Point of view is an aspect of writing that many writers take for granted that they understand, and yet many of them commit erroneous mistakes because they don’t actually understand them as well as they think. Point of view slips are common with writers who haven’t studied the craft of writing as well as they should, those who rely solely on their “muse” to guide them rather than actually becoming educated in the craft. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not belittling the value of a muse. I’m just saying that, great as they are at offering inspiration, one can’t teach you the finer points of technique. That requires study and effort.
Point of view is literally translated as “who tells the story and how it gets told.” It is the vantage point that the reader has as he or she goes on the journey the writer has created for him or her. This vantage point can be limited or expanded, it can come from only one point of view or from many points of view. However the writer chooses to tell the story, its telling is greatly impacted by the point of view used throughout. Understanding these points of view helps the writer to chose more selectively and use them more knowledgeably.
Let’s start with the more common points of view.
First Person: This point of view (POV) allows the reader inside the head of the main character. It is a direct telling of the story through the eyes of only one character, up close and personal. The benefits to this POV are that the reader is allowed a very intimate understanding of the main character’s thoughts and feelings. The reader is literally drawn into the story by being so closely connected with the main character that the character almost becomes the reader him- or herself. The use of first person also drives the story differently. The main character, because he or she is front and center to the reader, steers the plot through his or her choices and actions.
The down side to using first person POV is that it is limiting to the story. If the writer stays in the POV of only this one character, the reader can never really know how another character is feeling, or what another character is thinking. Often this limitation is not significant enough to warrant much thought by the writer, but some stories would benefit by being opened to another point of view. For example, imagine a story where one spouse is cheating on another. The writer might create great sympathy for the main character by not ever showing the other spouse’s point of view, but the story might be better if that other spouse’s point of view were given. Sympathy for the spouse who is cheating might be diverted to the partner who is faithful, or the sympathy for the faithful spouse might be diverted to the cheating partner depending on what the writer allows the reader to know.
So how does first person work? Here is an example using one of Mother Goose’s classic rhymes:
My name is Miss Muffet. One day, as I sat on my tuffet eating a lovely bowl of curds and whey, a huge and terrifying spider dropped onto the seat beside me. I was so frightened that I dashed from the room, spilling my breakfast and soiling my dress.
The same rhyme could be told from the spider’s point of view, also in first person. I often have students in creative writing do this for practice.
Another popular point of view is Third Person Limited, or TPL. Much like first person, this POV stays only with one character (that’s why it’s called “limited”), but instead of using the first person voice (I, me, my), the story is told in third person (he, she, they). TPL maintains much of the intimacy of first person POV, but creates a bit more emotional distance because the reader does not hear “I” in their head as they read. The limits of first person and TPL are they same, however, in that the story follows one character’s experiences only. If the main character speaks of another character, it is not with an absolute knowledge of that character’s thoughts or feelings. The main character can only speculate on those since he or she can’t be inside the other character to experience it first hand.
Here is TPL from the spider’s point of view:
A young girl sat down on a tufted stool to eat a bowl of something interesting. The spider, tired of waiting for a fly to appear and land in his web, dropped gently onto the seat beside the little girl to investigate. When she spotted him, the little girl leaped from her seat, spilling the bowl, and ran from the room. Bewildered, the spider returned to his web and hoped for a wayward moth.
Another popular point of view is Third Person Omniscient. With omniscient point of view, the writer moves from character to character, allowing the reader to see into the thoughts and feelings of each one. Even in the hands of a skilled writer, this POV can be confusing. The first two paragraphs of Anne Lammot’s “Crooked Little Heart” are an example of this. The rest of the book is marvelous, but those introductory paragraphs are a challenge to get through.
The advantages of Omniscient POV are that the reader is allowed to understand every character, gathering information about each one for use as the story progresses. It also allows the reader to know much more about the story and what motivates the plot. The disadvantages, however, are that there is little emotional intimacy with the characters, and as I mentioned, it is easy to muddle this POV and confuse the reader, making it difficult for the reader to move forward in the story. Using Omniscient POV also means that the story will not be character driven, because the reader can’t get to know any one character better than the others necessarily. This is fine for the milieu or adventure story, so that’s not always a huge disadvantage.
Here is our rhyme, again, with Omniscient POV:
Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet, minding her own business and enjoying a bowl of curds and whey. Suddenly, without warning, a large spider dropped in to investigate. He was interested in the lumpy stuff in her bowl, and as he hadn’t eaten in a few days, wondered if it might be suitable for spiders. Upon seeing her new companion, Miss Muffet let out a shriek and dashed from the room. The spider, crestfallen at the missed opportunity, climbed back to his web in the chandelier overhead.
There are two other points of view, although they are less well known and not very common. The first is Second Person Point of View (SP). Second Person became a popular point of view in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the “Make Your Own Adventure” books came out. These books tried to be interactive, to confront the growing threat of computer games. By using SP POV, the writer tried to make the reader the main character of the story. Unfortunately, the books were limited in their ability to give children what they wanted were often contrived story lines that didn’t work well with modern children used to computer and video games.
Here is our rhyme using the Second Person POV:
You sit yourself down on a cushy seat and prepare to enjoy a delicious bowl of curds and whey. Suddenly you notice a huge, hairy spider sitting next to you. You dash from the room, spilling your bowl on the floor.
You can see part of the problem immediately. There are a few kids who would say, “No I didn’t. I picked up the spider, named him Fred, and kept him as a pet.” And there would be other kids who would say “I wouldn’t eat anything like curds and whey,” etc. In addition to forcing limited choices on the reader, the SPPOV forces emotions as well. Those books didn’t last long, and they didn’t sell well after the initial printing.
The final POV is Third Person Objective. Perhaps the most famous example of Objective Point of View is Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery.” Here the narration attempts to be a camera, like a surveillance camera at a convenience store. The writer simply records the action, leaving out any emotion or description that might be subjective, or open to debate. The problem here is that so many word choices could be construed as subjective. Think of all the adjectives and adverbs we use in our writing, and then try writing without them! There are experts that argue that even Shirley Jackson’s piece isn’t truly Objective point of view, but only at times is Objective. In her opening sentences she uses words such as “the fresh warmth of a full-summer day” and “flowers were blossoming profusely” which could be argued to be subjective rather than objective writing.
Let’s look at Miss Muffet in Object POV:
Miss Muffet sat on a stool and began eating a bowl of curds and whey. A spider dropped from the ceiling onto the seat next to her. When she noticed it, she dropped he bowl and ran from the room.
This example raises another issue with Objective POV – if you’re not careful, it can be very boring. Some scholars have challenged that Objective POV is impossible because every word chosen by a writer is subjective. Either way, Objective POV is challenging to write.
Most writers who consider POV when they begin a story, consider first what the story is about and then who the characters are. Some writers have a favorite point of view, while others play around with many points of view. Without considering this important aspect of writing, however, the writer may ultimately be damaging the story, and limiting the enjoyment of it for the reader.