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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Understanding Point of View

Learning how to handle point of view in writing is one of the first things I had to learn. My first short story that eventually become my first published short story, Dragon Stew, had three limited-third person points of view, and I learned early on the importance of establishing the point of view character within the first paragraph, if not the first line of their section.

So I felt it a good idea to break down for the new writer, as well as perhaps a way of looking at it for the more established writer, the main types of points of view. Note: I'm probably not going to use the "official" term in every case, but use the generally accepted term. And I probably won't touch upon some of the more obscure points of view. Some of these could have further breakdowns and get more detailed. I'm keeping it simple so we don't get too bogged down in point of view overload.

Before we get into that, it is helpful to discuss briefly a side issue related to point of view: tense. A point of view can be written in past tense, present tense, or future tense. I suppose if you wanted to be adventurous, you could go for writing it in past perfect tense. The common tense is past, and sometimes you'll see present. Rarely, if ever, any other.

You'd be hard put to find a book written in future tense. For that to work, you'd have to be speaking with a medium using a crystal ball, or maybe God Himself. But the real problem with this tense is there is no reality to it. It is all future and the reader will get the sense that it could all change, that the story may end up being something totally different when it actually happens. That makes it hard for the reader to feel any tension in the story and to care about it.

And present tense, while done, is also hard. The main reason someone would use this tense is for the immediacy, and to completely limit the character's ability to know anything. It's downside is it usually takes the reader some time to adjust to the unusualness of it. We are so used to reading stories in past tense, that when we read, "I kick the can down the road and watch as it tumbles and rocks to a stop. I shake my head. 'Just like my life,'" it pulls us out of the story. I read a novel written in present tense once. It took me about three or four chapters before I no longer noticed that it was in present tense. Until then, it just sounded weird.

Past tense is the most familiar. The above example would be: "I kicked the can down the road and watched as it tumbled and rocked to a stop. I shook my head. 'Just like my life.'" It is a more natural tense to tell a story, because there is the assumption when you tell a story, that it has already happened. Present tense is like watching a reality show live, seeing events unfold as they happen. Future is predicting what will happen. In either case, to tell a story assumes that you already have a story to tell, which presupposes past tense. The assumption in all past tense points of view is that there is a narrator telling the story, whether or not the narrator ever "speaks" for him/herself. That is the most natural story telling mode, and why the other tenses create a sense of artificialness and weirdness.

Whichever tense you'll use, you'll need to chose a point of view to tell the story. For each point of view, I'm going to categorize this from the perspective of who you are as the narrator. How much you can know, and what you can relate to the reader, all depends on who the narrator is, and determines your point of view.

1. You Are the Character in the Story

First person, limited point of view. When the character speaks about themselves, it is always in the terms of "I frowned," "I kicked," "I laughed." And since it is "in story," the character doesn't know anything more than what the character knows at any given point in the story. So if you as a writer know someone is sneaking up on your character, the character can't know it is happening until he or she hears a board creaking and turns around, or something like that. They can't see the future or know what anyone else is thinking other than what they assume from body language and what is said.

On the other side, the reader should know anything important that the character knows.  I read one first person book where during the whole book there was something the main character had done to their brother, and he feared his bigger brother was going to take revenge on him if he found out. One of the book's main tension points was this fear of what would happen when his brother discovered the truth. It was built up to be this really big thing, and I expected the big reveal would show some horrible deed. But we were never let in on what that horrible deed was until the very end. That's info hiding. The reader, being the character, should have known what that deed was. When I reached the end and found out what it was, it was something petty, and the older brother forgave him without a problem. All that tension, for nothing! And based on info we should have been told at the start of the book.

This point of view is probably the second most used point of view today. You'll often see it in mystery novels to give you the sense of being the detective, seeking clues. It is the most intimate point of view between the character and the reader, as the reader "becomes" the character. They feel and hear what this character thinks and feels, and has the most intimate relationship with that character out of any in the novel.

It is also the point of view to use if you wish to show "facts" in a distorted manner. You are getting your information filtered through this character's finite and peculiar viewpoint, even more so than third person limited. You will get more of the feeling about the facts coming through, and their importance or non-importance. And you as the reader don't really know whether they are perceiving things correctly or not.

One has to be careful with that, because give too distorted a picture of reality, and the reader can feel tricked. Few like to read a whole novel thinking something is one way or the other, only to find out at the end that the character simply misread things. If you use it, you'll want to use it to create a specific effect.

For instance, in my novel coming out in the near future, Reality's Glory, third and final book of the trilogy, I use first person to show the reader my character's misreading of a relationship. Then at some point, it is revealed what the real relationship is, and she realizes she's been deceiving herself, rationalizing because she wanted something to be real so bad. Some of my critiquers would say, "Why is she doing that? Shouldn't she know better?" and they were a bit frustrated with the direction my character was going. I thought, good. They should be wanting to slap her back to reality. That's the idea and illustrated what we ourselves so often do, but don't want to admit. But because it was in first person, I could pull that off because we all rationalize things we should know better about, but want so badly that we'll ignore real facts to see what we want to see. First person is the best point of view to make that happen.

One note about first person. You'll often hear folk say what you can't do in first person is have your character die. The idea being, who is telling the story if they are dead? But that makes an assumption that the character ceases to exist, which in several religions that is not the case. The character could be coming back as a spirit, or chatting with St. Peter in heaven, relating his/her story. It is helpful if that framing story is present, but not necessary. All you need to do is show that the person in question can continue to live on in another form. And even if you don't believe in an afterlife but that everyone ceases to exist once dead, this is speculative fiction where most anything can happen and often does. It isn't hard to speculate a reason why this character can still tell their story, though dead.

That to say, I don't agree that you can't have a first person point of view character die in a story. Problem is, you have a lot of editors out there who think that way, so you'll either need to put in that implicit framing story or use limited third to make them happy, or write them a lecture on this subject, which pretty much means you aren't getting published by them.

2. You Are an Observer Telling the Character's Story, in the Story

Third person, limited point of view. In this one, we switch from first person to third, but they still don't know the future, they still don't know what the other character is thinking, but you need to tell anything important that the character knows to avoid "info hiding," etc. They only know what they know as the story progresses. It has a lot of similarities with first person limited point of view. You can even show to some degree a distorted viewpoint. This is by far the most used point of view in modern literature. It provides the intimacy of first person, but the more natural story telling of third person.

So why use it over first, or first over third? While the two are interchangeable on several points, there are a few differences. First person is one step more intimate than third. While third limited is quite intimate, being inside the head of the character, first person you are the character. You can't get any more intimate than that. Third person, even limited, assumes that the character is not telling the story, someone else is. Because of that, third person limited, while widely accepted, isn't as natural as first person for being inside someone's head. There is an omniscient aspect to limited third, that the narrator who isn't the main character can know what the main character is thinking. Because of that, it creates one sense of removal in intimacy from what first person gives.

And for that reason, if you want to show a distorted viewpoint, first is more natural to that. Third person limited, for all its intimacy, is another person relating the story than the main character, and so wouldn't be as influenced by that character's viewpoint as you would be in first person where it is the character telling the story. The reader is more likely to feel tricked if you show a distorted point of view in third person.

But it's main advantage is that it still is very intimate because you are inside the character's head so deeply like first person, but is told in the more natural third person. There is less chance of getting jarred out of the story. It is more natural to discover their names. There is a bit more freedom by the narrator to be objective as well as filtered through the thinking of the character. It represents the best of most points of view: intimacy but told as a storyteller would tell it, not as "this is what happened to me," but "this is what happened to our hero."

The other main advantage is third person can sound less self-absorbed than first. Whether you are describing a battle, or a relationship, the constant use of "I" this or "I" that can start to sound like someone bragging. Third person can remain more objective. It is also why most author bios are written in third person, not first. Otherwise it comes across more as the author bragging than someone else praising the author.

3. You Are an Observer Telling Multiple Characters' Stories, in the Story

Multiple third person, limited point of view. This is a point of view frequently used as well, which is simply an expansion of third person, limited. You are in multiple character's heads, usually one point of view per chapter or at least per scene. And like third person limited, you can only know what those characters know, sense, think, and can deduce. But expanding to more than one character means you can expand that knowledge, because each point of view will know things the others don't.

There are also times you will see a mixture of third and first, either in terms of a framing story when a narrator goes into telling a story to someone else, making the framing story limited third, while the story itself is first person, or one or more characters is written in third while one is in first.

You will rarely see more than one first person in a multiple, if at all. It is simply hard to switch points of view to have more than one first person point of view, because you generally can't use their name unless you artificially have someone talking to them, using their name at the beginning of each section they have. The writer has to create some characters with distinct feels to be able to pull of a multiple first person points of view, so that the reader will know within the first paragraph who's head they are in. If you have one first person among several thirds, however, you know as soon as you read, "I hit the pillow," who's head you are in. Likewise, such a tactic can make one point of view stand out as the primary point of view among several if that is what you wish to convey, simply because it is different from the rest.

But the advantage of this is that you can have several different heads you can be in to get a bigger overview of events and perspectives. It creates a more epic feel of multiple story lines swirling around each other until they tie up at the end. The reader gets a chance to know more than one character intimately, giving a wider experience.

However, the more characters you add into the mix, the more likely you'll lose your reader as they feel they have to keep starting the story over and over again with each new character, and by the time they return to a previous story thread, they may have forgotten details of what had happened, even the characters' names. In some novels, the list gets so long you need a program to keep track of the players.

The other downside is the more characters you add, the less intimate the reader will feel with each one. Intimacy, by definition, is something shared with few, or the most intimate, one. The more characters the reader shares intimate details with, the less intimate he/she will feel about those characters. Aside from the obvious reason of reduced page time with any one particular character, the less it is a one-to-one relationship between the characters and the reader, the less intimate it will feel.

4. You Are the Character, Telling Someone Else Your Story

First person, omniscient point of view. This assumes a framing story, whether there or not, of the character with an audience in front of him/her, telling them about their exploits. You'll read parts that are obvious narrator sections, and indicate that the narrator has knowledge of what will happen, or what other characters are really thinking, knowing more in hindsight. So you might read a phrase like this in the story: "If I had known then what I know now, I'd never gone into that house." Then it might jump back to "in story" telling.

The advantages to this mode are you have more freedom to drop hints like the above that can increase tension. The narrator already knows what is going to happen, and is holding back information to increase the dramatic effect upon his listeners. Unlike the limited version, you can hide information that the point of view character knows. The point of view assumes the character is holding back information in order to tell the story well. Otherwise, since he or she knows how it comes out, the narrator could say, "Well, to make a long story short, they got a divorce and he died in a car accident. Alright, let's go eat!"

The disadvantages are less intimacy. However, this point of view had almost as much intimacy, if not more, than third limited. You are still inside the character's head, you are still "the character," to a large degree, and you can still present a distorted viewpoint if you wish, it all depends on how the first person narrator wants to play it to tell his/her story. In once sense, because the first person narrator knows more about what happened and what they were thinking at the time it happened, you could say there is more intimacy. You get to hear the point of view character reminisce on what they were thinking of what things were going on they should have realized, etc.  So you can keep it fairy intimate.

What you really lose that affects intimacy is immediacy. You are no longer purely "in the story" and watching it as it unfolds, but being told it by someone who knows what all will happen, and jumps in from time to time to tell you that. It's obvious that the story isn't happening as it happens for the reader, but is a past event. For that reason you could never use present tense with this point of view. The loss of immediacy, as a past event, is what causes it to lose some of its intimacy with between the character and the reader.

5. You Are God

Third person, omniscient point of view. Or someone who knows a whole lot about the entire story, including what multiple characters are thinking about at any given time. This narrator, who is not in the story, plays a big role in telling the story. Descriptions can be rich since you aren't limited to just what a particular character would likely notice. You can jump into different heads at different times to listen in on what they are thinking or feeling. The narrator can say things like, "While George was climbing the mountain, Henry sat in a park playing with ants, and Diane strolled the isles of a grocery story, contemplating which cheese she would want to eat that evening." In limited third or first, there is no way the character narrating would know all this short of magic and telepathy.

This point of view used to be the most popular about one hundred years ago. Books like Lord of the Rings by Tolkien are classic examples of this. At one point, for instance, as the hobbits are sleeping in Tom Bombadil's house, Tolkien takes the reader into each hobbit's head to tell the reader what they are dreaming about. That can only be done in a third person omniscient point of view.

But it is also one of the harder points of view to pull of convincingly. New writers will tend to lose their readers unless they make it clear where the narrator is going, and who's thoughts they are in. The feeling of "head hopping" can easily creep in as the reader thinks to themselves, "Oh, where in this character's head now. I didn't realize we'd changed."

There is also the temptation in this point of view, more than any other, to have massive info dumping sections, or such detailed descriptions of places and events that the reader grows bored waiting for the story to get back underway. Because you can go there legitimately in this point of view, doesn't mean you should for good story telling. This is why my youngest son, after I read one section of Lord of the Rings to him, said, "He just took a whole paragraph to tell me they got off their horses!"

The biggest disadvantage here is loss of intimacy. It isn't totally gone, but the more you switch heads, the more you go into narrator mode describing scenery and events as if you were God, the less the reader will feel connected to the characters. It takes some skillful writing, and maybe three mega-volumes like the Lord of the Rings trilogy to pull off character intimacy. But since you are going into heads still, there is a degree of it. And if you stay in one head for a protracted period of time, it helps to offset it. But each time you jump out of a head and into another, or into an "overview" description or events section, it reminds the reader that they are not "in the story," but being told the story in hindsight, by someone who knows everything that will happen, and what everyone of importance is thinking. You as a reader can know what's around the corner before the character does. That creates distance and less intimacy.

But it can also create tension, and for the same reasons is one of its advantages. You can know what the bad guy is planning on doing to your character, and know your hero is walking into a trap while the character themselves are quite oblivious to it. Tension builds as you know the bad guy is about to strike, and your character appears to not know what is coming, and will surely die...what will he do! What will happen! I don't want him to die! Watch out! Horror movies play on this aspect frequently to build such suspense and tension that you couldn't pull off in a limited point of view.

"But this sounds like Multiple Limited Third Person Point of View." As far as dropping into different heads, yes. As far as being able to pull back and know what is going on without looking through a particular character, no. With the multiple third person limited, you are still restricted by being in someone's head. The narrator never pulls back from being "in story" to tell what is happening. The narrator is still restricted to what any one particular person can know, sense, notice, or think. No one point of view sees the whole picture. In third person omniscient, the narrator can give a panoramic view of events as they unfold, and jump around in the story, hopefully carrying their readers with them.

6. You Are the Camera

Camera point of view. This is the least intimate point of view, in that you are not going into anyone's head. Rather, it is as if you are a camera and can only record what is being said and people's body language. The reader is left to interpret and read between the lines as to what is going on. Descriptions play a big part in such a point of view. They need to be vivid and detailed, especially as it relates to body language to give a clear picture of the emotions running through any one particular individual, as well as giving the reader a feel of "being at the movies."

This view point more than any other requires a lot of writing skill to pull of effectively and not lose your reader, either to boredom or confusion. The writing needs to be poetic, to flow as you paint the pictures that lay out the events as they happen. It is more about ambiance and feel than about just telling a story of what happened. Emotion has to come from the scenery, what happens, and what is said, instead of what the character is thinking or feeling. In this sense, a more literary touch takes charge in this point of view, and is why it is the hardest to pull off in a way that conveys emotion and tension. But done well, can be effective in creating an unique story experience.

I've attempted one short story using this point of view. One thing I've found is that many editors don't understand this point of view. They want it to fit into one of the others they are familiar with. So in my story at one point as the hero is facing down the villain, I have a baby crying in the distance. One editor questioned why that irrelevant detail was in there, seeming to have nothing to do with the story. A valid question if I had been in any other point of view, but in camera view, it creates some ambiance, scattered details that give the reader a sense of what any camera might pick up, and speaks to the destruction and tension of the moment to create that ambiance as the point gets close that one of them will act.

So this is hard to sell as well as hard to write. Because editors don't see it very frequently, they will not tend to treat it within the framework of this point of view, but want it to fit into a point of view they are familiar with. As a matter of fact, the editors wanted me to give more what the people were thinking in that story, which would have created more of a third person omniscient point of view. When I did that, they didn't like it as much, and those scattered details did appear more irrelevant. So expect such a story to be misunderstood, even if you are able to pull it off with skill and grace.


Those are the main points of view you'll see and deal with. There are other lesser used and obscure points of view. One would be called a "Microphone" point of view, more limited than camera but with the same restrictions. Orson Scott Card used this effectively in Ender's Game. Before each chapter, you would hear some characters talking. You didn't know who they where, or what they looked like. All you read was dialog, as if you had a bug in their room and listened in. You couldn't do a whole story that way easily, but for those small bits before each chapter, it effectively set up the realization for the reader that Ender was being manipulated by someone, you assumed in the upper ranks of the military.

Likewise, occasionally you may come across a story written in second person. Usually these involve stories where you have to make a decision, or a game of some type where you have choices. But to write a novel in it is awkward and unnatural to read.

But these points of ivew would be rarely used, as would many other sub-categories of points of view. The above is a good primer on the main points of view you are likely to run across. Others will most likely be some form of the above, or a mishmash between them. Choosing the right point of view will determine a lot of how the story will play out. You have to consider the scope of the story, what the reader will need to know to make sense of it, whether one particular character can tell the whole story, or if you need multiple points of view. Whether you're shooting for a grand epic with a wide scope, or the personal story of a character's struggles.

But once you pick a point of view, you'll want to stick within its limitations and avoid its abuses, and learn how to write it well enough you don't lose your reader. Many new writers end up writing omniscient when they don't even know how to switch points of view effectively, and then wonder why so many consider their self-published novel confusing and not worth the struggle. But it is one of the first things a new writer needs to learn to write well and tell the reader a story that is authentic and easy to follow.

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