Points of view

If you’re writing, there are some things you can’t escape. Characters, for instance. And, just as importantly, how you write about your characters: the means by which you share them with the world. There are multiple different ways of doing this (known as Point Of View, or POVs), and (generally speaking) which way you choose hinges on what you want to achieve. The only hard and fast rule is that you need to pick one POV style and stick with it. Doesn’t matter which one, so long as you’re consistent.


A quick refresher:

First Person Limited: You’re dealing with “I” narration (or, in theory, “we” narration, which I’ve never seen done – perhaps we could get Liz to write a book?).

I went to the shop and bought an apricot.

This is obviously quite confining, since you can’t include anything the narrator isn’t privy to. This limitation can, however, be a strength – it enables you to play fast and loose with the truth. Your narrator doesn’t know everything about what is going on, so even assuming they’re not outright lying, there is plenty of scope for unreliability. And if they are lying, you can play merry hell with the reader’s head.

Good examples of this style – Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, Roger Zelazny’s Amber series.

Second Person: You’re dealing with “You” narration.

You went to the shop and bought an apricot.

There’s little to be said for this. The real problem, I think, is that at some point you’ll get your reader shaking their head, saying “No, I wouldn’t do this.” Which breaks the connection between reader and text. Which in turn is a Problem with a capital P: you want the reader to be immersed in the story, not being distracted by a gimmicky POV choice. Still, if you think you can pull it off, good luck to you. As I said above, just make sure you’re being consistent.

Good examples of this style – I’m aware that literary examples exist, but I’ve never encountered it directly, outside those old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books (remember the old Fighting Fantasy with the green spines?).

Third Person Limited: You’re following a particular character around, and are privy to their thoughts only.

Bob went to the shop and bought an apricot. He had to stop himself spitting at the man at the counter. “Cheating arsehole,” he muttered, slamming the door on his way out.

This is the most common POV style you’ll encounter these days, and is the one I used in Wise Phuul. Note that in the above example, we only know what Bob is thinking: we have no idea what the man at the counter thinks about the whole thing. The mission with this POV style is to present the world as Bob sees it, without passing judgement on him. You have to become Bob.

You then have a couple of choices – you can either have the entire story focussed around Bob, or in a different chapter (or at least paragraph) you can present a different POV.

Colin closed the shop and drove home. It’d been a tough day.  A fat gent had come in and bought a single apricot, sneering for some unfathomable reason. 

Good examples of this style: Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series gives us lengthy stretches of Third Person Limited from a particular character viewpoint. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has popularised (but certainly did not invent) Rotating Third Person Limited. In this case different chapters are shared between a designated group of characters (one chapter with Character X is followed by a chapter with Character Y, and then later we return to X).

Third Person Omniscient: Much maligned and often misunderstood these days, this is where an all-knowing narrator tells you about the adventures of Bob and  Colin.

Bob bought himself an apricot that afternoon, still in a foul mood after last night. Colin couldn’t remember his neighbour looking so annoyed. 

We don’t actually inhabit the heads of either Bob or Colin: instead both characters are treated more distantly, and the action is filtered through a third party narration. Filtered and narration being the operative words: Third Party Omniscient is not simply jumping around different character heads. Headhopping is tantamount to having no POV at all, at which point you don’t have a story any more.

Note that what the style lacks in closeness, it makes up for in terms of breadth. You’re no longer confined to what Bob (or Colin) sees directly.

Good examples of this style: this was the most common POV-style before the twentieth century, though it has been dying out more recently. J.R.R. Tolkien uses it in The Lord of the Rings.

But to repeat what I said earlier – the key is choosing and sticking. If you’re writing Omniscient, don’t headhop. If you’re writing Third Person Limited, remember that you’re inhabiting this character only, with their eyes and thoughts. If you’re writing Second Person… you’re a better man than me.


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