person. So for today's post, I'm going to start by talking about some general characteristics of point of view, and then make a checklist to talk about what effects each basic pronoun permutation has, and what challenges it presents to the writer.

The most basic thing that point of view does is allow you, as a writer, to control information. In any given social situation there is so much available sensory information that you can't possibly capture it all. This was brought home to me in quite dramatic fashion by one of my professors in grad school. He asked the people in the class to write down everything he did from the point when he said "go" to the point when he said "stop." Then he went outside the door, said "go," walked in and up to his desk carrying a book, set down the book, looked up and smiled, and said "stop." After doing that, he had each person read the description he or she had written. Every single one of twenty descriptions was different from every other.

As a writer, you're in charge of what information makes it into your story. What gets in there should be whatever information is most important for the reader to understand - this is true whatever pronoun you choose to use. The different pronouns, however, create different effects - especially when used in conjunction with different verb tenses. I'll try to lay out some of the differences, and the complications that come with them, below.

1a. First person present tense (sometimes, "first person concurrent")
  • How we identify it: "I" is in the subject position when the narrator acts; main action verbs are in present tense, "am," "go," "walk," etc. though there will also be progressives ("am doing") and modals ("should be").
  • The narrator is the character reporting while in the process of experiencing the story. That means that his/her knowledge is restricted. Unless he/she has experienced something, or been told something, he/she cannot know it. He/she cannot know anything about what will happen before it happens. However, he/she is free to speculate, and to judge, and to regret, etc.
  • The narrative feels very myopic and immediate. Often readers will feel an extreme sense of intensity. This makes it a good choice when you want people to identify with the visceral experiences and emotions of your narrator. The narrative also carries the individual voice of the character.
  • The writer has at least three challenges here. First is to make sure to keep all information restricted to the character's own perceptions, judgments and actions without letting author knowledge creep in. Second is to make sure to include enough information and orientation that readers don't become disoriented. Third is to make sure to exclude filter words that distance readers from the narrative, and to include enough of others' behavior, and of judgment-laced description, that the narrative doesn't fall into a constant repetitive pattern of sentences starting with "I."
Example from "Cold Words" (Analog Oct 2009):
I scent human outside the door: our linguist, Parker. He never comes to the Ice Home while I attend Cold Council - he must bring important news! I bow to haunches, then excuse myself from Majesty's presence, quickly as I can without inviting snarls from the others.

1b. First person past tense/retrospective
  • How we identify it: "I" is in the subject position; main action verbs are in past tense, "was," "went," "walked," etc. though there will also be progressives ("was doing") and modals ("should have been"). Certain verbs may appear in present tense because of ongoing states.
  • The narrator is the character reporting the story after it has happened. Some authors put the narrator in a sort of nebulous, unidentifiable later time, but I think it's particularly interesting when the later context is more specific. The character may be an old woman talking about her youth, or someone who has just survived the climactic battle reporting on events of the last six months, or possibly someone in the afterlife reporting on the cause of his/her death (so this choice doesn't necessarily make readers doubt the peril the narrator is in).
  • The narrative feels less directly immediate than present tense narration. It may be infused with a distinct sense of storyteller voice, particularly if the narrator's context means he/she is reporting as a storyteller after the fact.
  • The writer's challenges are similar to those of the present tense narrative, in that information must be systematically restricted to the perceptions, emotions and judgments of the main character. It is somewhat easier to keep readers oriented because of the "storyteller" factor. The narrator may also (though not necessarily) make reference to events in the future of his/her past self, because they are in the past relative to the place where he/she is currently sitting while telling the story. It's also good to avoid filter words and overuse of the simple first person subject "I" to begin sentences.
Example from Blue Fire by Janice Hardy:
I watered the lake violets in the front sunroom. Just busy work, but I had to do something other than sit in the town house worrying while my friends were out risking their lives. I should have been out there with them, but I'd been recognized on our last rescue mission, and it wasn't safe outside for me anymore. Not that Geveg had been all that save in the five years since the Baseeri invaded; but being hunted by the Duke, his soldiers, Geveg's Governor-General, and who knew how many trackers added a whole new level of danger.

1c. First person mixed present/past tense
I included this one because it's more unusual, but makes perfect sense if, for example, you have a narrator who is sitting and writing a diary entry, commenting on both things that have happened in his/her past, and things that are going on while he/she is writing.

Example from Through This Gate (Dana writing in her journal about trying to figure out her new roommate Shannon):
Maybe mom was hinting that Shannon has some kind of granola-head thing going and I shouldn't let myself be influenced, but I'm not sure that fits with the makeup, or the computer either. Anyway, when the last box was in, Mom looked around my empty half of the room as if she didn't notice the bare blue mattress or the battered furniture. "This is great," she said, gesturing - I swear, the woman could conduct orchestras.

2a. Second person
  • How we identify it: "You" is in the subject position when the narrator acts.
  • The narrator is placed in a position which is the same as that of the reader. An assumption is made that the reader will accept an alternate assignment of identity. However, the protagonist is not actually usually the reader, but a character in the story as one would expect with other pronouns.
  • The narrative feels demanding and provocative. There may be a sensation that the actual protagonist is standing behind the reader, acting, but mostly invisible.
  • The writer's challenge grows directly out of the problem of narrator=reader. In order to enjoy the story, the reader must accept that they are conditionally being placed in the position of both character and reader. Not all readers are willing to do this. The actual identity of the narrator will grow out of that narrator's judgments and actions. Because of the sensation that the character is standing invisibly behind the reader, the identity of the narrator becomes a major factor in driving the story. Story entry is of special importance, because often the reader will have an easier time accepting this unusual subject position if the writer eases them into it slowly, rather than saying something extreme like, say, "You're a cyborg and you want to take over the world!" It's also important to keep the focus of the point of view restricted to the perceptions and reactions of a single character. If it's hard for a reader to accept being one other person, adding extra information will only make it harder.
Example from If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino:
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, "No, I don't want you to watch TV!" Raise your voice - they won't hear you otherwise - "I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed!" Maybe they haven't heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: "I'm beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel!" Or if you prefer, don't say anything; just hope they'll leave you alone.

3a. Third person limited (also, "close third person")
  • How we identify it: "He" or "She" is in the subject position when the narrator acts.
  • The narrator is a character in the story. The information in the narrative must be restricted to what that single character knows, perceives, experiences, or judges, just as if it were written in first person.
  • The narrative feels idiosyncratic, carrying the character's voice. This voice may differ depending on the placement of the narrator either in the action (present tense) or after the action (past tense), but it reflects the character's identity.
  • The writer's challenge is to manage the story while maintaining the limits on the information a character can experience. Since both the protagonist and other characters will be marked with "he" and "she" pronouns, it can sometimes be harder to keep this discipline. Some authors using close third person point of view choose to change from one character to another over the course of the story in order to drive the story from different directions, so that no single character has all the information that the reader does. The challenges in this case become keeping the narrative voices distinct when using different characters to carry the narrative, and making sure readers don't get confused when point of view switches occur. A common means to reduce confusion is to mark point of view changes with chapter or scene breaks.
Examples from "The Eminence's Match" (Eight Against Reality, 2010)
Shadowless in the light of two hundred and twelve electric bulbs on his vaulted stone ceiling, the Eminence Nekantor frowned down over his naked ribs. Look: two gold buttons at the waist of his silk trousers. Fastened, both of them, completely fastened. Deceptively fastened. They had been fastened wrong: lower-then-upper, not upper-then-lower. The difference stuck to the buttons like fingerprints. The difference felt like fingers pressing on his mind.
Xinta bent into a half-bow, watching a gang of six noble boys surround him. They had a new leader today: Grobal Rennerik, with reddened knuckles on his right fist that matched a mark beside the former leader's left eye. The followers' gazes flickered hungrily between them. Clearly this encounter was to become Rennerik's demonstration that his leadership was deserved. That would mean a difficult task - but if he could carry it out, he could prove his worth in love and loyalty to all of them at once.

3b. Third person omniscient
  • How we identify it: "He" or "she" is in the subject position when any character acts.
  • The narrator is not a character in the story. This makes third person omniscient different from any of the other points of view mentioned above. It means the narrator is free of any restriction of person, time, or place that the story itself may impose on characters.
  • The narrative feels distinctly as if it is being related by a storyteller. Sometimes the voice of the narrator is distinctive (grandfatherly, or like an epic poet, etc.), and sometimes it is more invisible, but it does not match that of any character in the story. Readers don't share the myopia of any single character, though the narrator may show it to them.
  • The writer's challenge is to decide how to restrict the information included in the story. The narrator knows all - everything about the setting, about the characters' motives, perceptions, judgments, emotions and actions - but cannot tell all, for the reasons I mentioned above. Generally the narration will stick relatively close to the main character, because the goals of that person, and the stakes that person faces, are what keep the main conflict of the story driving forward. However, some narrators will create tension and drive by showing how different characters misunderstand one another. Because the narrator is not a character and has his/her own distinct voice, authors are free to show different characters' viewpoints in relatively close succession. The challenge becomes keeping the sense that the narrator is located in a place outside the story, distinct from the viewpoint of any character, so readers don't get confused when they are told what one character experiences so closely after hearing about another.
Example from A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
"Here we are, Sara," said Captain Crewe, making his voice sound as cheerful as possible. Then he lifted her out of the cab and they mounted the steps and rang the bell. Sara often thought afterward that the house was somehow exactly like Miss Minchin. It was respectable and well furnished, but everything in it was ugly; and the very armchairs seemed to have hard bones in them.

You may notice at this point that I have not discussed some other variants of third person, like third person limited, or third person distant. These are questions of narrative distance, which I don't have time to discuss in this post. I'll try to take them up in the near future. For now, though, I encourage you to pop over to Janice Hardy's The Other Side of the Story, where she's going further with questions of omniscient point of view.


  1. I find reading in 3rd person omniscient often busy and confusing. It has to be really carefully crafted to not give the reader a headache! Not a skill every writer has, to be sure! I enjoy reading in First person, or tight 3rd. And as a novice writer - I find these are the easiest to write in as well!

  2. Roberta, I do fine with omniscient provided that the voice of the narrator is strong and I know from the front that the narrative is omniscient. Sometimes I'll get partway in, realize I'm switching heads, and have to go back to the beginning and start again under the revised assumption that I'm reading omniscient!

  3. Looks like I need to hunt down some of Italo Calvino's work! I don't recall ever reading a published book that uses 2nd person POV, except for The Plague Dogs' brief scenes of directly addressing the reader. Difficult though it is to use, 2nd person POV strikes me as an interesting way to make the reader feel involved in the story.

    1. I've never read a second person POV book that wasn't a game book (I was OBSESSED with Joe Dever's Lone Wolf series as a teenager, but I digress). I too want to pick up some of Calvino's work; I am SUPER impressed!

    2. Yes, it is fascinating stuff. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Heidi, it is certainly interesting. I find it takes some getting used to. Some folks take one look at it and their eyes bounce off! But Italo Calvino's book is pretty amazing. It's a great example of someone who has second person totally under control.