Point of View: An overview

September 7, 2017

Point of View (POV), the perspective a work of fiction is written from, is more complicated than first-person (I/we), second-person (you/your) or third-person (s/he). There’s also who’s point of view. Is it to be the protagonist or antagonist, a lesser character maybe, or some omniscient know-all? It’s an important decision because each choice has benefits and limitations.


Take third-person omniscient know-all. This narrator is as all-knowing as God or, to put it another way, You as writer (your fiction is your creation). Many authors use it because thery don’t have to contrive dialogue or expression to expose what and why someone feels, wants, desires and hates, they can just tell the reader.


But how do you build suspense and uncertainty with a know-all? How do you withhold information without it feeling contrived, or construct convincing red herrings? And how do you stop your reader getting bored? After all, readers’ like a bit of uncertainty. It gives them something to think about.


And where do you stop as a know-all? Do you tell the reader what the shopkeeper’s thinking when your hero asks for an aspirin. It’s tempting but it can be wearying. Take this example: ‘He grabbed the pickpocket by the throat, his anger boiling over, his reason evaporating. This is it, thought the crook struggling for breath as his girlfriend snatched the fallen wallet and wondered, should I leg-it and leave them to it?’ There are so many shifting perspectives in those sentences that the reader ends up observing rather than caring.


Limited third-person has its own problems of course. The narrator must know, see or hear enough about the protagonist to tell the story. Changing POV to first-person protagonist, solves that problem—but can we trust his/her version of events? And that brings in another aspect of POV: should you make it reliable or unreliable, i.e. do you want the reader to trust the narrator or not. Again, both have their advantages and disadvantages.


For example: Watson narrating Holmes’s adventures lets us admire the detective. If Holmes narrated them himself, we’d think him a show-off and probably be sceptical—but it might be comic. If his housekeeper narrated them, we’d know her information was second hand and unreliable but maybe we’d still read on to find out if she fancied him and what she knew about Holmes’s and Watson’s ‘relationship’.


An increasingly popular choice for writers is shifting first-person point of view. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner was an early example with first person point of view shifting to different characters chapter by chapter. It can work but readers are used to an emotional attachment to a main character (maybe two). Switching character focus too many times could make them switch off.


Second-person point of view is the least used POV because it’s hard to sustain without the tiresome repetition of ‘you’. It can also be uncomfortable for the reader, like an accusing finger. But that uncomfortable closeness can be made use of. Imagine for instance you’re writing about a character who dislikes what they are. Such characters are divided, and that can be realised in second-person point of view by the narrator talking of him/herself as ‘you’. 


Then of course, there’s past or present tense to decide… but enough for this week. 



Book review/recommendation: The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester


The Oxford English Dictionary was a massive undertaking that took years and dozens of unpaid researchers and contributors. You had to be mad to take it on and one of its main contributors was. This is his story.


Simon Winchester writes history with the readability of fiction. He proves the old saying: fact is stranger than fiction. He also proves not all geeks are boring—not the insane ones anyway.


His website: http://www.simonwinchester.com/ has a fascinating YouTube link. It's old war propaganda but for once it's propaganda about tolerance. See it here.





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