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Elements of Fiction: Point of View

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In the last post, I wrote about theme. In this post, I will discuss point of view.

Introduction

What is point of view? Point of view is an element of fiction. The fiction writer uses point of view to determine who is telling the story. The person who tells the story is the narrator. But the narrator can have different points of view. Sometimes the main character tells the story, speaking in the first person “I.”  Other times an observer to the events tells the story, and also speaks in the first person “I.” Often the narrator is a non-participant to the story. The narrator views the story from a vantage point outside the story, speaking in the third person “he” or “she.”

This article discusses the different points of view and their advantages and disadvantages. As well, this article provides some suggestions on how an aspiring fiction writer can go about selecting a point of view.

Point of View

The writer has three possible points of view to tell the story:

  • First-person point of view (participates in the story)
  • Second-person point of view (“you”)
  • Third-person point of view.(doesn’t participate in the story)

 

Each point of view has advantages and disadvantages. So, it is important for the aspiring fiction writer know why he/she has chosen a particular point of view and narrator to tell the story.

The point of view has two parts: The way in which the story is told, and the perspective of the story. The narrative voice is the character telling the story, whereas the point of view is the vantage point from which the story is told. The narrator can be an eye witness, observer, or someone outside the story. Moreover, the story can be told from a single point of view or multiple points of view.

First Person Point of View (Participant-Point of View)
The narrator is a character in the story, either the protagonist, observer, or survivor. The observer can be a minor character. The survivor is a character who has lived to tell the tale.

In the first person, the narrator can reveal only personal thoughts and feelings and what he or she sees and is told by other characters. He can’t tell us thoughts of other characters. It is the most intimate point of view, because the reader experience the story from an eye witness and only one point of view. As well, the narrator can express his or her own thoughts and feelings to the reader. Often the narrator is the protagonist who is telling a story about himself/herself. The story is told from the perspective of “I.”

If the person participates in the story, the narrator is called the first-person participant.  In “The Sun also Rises” by Ernest Hemmingway, the character telling the story is Jack Barnes, the protagonist.

On the other hand, if the person observes the events of the story, and then narrates the story, he/she is called the first-person observer. In “The Great Gatsby” by F.Scott Fitzgerald, the narrator is Nick Carraway, who isn’t the protagonist.

Finally, the narrator can be a survivor, one who lived to tell the tale.

Pros

  • The narrator establishes an emotional connection with the reader. The first-person narrator is an eye witness who brings an intimate account of the events of the story.
  • The narrator is an eye witness who has credibility.
  • The reader experiences an intensely personal story.
  • The writer can create an intimate portrait. The narrator can reveal his/her own thoughts and feelings to the reader.

 

Cons

  • Narrator can only tell what he sees or has been told by others.
  • The story is told from one point of view. Narrator cannot enter the mind of another character, to reveal another character’s thoughts and feelings.
  • Narrator’s observation of other characters can be inaccurate.
  • Everything in the story must be told by another character to the narrator or witnessed by the narrator.

 

The Unreliable Narrator

This term refers to narrators who have faults, biases, or character flaws. For instance, Holden Caulfield, in Catcher in the Rye, is an immature in his views of the world, and therefore unreliable in his storytelling.

Second-Person Point of View

The story is told from the perspective of “you”. This is not a commonly used point of view in fiction writing. It is the point of view used in technical writing. The writer chooses this POV when he/she wants the reader to become the main character in the story. Most readers find this POV awkward and unnatural. The question that usually gets asked by the reader is: Does “you” refer to the reader or to the protagonist?”

Third-Person Point of View (Non-Participant POV)

The narrator or person telling the story isn’t a participant in the story. The story is told from the perspective of “he” or “she.” There are three types of third-person point of view:

  • Third-person objective
  • Third-person limited
  • Third-person omniscient

Third-Person Objective. The narrator is not a character in the story. The narrator can report only what he or she sees and hears. The narrator can tell the events of the story to the reader. In other words, the narrator can tell the reader what is happening in the story, but the narrator can’t tell the reader the thoughts or feelings of the characters.

Pros

  • The third-person objective allows the reader to make inferences while reading the story.

Cons

  • The narrator cannot tell the reader about what is going on in the mind of any character, not even the protagonist.
  • The narrator can only tell the reader what is seen and heard in the story.

Third-Person Limited. The story is told from a single point of view using the “he/she” perspective. The narrator is not a character within the story. However, the narrator can who see into the mind of one of the characters, and reveal to the reader what that character is thinking and feeling.

Pros

  • The reader identifies with a single character in the story.
  • The writer can provide emotional insights about the character.
  • The writer can use a single character to interpret the events of the story.

 

Cons

  • The writer can tell the story through the eyes of only one character.

 

The Harry Potter books are written in the third-person limited or single point of view.

Third-Person Omniscient. The narrator isn’t a participant in the story. The story is told using the “he” or “she” perspective. The narrator is an “all-knowing” outsider who can enter the minds of any character. The narrator sees, hears, and knows everything that is going on within the story. The narrator can acquire information to tell the story from any character. Essentially, the narrator is “God-like.” Therefore, the story can be told using multiple points of view.

Pros

  • The writer can dramatize the thoughts and feelings of any character. The narrator is all-knowing. In other words, the narrator knows what every character is thinking, feeling, and doing. The narrator can write anything about each character.
  • The writer can tell the story from multiple points of view.

 

Cons

  • The narrator is not a participant in the story.
  • The reader can become confused about reading different thoughts and feelings of different characters.
  • The reader can lose focus on the main elements of the story.

 

How to Choose a Point of View

Before writing the story, the writer needs to ask the following question:

Who is going to tell the story?

From the first person point of view, the writer can tell the story as a memory, write the story in a journal and have someone else tell the story, have the main character speak the story out loud, have the main character tell the story as it happens. This POV is a popular method of telling the story.

Each of the third-person points of view has advantages and disadvantages. The writer who chooses to use the third person objective reveals allows the reader to interpret the story, such as motives for actions. The writer who uses third-person limited is able to tell the story from one character, almost like the first person. This POV can be useful for writers who write fiction based on personal experience or memory. (A Passion for Narrative)

When choosing the third-person point of view, the writer should choose dominant characters or the main characters. The writer should also choose the most interesting character to tell the story.

In choosing POV, the writer also needs to decide on the mood of the story. If the writer wants to create a formal mood, he/she ought to use the third person. But, if the writer wants to create an intimate mood, one in which the narrator reveals his inner most thoughts and feelings, the writer ought to use the first person.

Here are a few other questions the aspiring fiction writer needs to ask before selecting a point of view:

  1. What mood does the writer intend to convey? Formal? Informal?
  2. How would the story change if it was told from a single point of view?
  3. What information must be excluded if the writer shifts from third person to first person point of view?

Before choosing a point of view, the writer also needs to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each point of view.

Resources for Writing Fiction

There are several good books available to help you learn about the elements of fiction. The following books—and resources that I recommend— were used to research this article:

  • Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway
  • Creative Writing: A Guide and Glossary to Fiction Writing by Colin Bulman
  • The Art and Craft of Storytelling by Nancy Lamb
  • How to Read Novels Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster
  • The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
  • A Passion for Narrative: A Guide for Writing Fiction by Jack Hodgins

Next, I will write about “style and tone”.

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1 Comment

  1. humourwhiffet says:

    Very good blog. I stumbled across it owing to your comments about Mel Helitzer’s comedy writing book – a must-have tome on comedy writing. Will be visiting again.

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Freelance Photographer and Writer

David Hood

David Hood

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Bachelor of Arts Degree, Diploma, and many writing and photography courses.

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