Pick up any book on writing fiction. You’ll find a section on point of view (POV). Open any novel and read the first paragraph or two. Look for the pronouns. Ignoring dialog, if you find “I”, the story is told in first person and the author lets the reader see things and feel emotions through the narrator’s eyes. Otherwise, a character, usually the main character, at first referred to by name but subsequently by “he” or “she” provides the point of view. The reader sees and feels what that character sees and feels. Some fiction relies on an omniscient POV, where the reader sees and hears things that no character can sense. In other cases the POV changes from one character to another.
Some writers treat POV with kid gloves, others are more casual about it. Every critique group has its POV maven.
How important is POV when you write a story? Are there rules to never break? What are the types of POV? What do the experts say and do? Can ignorance of POV destroy your story? To what degree does POV limit the narrative? Are there genres that must be written in one particular POV? These are some of the questions to guide us as we explore.
Out of personal preference and because of the breadth of this subject most examples are drawn from short fiction.
First person POV
Here are two well-known examples from novels written in first-person POV.
“When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
The speaker Scout is the narrator in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
In Great Gatsby, Nick Caraway speaks the opening lines.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.‘
Similarly in short stories we have
“Mr. Leopold Gantvoort is not at home,” the servant who opened the door said, “but his son, Mr. Charles, is—if you wish to see him.”
“No, I had an appointment with Mr. Leopold Gantvoort. I’ll wait.”
This is how Dashiell Hammett opens “The Tenth Clew.” The speaker is eventually identified as the Continental (detective agency) Op.
Kristiana Kahakauwila begins her story “Wanle” with this unusual sentence.
The Indian said “Poi Dog” the way other men say Princess or Babydoll. I called him the Indian. I didn’t mean it bad or good. I just called things what they were, as my father had before me.
Third person POV
Here are two examples of stories seen through the mind of a character referred to in the third person.
Mary Robison opens her story “Coach” with
The August two-a-day practice sessions were just sixty-seven days away, Coach calculated.
Margaret Atwood catches our attention in her story “Stone Mattress” this way.
At the outset, Verna had not intended to kill anyone. What she had in mind was a vacation, pure and simple.
In these two stories, the POV is established immediately. We are in a character’s mind and the character is not a narrator.
The list of Points of View
But, are these the only POVs: first and third person? Of course not. Life is not that simple. Why bother writing about something having no mystery, no complexity? Experts generally posit five or six points of view. Here’s how two of my favorite writers-on-writing see the breakdown.
John Gardner (The Art of Fiction, 1983)
- First person,
- Third-person-limited or subjective
- Third-person objective “the ice-cold, camera’s eye recording”.
- Third-person-omniscient (two or three characters plus objective observations)
- Authorial-omniscient (used by “the noblest writers, like Isak Dinesen and Leo Tolstoy) speaks as if god…sees into all his characters’ hearts and minds, presents all positions with justice and detachment, and occasionally dips into third person subjective. Usually he judges events, touching on morality only by implication
- Essayist-narrator (Gardner cites Jane Austen, Poe, Faulkner)
Ursula Le Guin (Steering the Craft, 1998) uses essentially the same breakdown.
- First person
- Limited third person
- Detached author “fly on the wall”, “camera eye” objective narrator
- Observer narrator,
- using first person
- using third person
- Involved author-Omniscient author
So, third person is broken down into three categories,
- Being in a single character’s mind, seeing and feeling things (close third)
- Occupying the minds several character and seeing things not perceived by any character.
“Coach” and “Stone Mattress” typify the close third person – you’ll have to trust me or read the entire stories, which are worth the effort. The fly-on-the-wall is illustrated by Raymond Carver’s “Neighbors” or Hemmingway’s “The Killers.” Here are fragments from page 1 of the latter.
The door of Henry’s lunch-room opened and two men came in. They sat down at the counter.
“What’s yours,” Henry asked them.
“I don’t know,” one of the men said. “What do you want to eat, Al?”
Outside it was getting dark. The street-lights came on outside the window. The two men at the counter read the menu.
From the other end of the counter, Nick Adams watched them. He had been talking to George when they came in.
Another famous Hemmingway story “Hills like White Elephants” also uses the fly on the wall POV. Aside from the opening paragraph that describes the outdoor setting and another paragraph at the end when one character carries suitcases and stops at the bar for a drink, the story is more than ninety percent dialog, mostly without tags.
Jane Austen provides excellent examples of Gardner’s essayist-narrator, a subset of omniscient author. In her novel Sense and Sensibility the first four dialog-free pages detail the background of the Dashwood family, recently thrown into turmoil by the death of the patriarch and the inheritance of the family estate by his only son John, thus displacing the widow and her three daughters from their home. Austen makes no pretense to hide her opinions. “[John] was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed..” and later, “Mrs. John Dashwood had never been a favorite with any of her husband’s family; but she had no opportunity, till the present, of shewing them with how little attention to the comfort of other people she could act when occasion required it.”
Alice Munro crafted her story, “Train,” using omniscient POV. It begins
This is a slow train anyway, and it has slowed some more for the curve. Jackson is the only passenger left…Already he has taken his ticket stub out of its overhead notch. He heaves his bag, and sees it land just nicely. No choice now – and the train’s not going to get any slower.
Soon, Jackson shows up at Belle’s farmhouse where she wants to milk her Jersey-cow, Margaret Rose, who is slow to come to the stable.
But this morning she [the cow] was too interested in something down by the dip of the pasture field, or in the trees…She heard Belle’s whistle and then her call, and started out reluctantly. But then decided to go back for another look.
Do we enter the cow’s mind in the preceding passage? One can argue that the things attributed to the cow are really intuited by Belle. But animals have been used for POV elsewhere, e.g., the gut-shot lion in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”
Le Guin again, p. 87:
All myths and legends and folktales, all young children’s stories, almost all fiction until about 1915, and a vast amount of fiction since then, use [involved author].
Can there be a second-person POV?
While few writing authorities mention second-person POV, it has its champions. Listen to Oakley Hall, in How Fiction Works (2001), on p. 101.
Second-person point of view has a tour de force quality, as in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City or Fay Weldon’s Letters to Alice on first Reading Jane Austen.
But in his next breath, after citing a passage from Bright Lights, Big City, Hall undermines his claim.
The point of view in here is actually first person, with the narrator speaking accusingly to himself as you.
Consider this passage (a bit shorter than the one cited by Hall).
Eventually you ascend the stairs to the street. You think of Plato’s pilgrims climbing out of the cave, from the shadow world of appearances toward things as they really are, and you wonder if it is possible to change in this life.
— Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City
This example, like many I’ve seen, reads perfectly well—better in my opinion—replacing each “you” with “I” or “one.”
Second person narration is not necessarily an additional POV. Whose head are we in? The reader? I don’t think so. I think the reader is in the narrator’s head.
I have a hard time contemplating second-person POV. Certainly, it is easy to write in second person narration. Junot Diaz writes some of his stories in second person. His “Alma” is consistently second person narrative. But “Flaca” is told in first person POV with much of the dialog directed at “you.”
Lorrie Moore wrote several stories in second person narration, including “The Kid’s Guide to Divorce,” “How,” “How to become a Writer,” and “How to be Another Woman.” Some of them read like cookbook recipes.
Carlos Fuentes wrote his short novel Aura totally in second person narrative, “the voice poets always use,” he called it when interviewed by the Paris Review. If you want to judge for yourself whether second person POV is possible, buy the bilingual edition of Aura, 160 pages —80 if you plan to read only one language—and check it out. My view: if second person POV exists, this represents it. But it feels like being in the author’s head, first person POV.
The first four sentences of this essay are in second person with the implied “you.”
In his story, “Black Ass at the Crossroads,” Hemmingway’s first-person narrator says,
“You should not attack an armored vehicle while it was moving, but if he braked, I could hit him with the big-headed German bazooka.”
Clearly, the “you should” represents “one should” as is often the case in second person narrative.
Whether second person POV is possible is moot. It is used so seldom, we can ignore it.
Reliable vs unreliable narration
A word of caution. Narrators can be reliable or unreliable. Thus, POV characters can tell us truth or falsehood, and falsehood can arise from imperfect memory as well as from dishonesty. Common wisdom holds the first person narrator to be more reliable.
Listen to this observation by Huck Finn, p. 186 of my edition.
“I says to myself, I reckon a body that ups an tells the truth when he’s in a tight place is taking considerable many risks, though I ain’t had no experience.”
Le Guin has this to say on p. 84.
Most first- and third-person narrators in serious fiction used to be trustworthy, just like memoirists. But “unreliable narrators” are now fairly common in fiction, narrators who—deliberately or innocently—misrepresent the facts. [they] are almost always telling us something about themselves. The author lets us see what “really” happened, and using this as a touchstone, we readers are led to understand how other people see the world and why they (and we) see it that way.” She cites Huck Finn who “never sees that Jim is the only adult in his world who treats him with love and honor; he never really understands that he loves and honors Jim, [which] tells us an appalling truth about the world he and Jim live in.”
Why should we care about POV?
Gardner makes this bold statement (p. 155).
(1)The choice of POV will largely determine all other choices with regard to style – vulgar, colloquial, or formal diction, length and characteristic speed of sentences, and so on. (2) In contemporary writing, one may do anything one pleases with regard to POV, as long as it works. (3) It is often said, mainly by non-writers, that the first person POV is the most natural. This is doubtful. Third person POV is more common in both folk and sophisticated narrative. No fairy tales are written in first person, also no jokes….but first person does not force the writer to recognize that written speech has to make up for the loss of facial expression, gesture, and the like, and the usual result is not good writing, but only writing less noticeably bad.”
Le Guin, p.90, warns us about switching viewpoints.
Any shift from one of the five POVs to another is a dangerous one. It’s a major shift to go from first to third person, or from involved author to observer-narrator. The shift will affect the whole tone and structure of your narrative. Shifts within limited third person-from one character’s mind to another- call for equal awareness and care. A writer must be aware of, have a reason for, and be in control of all shifts of viewpoint character.”
It is a near-unanimous opinion among writers that except for author-omniscient POV, where it’s acceptable, even expected, changing POV requires skill and purpose. Novices change viewpoints unintentionally. Craftsmen who go there recognize the limitations. Switching narrators is more challenging in short stories. One common strategy in novels is to change narrators with a new chapter.
That said, many authors switch viewpoint characters within a story or a chapter or even a scene. F. Scott Fitzgerald switches from his protagonist Charlie to antagonist sister-in-law Marion and back twice in one scene, in “Babylon Revisited” (first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1931).
According to the doctoral dissertation, “The Significance of Point of View in Katherine Ann Porter’s, Ship of Fools, Robert Hickman Adams, June 1965, University of Southern California, “manipulation of point of view was a standard technique in [Porter’s] stories”
Yet, Adams points out that Porter was preceded by To the Lighthouse published in 1927 by Virginia Woolf, (35 years before Ship of Fools) which contains passages from alternating restricted perspectives.
I remember being jarred reading a Michael Connelly’s The Narrows in which he alternated POV between first person (Bosch) and third person (Walling). I was not alone in that feeling, though some readers thought Connelly pulled it off masterfully.
Preference among writers for POV
Of the thirty stories in Mary Robison’s Tell Me collection, one is written in fly-on-the-wall and one in omniscient narrator. The remainder are equally divided between first person and third person limited.
Of the forty stories in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories (2015, Lorrie Moore, ed.) only four stories feature changing POV and another five represent omniscient POV. The remaining work are half first person and half third person POV. Earlier work was predominantly third person.
Of the seventeen stories in T. Coraghessan Boyle’s 1979 dark-humor collection, Descent of Man (remember titles may not be copyrighted) eight are written in first person, five in omniscient, and four in third person limited.
Successful story writers are divided between first and third person, with a small percentage using omniscient, fly on the wall, or shifting POV.
Novels frequently employ omniscient or shifting third person POV.
Shifting POV has been around for a century, but requires skill and care.
Essayist narrator POV is no longer in fashion.
Second person narration is uncommon, whether or not it can represent a POV.