by Tim Dedopulos and Salome Jones
Point of view in fiction is simply the way the narrator sees the story that’s being told. There are several different points of view from which you can write. Most modern fiction is written in either first person (“I”) or third person close (“he”/“she”), sometimes called third person limited. There are other points of view, of course. Third person omniscient used to be very popular, but has largely faded now. The same is true of confessional first person, the viewpoint of diary entries. Second person (“you”) and third person plural (“we”) do exist, but they’re rare and mostly used experimentally, so I won’t dwell on them.
There are still a few omniscient stories out there in our literary history, maybe even a few modern omniscient stories. If you’ve stumbled on one or two, they might have given you the impression that in fiction the narrator always knows everything, can see inside every character’s head without restriction.
Indeed, in an omniscient point of view, the narrator is generally a neutral, unnamed entity who can see everything. This can work for fairy tales and some fantasy stories, but there’s a method to it. It’s not as random as it seems. There always needs to be a focal point. In omniscient, you can think of your point of view as being like the camera in a film. The problem with it is that it’s not very personal, which distances the reader from the text. Do note that you can’t just claim omniscient viewpoint and write willy-nilly through every character’s head in your story. If you want to know about how to use omniscient properly, I suggest this article by Charlie Jane Anders. The short of it is that for the most part, omniscient voice is very difficult for a less-experienced writer to pull off successfully.
Both third person close and first person allow for the viewpoint character’s thoughts to be included in the story. No other character’s thoughts will be available, except in the same way that you or I can find out what someone’s thinking: they tell you, you guess or give them truth serum or, since we’re discussing fiction, possibly you use psychic abilities or other such devices. A lot of third person fiction has moments where it shades towards the loose, however, providing some wiggle room for other interjections. This just isn’t acceptable in first person.
Coming back to first versus third, viewpoint problems are much more likely to show up in third person. First person is simpler to stay accurate in; we all instinctively know how to correctly tell a story about ourselves. The flip-side is that it’s sometimes (foolishly) considered less worthy of respect than third person, particularly amongst publishers and other authors. “Oh, yes, you write first person” is not a compliment.
The most common third person issue is ‘head hopping.’ The author steps out of the point of view character’s head and into another character’s head, maybe just for one line or one paragraph. This has a jarring effect on the reader, because it’s not how our minds work. We can guess or wonder what someone else is thinking about, but we can’t know, and we certainly can’t instantly jump to another person’s thoughts. It feels unnatural when this happens on the page.
The same principles apply in first person. If I’m sitting in a café and I’m telling you about what’s happening and I say, “I looked like I’d seen a ghost,” I’m violating point of view. My eyes don’t have small hovercrafts attached to them so that they can zoom across the room to look back at me. That’s someone else’s POV, someone who’s looking at my face.
One way to think about the difference between first person and third person close is that third person is one step removed. It’s as if someone told you their first person story and you’re telling it again, using their words, their reactions and so forth, but all you have to go on are their personal experiences and observations. It’s a little more distant, with a little more room for uncertainty than first person. You’re still inside the viewpoint’s head in third person, but you’re a passenger rather than a confidante. As such you get to see the things that maybe their conscious mind doesn’t notice. By contrast, in first person, you are restricted entirely to things that the viewpoint character is consciously aware of. If it’s not something that someone like your first person viewpoint might plausibly think to themselves in that situation, then it can’t be on the page. No excuses!
There are advantages to both first and third person. First person is cozy and intimate. It lets you build up a strong sense of the viewpoint character, and encourages the reader to identify with the character. It’s quite claustrophobic, however. If your viewpoint wouldn’t hear those words in her head, they can’t be on the page. Most of us stumble through life preoccupied with stuff, so rich description, background exposition and impersonal asides are all unsuitable. Third person, by contrast, is lush and detailed. It allows for deep thought, careful observations, misdirection, and a degree of freedom in pacing. You’ll get to know the viewpoint character very well, very truly. It’s a little standoffish though, not as warm and friendly as first person. It’s not quite as accessible, either. The appropriate viewpoint for your work will depend on the story you want to tell.
You can, of course, write a story using more than one narrator. This is probably more common than a single-viewpoint in novels, particularly in third person. However, certain rules apply if you choose to do this. The most important is not to confuse the reader. If you’re going to use two points of view, then doing it in long stretches, like chapters or at least several pages, is preferable to switching back and forth every couple of paragraphs. If you do change points of view in the middle of a chapter, you should use white space – a skipped line – to indicate it. (By the way, the other time to use white space is when you make a significant leap through time.)
There are other things I’ve seen recently that bear mentioning. When two people are having a conversation on a page, point of view doesn’t switch back and forth with the speaker. When you’re talking to someone, you don’t become her just because she opens her mouth, right? You still see things that way you see them, including what another person says.
The example my editing partner and I often give of clunky viewpoint in critiques is what’s become known as ‘the mirror moment.’ This is the point where a character sees herself in the mirror and launches into a lengthy description, saying things like ‘Kelly wasn’t very attractive despite being 5’8” tall. Despite her shoulder-length blonde hair, blue eyes and cupid-bow lips, she was thick in the middle, had crooked teeth and didn’t know how to dress herself.’ When is the last time you looked in the mirror and made a laundry list of your flaws? Isn’t it more likely to go like this?
‘Kelly bared her teeth and leaned close to the mirror. God, that gap between her front teeth looked horrible. If only her mother would let her get it fixed. She sighed. She’d probably have to earn the money herself before that would happen.’
We hope this has been helpful to you. Feel free to ask your point of view questions in the comments.