Point of View

The term point of view can mean several things. There are person point of view, character point of view, and narrator point of view.

Person point of view refers to which person (not which character) you use to tell the story. (First person = I. Second person = you. Third person = he/she.) You can tell a story from a single character's point of view (experience), but you can tell it in different persons. First person point of view uses "I," and the "I" is a living character telling you the story. When you use first person, the character is automatically the narrator, a first person narrator. (More about narrators later.) "When I opened the package, I found a strange little statue." The "I" character is telling the story. He's the character/narrator.

Third person point of view uses "he" or "she." The characters are living out the story before your eyes, but they are not telling it, as with first person. "When she (he) opened the package, she (he) found a strange little statue." On the simplest level, person is merely a mechanical difference. First person can be changed to third, as in the above example.

Second person point of view uses "you." "When you opened the package, you found a strange little statue." One idea is that using "you" makes readers feel more a part of the experience since you're telling them that they're doing it by saying "you." It can also work in the opposite way by making readers feel that the author is presumptuous and intrusive in telling them what they're doing and feeling. So, it's risky for that reason, but if it feels right and it gets you going, it's worth a try. You can always change it to another person later.

First and third persons are used the most. So, what's the difference? For the writer, and for some readers, using "I" provides a feeling of closer contact with the character. For the writer, that's good, if it's true. If you feel a stronger sense of the character because you are actually more in touch with him or her, and if it comes out on the page, that's good. The downside is that the "I" may make you feel that you're more in touch when you're not. Since you naturally feel closer to this "I," you may develop a false sense of connection with the character. Using first person makes no real difference in terms of what you must do to bring your characters to life and make your story move. However, an imagined difference or a felt difference should be respected if it works, if it makes writing easier. Just be sure that you are working your craft—want, obstacle, action— regardless of point of view or anything else.

Another issue is that first person allows you to write about the unreliability of the narrator in a way that you couldn't otherwise. First person can be objective, which means what the narrator is telling us is fact and not distorted by his perception or his telling of it. As long as the issue isn't raised by the way the character is presenting the story, the "facts," we consider him to be objective, and it's called first person objective.

Years ago, we were taught to never use first person unless we were also writing about the subjectivity and unreliability of the narrator. A famous story was used as the prime example of this strategy—Ring Lardner's "Haircut." In it, the narrator is telling a story about a guy he (the narrator) thinks is a cut-up, a great prankster, and one hell of a lot of fun, and he's letting us know how much he liked the guy. In the story he tells, the prankster does a lot of sadistic, vicious things to people. He's so cruel that someone finally kills him "accidentally." The narrator is saddened by the loss of this "fun" guy in town. So, two stories are being told at once—one about the bastard and another about how the narrator interprets/distorts things. Here is some first person narration:

My roommate is such a stingy bitch. She won't share anything. She went nuts, screaming and yelling, just because I wore her best dress on a date I had with this great guy. I didn't ask her because she wasn't home and this fantastic guy had just asked me out. So, I wore her dress, which I happen to look a lot better in than she ever could. Me and my date got really drunk and he wanted to go skinny-dipping. How could I refuse? So her stupid dress got a little wet and muddy and ripped, and now she's freaking out because she thinks it's ruined and can't be cleaned. Plus, she wants me to move out. All because of one lousy dress-and a couple of other things she's trying to blame on me. Doesn't she know people are more important than things? What a bitch!

In this paragraph, we know there's a lot more going on than the character is aware of. When the "I" character is being revealed by the way she's telling/distorting the story, it's called first person subjective.

Third person point of view uses "he" or "she." Because the character is not telling the story, and he can't be distorting the facts of the story as they are presented, it's called third person objective. That doesn't mean the character can't misinterpret or distort things, but because the story is laid out by the author and we have the same objective experience as the character, we know what the facts of the situation are. The character may misinterpret or distort events in his thoughts or when he relates things to someone else (dialogue), but since he is not presenting the experience in the first place, we don't have to read between the lines to figure out what really happened. It's easy to see if he's twisting things or not.

The facts aren't always so clear in first person, because with first person the "I" character has control over what is presented and how it's presented. The "I" is both participant and narrator—coach and player.

That's point of view as it concerns person (I, you, he/she). The next consideration is character point of view. That means which character we inhabit. Whose eyes and mind are we experiencing the story through? In first person, we're in the mind of the narrator. In third person, we can be in the minds of a number of different characters. Almost always, the point of view is set in the character with the biggest problem, the character with the most to lose, because that's where the biggest experience is—the most intense, most exciting, most moving experience. We want to be there, on the spot, in his or her mind and flesh, experiencing it firsthand. If someone is setting out to climb Mount Everest, would you rather stay with the guy who observes from the ground and talks to the climber on the radio, or go with the guy who makes the climb? We automatically gravitate to the person with the biggest problem, because we know that will give us the biggest experience.

But what about telling a story from the point of view of a minor character? It can be done, but there are trade-offs—problems to be overcome, as always. Moby-Dick and The Great Gatsby are both told from the point of view of minor characters. When that method is used, the minor character must have an investment in the outcome of the story, and he must be struggling with problems of his own that he brings into the mix. Plus, he must be present, on the spot, for all the big scenes/struggles of the major character. Often his fate is closely linked to that of the main character. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael's (the narrator's) fate is linked directly to that of Ahab and the outcome of the whale hunt. In The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick, is having a meaningful, painful, and disillusioning experience.

Since we're in Nick's point of view, we don't get into Gatsby's mind. That means the author, Fitzgerald, had to find a way to get what's inside Gatsby's mind and heart out into the open. Fitzgerald does it in two ways: First, by making Gatsby a mysterious character who has a lot of notoriety and who is the subject of much gossip—gossip that Nick overhears and reports. Second, Gatsby feels compelled to tell Nick all about himself, his origins, his past with Daisy, his deep feelings for her, etc. Remember that neither of those two things (the rumors and Gatsby's confiding) just happened. They feel totally natural because the writing is so strong. But nothing happens in fiction unless the author makes it happen. Fitzgerald had to invent those devices to reveal Gatsby; otherwise, the reader would have no idea what was going on inside of him. In the case of Moby-Dick, Ahab is spouting off all over the place, so we know what's going on inside him.

Why choose a minor-character point of view? It's often chosen when the major character dies in the end and the author wants the story to go on after the death, as in both Moby-Dick and The Great Gatsby. Sometimes you may not feel up to tackling a wild character like Ahab and feel more comfortable portraying him from the outside as someone close to him would see him. Just remember, no matter what point of view you choose, you still must give us (reveal) enough of the main character to make him real.

You might be wondering about switching around from one character's point of view (mind) to another. That's called multiple points of view. A single point of view tends to be the strongest and most intense since we only have one point of view, one mind, in life. We settle into a single character and stay there without expecting to jump around into anyone else's head. If the writer does jump around, and the points of view are not handled skillfully, it's jarring and distracting.

But many great books have been written with multiple points of view. Flawless examples are Streets of Laredo and Lonesome Dove, both by Larry McMurtry. The point of view moves from character to character so naturally that you often don't notice. That's because of two things: first, you stay in a single character's point of view for a fair amount of time, and second, you switch from a dramatic state of mind in one character to an equally dramatic state of mind in another. Often the two different states of mind (characters) are wrestling with the same issue from a different angle. For example, you might have something like this:

The wind lifted the little man's hat off his head, and he raced after it as it tumbled down the road. He wished to God he'd never come to this desolate place, leaving his wife home in New York City, doing heaven only knows what in his absence. He'd never trusted her, and now he had to come miles away or lose his job, to come to this hellhole to try and get this little bowlegged cowboy to help them catch the bandits.

Then in the next paragraph:

The marshal stood on the porch, watching the man chase his hat, wondering what kind of a damn fool didn't have the good sense to hang onto his hat and if this was the kind of person he wanted to do business with. He couldn't handle his own hat. What else was he going to lose track of and at what cost?

The one thing you don't want to do is to jump around for no reason. For example, if your main character gives his keys to a valet to park his car, you wouldn't go into the valet's mind while he thinks, "This guy sure looks like a hotshot. I wonder how much dough he pulls down a year," and then never use that character again. Also, you would never use another character to do your job; for example, you would never portray one character's nervousness by jumping into a bystander's mind and having him think, "That guy sure looks nervous. Wonder what's eating him."

The best approach is to learn to tell a strong story while staying in a single point of view in order to master the kind of skill you need in order to be able to switch points of view effectively. If you can't do a single point of view well, you can't do multiple points of view well either.

This switching of point of view is often called omniscient point of view or omniscient narrator. Here "omniscient" refers to knowing what's in everybody's mind. I like to distinguish between simple multiple viewpoints (switching point of view, but not expressing a knowledge beyond what's happening at the moment) and an omniscient narrator who comments, in a separate voice, on what's going on and anything else he or she wants to bring in (philosophy, interpretation, nudging the reader, etc.). The omniscient narrator knows everything about what's happening and what's going to happen and how it relates to the greater scheme of things, and he lets us know it by addressing us directly and telling us about it.

A modern example is The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles. An early example is Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (one of the first great novels in the English language). Scott Fitzgerald's works provide other good examples. He often makes comments to the reader in otherwise third-person objective stories and novels. When done badly, this approach is called author intrusion. When done well, it's called omniscient narrator. If it appeals to you, do it. It takes a lot of practice to do well. Your comments have to be so clever, astute, penetrating that they do not distract the reader from the illusion you must create to make your story believable. Fitzgerald often made sparkling little comments that were nuggets of insight and well worth taking time out for.

An example of a more broadly omniscient narrator could be the following statement (paraphrased from The French Lieutenants Woman), inserted after a man has just shown a great attachment to his mother. "Now, remember, this was fifty years before Sigmund Freud. It was a time when a man could show deep devoted and obsessive love for his mother and no one would question it." Here the narrator is not only addressing the reader but also referring to events that won't take place for fifty years and that will never even be a part of this story. That takes guts. But he pulls it off with great charm that adds another dimension to the novel. It's a tricky game. As always, the question you must ask is, Are you gaining more than you're losing when you do it? A nonparticipating narrator is one who rarely carries his weight and is often in the way. He's part of the story but is used as nothing more than the teller of the story. He's an observer, and that's all —a bystander with nothing to gain or lose. This approach used to be fashionable, and some great stories have been told this way, but these narrators often seem heavy-handed and artificial—characters whose shoulders you have to peek over to see the story.

Another issue is tense. Present tense is being used more and more. "When she opens the package, she finds a strange little statue." Some people feel present tense makes the experience more immediate, more present. The only thing that makes your story and your character present and immediate is story craft-your skill. Tense cannot make up for weak storytelling, nor can it hurt strong storytelling. If the story and characters are alive, the reader quickly becomes oblivious to tense. The tense fades to the background as the characters come forward and take over. Present tense is being used a lot today, so it's your choice.

So, we have person point of view, character point of view, narrator point of view, and tense. It's not so important how we label any of these. What's important is that you have an idea how these devices work and realize that you do not have to use any of them exclusively. You might find ways of mixing and blending. If it feels right, do it. If it wants to happen, let it.

EXERCISES

A child wanting her rejecting, abusive mother to love her. "If you loved me," the mother tells the little girl/boy, "I would be happy. I'm not happy, so you don't love me." The child does everything that she or he can think of to please the mother-gets good grades, cleans the house, takes care of the mother-but it never works. The child feels that if she loved the mother enough, her mother would treat her better. The child and the father have a good relationship, and the mother is envious and tries to wreck it.

A man (or woman) goes to the doctor for a physical and gets a clean bill of health. He begins wondering what would've happened if he had terminal cancer. The character goes home and tells his family that he's going to die soon. He wants to see how upset his family will be and how important he is. He may not be totally conscious of his reasons when he does it. He will find out painful things about his family and himself.

A character discovering one of his or her parents is gay.

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