Points Of View

After the writer has made the key decision about angle of approach, he or she must make an equally important decision—from whose point of view shall the article or book be told? Point of view concerns through whose eyes the reader views the action. There are several points of view from which to select, and, as a general rule, only one point of view should be used in a single piece. To tell a story through more than one set of eyes tends to confuse the reader. Writers strive for unity; multiple points of view destroy unity. Sometimes a story or article can be divided into two parts, each told from a different point of view, and still be successful, but a piece that switches back and forth between viewpoints all the way through can be confusing.

In selecting a point of view, the writer has to answer several fundamental questions: Whose story is this? Who could best tell it? The story might, for example, be George Orwell's, but after some thought, the writer may decide that George's story would be more interestingly, or more effectively, told by someone other than George. If George tells it, the writer uses first person ("I"), but if someone else narrates Orwell's story, the writer must use third person.


In the case of George Orwell's book Down and Out in Paris and London, he was the writer and the main character, and he told his story in first person.

I travelled to England third class via Dunkirk and Tillbury, which is the cheapest and not the worst way of crossing the Channel. You had to pay extra for a cabin, so I slept in the saloon, together with most of the third-class passengers. I find this entry in my diary for that day:

"Sleeping in the saloon, twenty-seven men, sixteen women. Of the women, not a single one has washed her face this morning. The men mostly went to the bathroom; the women merely produced vanity cases and covered the dirt with powder. Q. A secondary sexual difference?"

Another question the writer must address is, What is the relationship between the one who tells the story and the story itself? In Orwell's book, the narrator is the main character, so almost everything relates to him in one way or another. If someone else observes and narrates the action that relates to the main character, the writer may also use the first person, but in a different voice. If, for example, George Orwell had had a friend, Bill, traveling with him, and Bill was now writing a book about their experiences living down and out, he would narrate the story. It might still be George Orwell's story, but told by an observer, a fellow participant. Such a passage might sound like this:

We travelled to England third class via Dunkirk and Tillbury, which is the cheapest and not the worst way of crossing the Channel. You had to pay for a cabin, so we slept in the saloon, together with most of the third-class passengers. I found this entry in my diary for that day:

"Twenty-seven men and sixteen women slept with us in the saloon. In the morning, George and I used the bathroom, as did the other men, but not a single woman did; they simply produced vanity cases and covered the dirt with powder. George asked whether I thought this might be a newly discovered secondary sexual difference."

My italicized words show that this hypothetical Bill, too, would use the first person, but by referring directly to "George," he makes it clear to us that George is not the narrator, not the "I" in the story. Such a short passage could not make it clear that it is still George's story his companion is narrating, but it would soon be apparent by the emphasis he would give to George rather than to himself.

One great danger in writing first person narrative is the tendency for the "I" narrator to take over, rather than keeping the focus on the main character. Nonfiction and fiction writers run this risk every time they elect to write in the first person. Naturally, when the piece is autobiographical, the central character is automatically kept in the limelight by the first person technique—just where he or she should be. The problem comes only when the narrator is an observer reporting on the main character through first person point of view.

William Zinsser likes to write in a personal voice and often in the first person, yet he keeps the limelight on the character or thing he's writing about. His presence is felt, but not intrusively. In his profile about two great jazz musicians, Willie Ruff and Dwike Mitchell (Willie and Dwike: An American Profile), Zinsser goes with them on concert tours, but he's not forever telling us about himself, what he did, how he reacted. We just sense that he's with them through the occasional reference to himself in first person:

Mitchell and Ruff go to the auditorium early to look it over. It's handsome, like the rest of the building, but with the intimacy of a small concert hall. Backstage, it has a door big enough for the biggest combine to drive through—this theatre can present a full case of Deere's green and yellow tractors, works of art in themselves.

The piano is an almost seven-foot grand, and Mitchell tries it out before he even takes off his coat. It hasn't been tuned. "The piano's got eight A's, all different," he tells me. Ruff is hailed from the highest tier by a young man who says he will be operating the lights. Ruff shouts up to him that whatever he wants to do will be fine. The hall begins to fill up with men and women who have driven out from the Quad Cities. I recognize quite a few who were at the Sunday afternoon concert. Lois Jecklin works the house, asking the new arrivals whether they are on the mailing list of Visiting Artists. They gladly fill out a card for her; in America the arts have one sacred text— the mailing list.

Like my hypothetical companion to George Orwell, Bill Zinsser accompanied Willie and Dwike and wrote the Willie and Dwike story as an observer, not as a deeply involved observer, but simply as observer. Zinsser has written in the personal voice without writing totally in the first person. I examined Willie and Dwike for several pages surrounding that passage and found that the "me" and "I" (that I've italicized above) were the only first-person references to Bill Zinsser's presence. Those two totally unintrusive references were enough to keep the personal voice and the first person point of view throughout. Many writers don't have as much control as Zinsser, and write their pieces either intrusively in first person, or in the third person where it's easier to remain unintrusive. I think the Zinsser approach works best, if you can maintain control over that limelight.

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