Point of view is often an element that writers battle with, even well into their careers. I pick up books all the time, even by well-known authors, that contain viewpoint switches mid-scene. Omniscient point of view is very popular in literary fiction and magical realism. Point of view can have a powerful effect on how your reader experiences your story so it is a part of the writing craft that is worth understanding and mastering for the sake of your readers.
What is Point of View?
Point of view is what each character sees, hears, feels, and experiences during a scene in your story. When the author describes the first hand experiences of many characters at the same time, the reader’s attention is split between them all, and the writer runs the risk that the reader will not develop sympathy for any character in particular.
On the other hand, when the writer skilfully presents the thoughts and feelings of a main character for a decent length of time, the reader is usually able to understand and empathise with the character, and often will read on to find out what happens to the character, or how they handle conflict that has arisen in the plot.
Types of Point of View
First Person Narrative
First person narratives are usually the easiest to keep the point of view from jumping between characters. These stories are told by a character (often the main character, but not necessarily), which means that they are not able to know what the thoughts, feelings, or experiences of the other characters are. They can, however, speculate based on the body language and words the other characters use. They may or may not be right about what they read into other characters’ signals, and many authors use this possibility to good effect in fiction.
Third Person Narrative
Third person character perspective (limited omniscient)
Third person limited omniscient narrative is the most common way of writing fiction, although first person is gaining in popularity. The story is narrated, but the narrator is invisible, playing no part in the story. However, the perspective of one or more characters is used to draw the reader into the story and develop empathy for the characters.
For character perspective to be most effective, each scene should be presented from only one character’s viewpoint, to avoid splitting the reader’s attention as mentioned earlier. In a full length novel, a number of characters can be used as point of view characters without losing the reader’s empathy, but with shorter stories, fewer viewpoints work far better. Whatever the length of your story, if you can keep your viewpoint characters down to one or two, you will have a far stronger story and a bigger impact on your readers.
When you choose just one main character’s perspective it also makes it easier for you as the writer to stay in their “head”. If you write each scene the way the character would experience it, you will notice usually immediately if you include something that they can’t possibly know. A common example is writing about what another character is doing when the main character has turned away – or left the room – and can no longer see that character.
Third person objective
Less commonly, third person narrative can use objective viewpoint rather than a limited omniscience, where none of the characters’ thoughts are presented, and their feelings are displayed, consciously or subconsciously, through their words and actions only. This style is used most often in stage and screenplays where the characters’ thoughts don’t come into the story.
Third person omniscient
This is a very clunky style to read, but is also becoming popular because it resembles a movie, but includes thoughts and feelings. The narration takes a full view of the book, knowing at all times what each character is thinking, presenting all viewpoints at all times, and moving from character to character, and also scene to scene, showing a snapshot of their life and environment. It allows almost no empathy to develop as the reader is shifted along from character to character.
Second Person Narrative
Second person used to be very popular for children’s “solve it yourself” mystery and adventure books: “You are walking down the street and witness a crime. Turn to page 20 if you call the police, turn to page 40 if you run away…” Outside that type of book, second person is hardly ever used, but I recently read Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity in which he very cleverly uses Second Person narrative for part of the book. It’s very effective and interesting for what he wanted to achieve.
This article was first published on BellaOnline in September 2006. © Elsa Neal
For more on point of view narrative try Characters and Viewpoint : Elements of Fiction Writing by Orson Scott Card or Write Great Fiction : Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint : Techniques and exercises for crafting dynamic characters and effective viewpoints by Nancy Kress