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Point of View: General

Point of view (POV) in fiction refers to the perspective or angle from which story events are presented. The story may be told from a single POV, from the perspective of one narrator, or it may be told from the POV of several different characters.

Perspective

To understand how POV changes a story, imagine a car accident, as seen from three different perspectives. An account of the accident may be told from the POV of the driver, a bystander, or a person ten stories up looking out the window of an office building. Depending on the Point of View chosen, different information will come out in the story, and some information will be omitted.

First Person Point of View

The driver will tell the story in the first person POV, and he will use the “I” pronoun:

“I put on my brakes to stop, but my car kept sliding. I could see that I was about to hit the other car, but I could do nothing to stop. I pumped the brakes and that didn’t slow me at all. I felt my heart pounding and heard a roar in my ears, and then the terrible sound of grinding metal as my bumper tore into the driver’s door. My head smashed forward and I felt a lot of pain, and then I was here, in this hospital bed.”

The driver knows the most intimate details of the crash and his reaction to it, but he does not know everything. He cannot know, for example, that his face went red or white, or if his eyes looked wild, or his hair stood straight up like a cartoon character because he has no access to that information (unless he happened to look in the mirror just before he crashed). Similarly, he can’t know the license plate number of the other vehicle because he hit the car from the side, and everything happened too quickly.

Third Person Point of View, Objective

The bystander will tell the story from a different, more distant perspective, though how distant depends on her relationship to the events. She will use third person pronouns and can only recount what she sees, hears, or imagines:

“The guy in the first car wasn’t speeding, and he had the right of way. The kid in the other car—a black Pontiac—ran the red light and drove in front of him. The licence plate number of the Pontiac is JNC 235. The Pontiac made it halfway through the intersection before the other driver plowed into him. He had no choice but to hit the kid. The street was black with ice, and anyone could see that he wanted to stop. His face had that pasty look people get when they’re terrified, and his whole body leaned back in the seat as if he had the brake pedal jammed to the floor.”

This third person narrator knows nothing of the driver’s pounding heart, or the sound in his ears, but she provides other, external details the driver wouldn’t know.

The witness ten stories up in the office building will tell a similar story, from the third person objective Point of View, but her details will be different again, limited by her eyesight, and broadened by her wider perspective. “I could see it coming,” she might say. “I couldn’t see the drivers, but both cars approached the intersection at about the same time. The black car must have lost control. I could see his tire tracks for a half block, and they went from one curb to another, until he reached the intersection, and then they turn into solid skid lines. Both drivers must have wanted to stop, but neither could have, on the ice. It looked like a skating rink down there.”

Third Person Point of View, Limited Omniscient

The third person point of view can also be written from a “limited” omniscient point of view, which is very similar to the first person, in that the story is told through the limited perspective of one character at a time. That character knows everything a first person narrator could know, inside and outside the character, and more, as the story may contain multiple third person limited narrators. Let’s go back to the car accident and put all the characters in one room. In this case, we’ll change perspective from paragraph to paragraph, allowing all three characters the same up-close and intimate telling in the third person limited point of view:

Jake shook his head at the question. Hadn’t they understood him the first time around? “I put on my brakes to stop, but my car kept sliding. I could see that I was about to hit the other car, but I could do nothing to stop.” He had pumped the brakes in the time he had, but it hadn’t slowed him at all. In those last few seconds he had pressed the brake pedal to the floor and his ears had roared with increased blood pressure. Then it was all over, just the terrible sound of grinding metal as his bumper tore into the driver’s door. The poor kid. He hadn’t meant to hurt him. “All I know is that my head smashed forward and I felt a flash of excruciating pain. Then I was here, in this hospital bed.”

Alison nodded. He hadn’t been speeding, and he had the right of way—she’d seen the green light. The kid in the black Pontiac—he’s the one that ran the red light and got in the way. “I saw the whole thing, and I got the licence plate number of the Pontiac, not that I needed to in the end.” The Pontiac had made it halfway through the intersection before Jake plowed into him, and then neither car moved. “You had no choice but to hit the kid. The street was black with ice, and anyone could see that you wanted to stop.” She wouldn’t tell him, but his face had that pasty look people get when they’re terrified. “I could see from the way your body leaned back in the seat that you had the brake jammed to the floor. You can’t blame yourself. It was the ice.”

”That fits with what I saw, too,” Peggy said. “You both approached the intersection at about the same time, but the boy must have lost control down the block. I could see his tire tracks for a half block back, and they swerved from one curb to another until he reached the intersection, and then they turned into solid skid lines. She chewed on her lip. "Neither of them could have stopped, not on that ice. It looked like a skating rink down there.”

Normally, an author would not change POV every paragraph but would wait for a scene break. However, this example highlights the advantages of the third person limited Point of View. Not only can the objective facts be presented from different perspectives, but the internalizations of each character can be heard as well. Compare this more modern approach to the traditional omniscient perspective, where the narrator imparts the same information, but from a greater distance, and with more detailed “telling.”

Omniscient Point of View in Fiction

Unlike the others, who were eager to talk, Jake shook his head at the question, unsure why they hadn’t understood him the first time. He sounded a bit peeved. “Like I said, I put on my brakes to stop, but my car kept sliding. I could see that I was about to hit the other car, but I could do nothing to stop.” He spoke the truth. He had pumped the brakes in the time he had, but the action didn’t slow him at all. In those last few seconds he had pressed the brake pedal to the floor and had hoped for the best, his ears roaring with blood. Then he heard the terrible sound of grinding metal as his bumper tore into the driver’s door. “All I know,” he said, “is that my head smashed forward and I felt a flash of excruciating pain. Then I was here, in this hospital bed.”

Alison nodded agreement. Though she wasn't certain that he hadn't been speeding, she did know that he had the green light amd the right of way. The boy in the black Pontiac ran the red light and drove in front of Jake. “I saw the whole thing.” She had got the licence plate number of the Pontiac, as well, but the police didn’t need it. Once the cars collided, neither went any farther. “You had no choice but to hit the kid. The street was black with ice, and anyone could see that you wanted to stop.” She’d seen his face, too, and he had that pasty look people get when they’re terrified. She chose not to tell him that part, but opted for sympathy instead. She said only, “I could see from the way your body leaned back in the seat that you had the brake jammed to the floor. You can’t blame yourself. It was the ice.”

Peggy, who had been waiting patiently, chimed in then. “That fits with what I saw, too,” she said. “From up top, I saw it coming. You both approached the intersection at about the same time, but the kid must have lost control. I could see his tire tracks for a half block, and they went from one curb to another, until he reached the intersection. Then they turned into solid skid lines.” Like Alison, she chose sympathy. No one wanted to lay blame. “Neither of you could have stopped, not on that ice. It looked like a skating rink down there.”

This perspective takes readers out of the character's head and puts them back in the hands of a single narrator, who relates what each character sees, feels, thinks. Readers receive this information through the narrator’s perspective, not directly from the character, This narrator may be objective or judgmental, trustworthy, or unstrustworthy. Often, this narrator is merely annoying to readers, who want to experience the story for themselves as it unfolds. In other words, the narrator lets the reader know what is in the character's mind, readers do not learn this information directly from the character, or from such a close position that it seems to come directly from the character, as with the third person limited POV. This is a subtle but important difference.

Beginning writers often want to "show everything,” and so a single omniscient narrator can seem like the best option, better than the “limited omniscient,” which limits the perspective to one character at a time.

However, the omniscient POV is the one that creates the most distance between readers and characters, which can be off-putting to readers.

It is also the point of view that most suffers from unwanted authorial interventions, and so is the point of view that invites the most problems. There are many ways to use this perspective incorrectly, so that the point of view does not stay with the narrator but jumps in and out of various characters' heads, which distracts readers and makes the story less satisfying for them. The omniscient narrator knows what each character thinks, and can impart that information, which is different from allowing the reader into each character's head. This distinction is often difficult for inexperienced writers to negotiate.

A further problem with using an omniscient narrator is that in inexperienced hands, the narration can "tell" far too much, as with the author who has a narrator tell readers, "It was a dark and stormy night..." An opening that "shows" the dark and stormy night as the character experiences it engages readers more. In my experience, until a writer feels very comfortable with all the other choices, a traditional omniscient voice will only create difficulties.

Related Links

Writing the First Draft

Scene Questions Hold Interest



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