25 Things You Should Know About Narrative Point-Of-View
1. Know Thy Narrator
One of the first questions you have to ask is, who the fuck is telling this story? Is intrepid space reporter Annie McMeteor telling it in her own voice? Is a narrator telling Annie’s story for her? Is the story told from a panoply of characters — or from a narrator attempting to tell the story by stitching together a quilt of multiple minds and voices? Is the story told by a gruff and emotionless objective character who sits fat like a fly on the wall? You can try writing your story without knowing who the narrator is, but you’d better figure it out by the end of the first paragraph or you’re going to be writing one big, barfy, confusing mess. Your uncertainty in this regard will punish the reader, so it’s time, in Glengarry Glen Ross parlance, “to fuck or walk.”
2. Who’s On First, I Don’t Know’s On Third
You already know this but it bears repeating: first-person POV is when the story is told with the pronoun “I” (I went to the store, I like cheese, I killed a man in Reno not so much to watch him die but more because I wanted his calculator wristwatch). Third-person POV is when the story is told with the pronouns “she,” “he,” “it,” “they” (She opened the window, he peed out the window, they all got peed on by the guy peeing out the window).
3. Ha Ha Ha, Second-Person, That’s A Good One
The second-person mode uses the pronoun “you.” As in, it’s telling the story from the perspective of you the reader. In theory, this is awesome. In practice it often comes off totally fucking goofy. Sure, a gifted storyteller can pull it off — and hey, sometimes fiction is about risks. It probably works better in short fiction than long (as sustaining that narrative mode will be tricky and tiresome). To be honest, whenever I read a second-person narrative, I keep thinking in my head, “You are eaten by a grue.” Then I quit reading it because, y’know, grue.
4. Witnessing Versus Experiencing: Where To Place The Camera?
A novel has no camera because a novel is just a big brick of words, but for the sake of delicious metaphor, let’s assume that “camera” is representative of the reader’s perspective. We often think of point-of-view as being the character’s perspective (and it is), but it’s also about the reader’s perspective. A third-person narrative has the camera outside the action — maybe hovering over one character, maybe pulling back all the way to the corner. A first-person narrative gives one character the camera — or even goes so far as to cram the camera up their nether-cavern and into their brain and against their eyeball. The question then becomes: is the reader here to witness what’s going on? Or experience it? Third-person asks we witness, first-person allows us to experience (and second-person really utilizes the experiential mode but, again, probably don’t do that).
5. The Intimacy Of The Reader
Put different, it becomes a question of intimacy. How intimate is the reader with the story, the setting, the characters? Once we begin to explode out the multiple modes of POV (objective, subjective, omniscient, etc.) it relates to how intimate the reader gets to be — is she kept close but privy to the confidence of only one character? Is the reader allowed to be all up in the satiny guts of every character in the room? Is the reader locked out? How much access does the reader have to the intellectual and emotional realm? Is she granted psychic narrative powers?
6. Objective: The Reader At The Window, Peering In
The objective mode of storytelling says, “Hey, reader, go stand outside and watch the story from the window, you funky little perv-weasel.” The reader isn’t privy to any of the psychic realm: it’s like watching a closed-circuit television feed. This happened, that happened, blah blah blah. It’s almost informationally pornographic: close-ups and thrusting but no emotional tangle.
7. Subjective: The Reader As A Psychic Monkey Riding A Specific Character
The subjective narrative mode filters the story through the lens of a single character. The reader is allowed inside (as long as he pulls up his pants and wipes his hands) and gets to play the role of a psychic Yoda-monkey clinging to one character’s back. The intimacy increases: the reader is now allowed access to one character’s internal realm. That character filters everything through an intellectual, emotional, and experiential lens for the reader.
8. Omniscient: Reader Drops Acid Gets To Live In Everybody’s Heads
YOU ARE NOW A GOLDEN GOD. Or, you just quaffed a cup of ayahuasca and now you’re hallucinating. Either way, omniscient POV allows us to become not a dude at the window or a telepathic lemur but rather, a hyper-aware psychic cloud floating above and within all the character action. We are granted a backstage pass to every character’s internal world.
9. The Limited Lens Of Third Person Subjective
Third-person subjective is often called “third-person limited” because you are, duh, limited to the lens of just one character. This allows us some of the intimacy of first-person while still remaining a witness to the action rather than the closest thing to a participant. It’s like having your cake and being able to eat it too, which is a phrase I’ve always considered a bit silly: of course I want to eat the cake I have because then what the fuck is the point of cake? If you’re trying to make some comment on the corporeality of cake (“once you’ve eaten it you no longer have it”), it still falls apart because relocating it to my belly still counts as me having it. Further, I might have eaten a single slice of cake and retain the other seven slices for later cake consumption. (And by “later” I mean, “in two-and-a-half minutes.”) So, whatever. What was I talking about? Who are you people and how’d you get in my Secret Cake Room?
10. Episodic Third: The Monkey Hops From Shoulder To Shoulder
This has lots of names — Third-Term Episodic, Third-Term Multiple, Third-Person Limited Shifting, Menage-A-Character, Third-Person Monkey-Head-Hopper, and so on. The point is that in a given narrative unit (most commonly, a chapter) the storyteller limits the filtering of the narrative through a single character — in the next chapter, the storyteller switches that filter to a whole different character. (I tend to like this approach in my own work. If third-person limited is ‘having your cake and eating it too,’ this is like ‘having cake with ice cream on top and then also pie and maybe cookies and eating it all but still having more.’)
11. The Deeper Plunge Of First Person Subjective
First-person subjective is the most common version of the first-person POV, and it allows for a deep dive into one character’s psyche. It is the most intimate in a 1:1 sense — the strength is that we get to know one character very, very well. We are more than just the monkey on the shoulder; we are a thought-eating brain parasite. We are given a vicarious thrill as both storyteller and reader in this mode. Sometimes, this mode can be overpowering; further, there exists the danger that the storyteller’s “voice” and the protagonist’s “voice” are a little too close. In a sense, first-person subjective is a bit like acting: the writer embodies the role of a character, attempting to wear the costume completely while on the page.
12. The News Report Had Sex With A Screenplay And Birthed The Objective POV
Journalism is all about details. Screenplays are blueprints for action and dialogue. The objective point-of-view — in both first- and third-person — offers us that sense of utter detachment. It is an exercise in, as noted, detail and action and dialogue. The internal world is closed off completely; any intellectual or emotional details are left to reader interpretation only. Much of this is actually about how much interpretation we want the reader to do — how much burden do we grant to the audience? The more objective the narrative becomes, the more must sit on the reader’s shoulder. The more subjective we become, the less interpretation the reader must do.
13. First Person Omniscient Is Like Hanging In The Headspace Of A God
Here’s how this works: the narrative is first-person (“I pooped…”) and yet offers total awareness and exploration of the internal world of every other character (“I pooped and Tom wonders why I did it on the salad bar, but Betty doesn’t care because she’s thinking about how she thinks salad is for assholes, anyway”). This is not a narrative mode you can get away with easily — it has to have a hook. A reason for existing. Like, in the Lovely Bones, the character is a ghost so that pretty much makes sense. But a character shouldn’t be able to offer an omniscient viewpoint without being psychic, or a ghost, or a god, or… well, a warbling moony-loon. Could be cool. Could also be a garish gimmick. Tread wisely.
14. Multiple First Person Narrators
You can, if you want, tell the story from alternating first-person narrators. One chapter tells it from Tom, the second from Betty, the third from Bim-Bim the Saturnian Baboon Lord, whatever. Like I said: you do what you want. You can take a shit on the grocery store salad bar as long as you don’t mind Tom giving you the stink-eye afterward. (Oh, one note about alternating first-person narrators: the voice of each needs to be strong and distinct so that readers aren’t left scratching their poor little reader noggins over who the fuck is talking to them.)
15. The Cool Kids Of POV High
The two most popular points-of-view are, I believe, first-person subjective and third-person limited (often third-person episodic limited — aka the monkey-hopper POV). First-person is particularly common in young adult fiction the reasons for which are either that “it’s the trend so shut up” or “because younger readers want that level of emotional intimacy with younger characters.” Not to say you must cleave to trends, but it’s good to be aware of them.
16. First And Third Living Together And Making Sweet Love
You can, if you’re really bad-ass, alternate from first to third. It’s tricky and can become just a stunt if you’re not careful. “BECAUSE I WANT TO SO SHUT YOUR GODDAMN MOUTH” is not always the best reason to try something inside your fiction: it helps to have some logic behind it. Is there some reason to perform the switch? Is there an epistolary component sandwiched like taco meat inside the narrative? Seek reason for the choices within your writing.
17. Be Consistent, Be Clear
Seek consistency and clarity in point-of-view, lest you confound and bewilder, lest you seem like the king of amateur-hour karaoke. Hell, seek consistency and clarity in all of your writing. Also, in your take-out orders. Because you think you ordered a “ham and cheese sandwich” but then you open the bag and suddenly your face is on fire from a thousand stingers and you’re like OMG THEY MUST’VE THOUGHT I SAID HAM AND BEES.
18. The Reader Is Your Puppet And POV Is One Of The Strings
The storyteller’s job isn’t to be the reader’s buddy. The storyteller is an untrustworthy fucker, a manipulator on par with the love child of Verbal Kint and Hannibal Lecter. Point-of-view is one of the most critical weapons in the storyteller’s arsenal: you can use to reveal information or to restrict it. You can use it to regulate the distance between reader and character, or between one character and another. You can use it to display false testimony or misleading detail. You can use it to open stuck jars or drown noisome chipmunks. Okay, maybe not that last part.
19. Perspective Creates Tension
Perspective — both its revelation and restriction — creates tension. The third-person POV allows different characters to notice individual details and experience separate events and we as the reader are privy to all their conflicting plots and schemes. Third-person omniscient is a blown-open diaper of perspective: the characters on the page don’t know what one another are thinking but we often do, and so we know that Tom is planning on killing Betty and that Bim-Bim the Space Baboon is really Tom and Betty’s long lost son. First-person pulls all that back and restricts the experiences to a single character, so instead the sense of external mystery is heightened even as internal mystery is reduced — the reverse can be true when you go back to third-person, where internal mystery is increased at the expense of external intrigue.
20. Wuzza Wooza Who Now?
Beware confusion with any exercise of point-of-view. Omniscience can overwhelm and bewilder. Subjectivity can leave out critical external details. Mystery is not useful when it seeds utter befuddlement. Or, put differently, “mystery” is not a synonym for “I don’t know what the hell is going on anymore in this goddamn story I’m so lost I think I need a nap.”
21. The Danger Of Illuminating Assholes
That sounds like someone’s shining a flashlight on an anus, but that’s not what I mean — what I mean is, the first-person perspective lends intimacy and sometimes that intimacy is exactly what fiction needs. However, characters who are in some sense “unlikable” often gain extra unwanted dimension with the first-person perspective. One danger is that the character’s moral complexities are watered-down because now we’re forced to march through the justifications for the character’s rampant assholery. The follow-up danger is that the deep psychic dive only magnifies the assholery to the point where the character is now a prolapsed anus the size of a Christmas stocking heavy with driveway gravel. An unlikable-but-interesting character can fast become a hated motherfucker when we live too long inside their heads. I want to watch Don Draper and Tony Soprano. I don’t want to lurk inside their heads.
22. What Objectivity Misses
Objective narrative view can offer a strong, clinical approach to storytelling. Though, one could also suggest that the power of the novel above other storytelling forms is how it allows us to plunge — however deep or shallow — into the internal world of the characters rather than just exploring the physical realm. The novel is a complicated beast and as much happens inside the action as around it, within it, and through it. If I wanted to watch Bim-Bim the Space Baboon run around and shoot laser pistols, I’d write a cartoon script. If I’m writing a novel, it’s because I want to behold the pathos of Bim-Bim. Which is also the name of my next novel: “THE PATHOS OF BIM-BIM,” with the follow-up, “DESOLATION OF THE MOON GIBBON.”
23. Is The Narrator A Poo-Poo-Faced Lying Liar Who Lies?
The more intimate the readers are allowed to be with the narrator, the more able the storyteller is to create conditions for an unreliable narrator, which is to say, a narrator whose experience and/or telling of the story is questionable. An unreliable narrator creates a sub rosa layer of the story where we the readers are left to wonder what is true and what is false. The more layers a story has, the more we have to discuss over all that cake and pie when we’re done reading it, and the more we have to discuss, the more cake and pie we eat, so, y’know, FUCK YEAH CAKEPIE.
24. This Is All Wrapped Up With Narrative Tense
It’s common for narrative tense to be wrapped up with narrative point-of-view, lumped together in something called “narrative mode.” (Which is also the mode that Teddy Ruxpin exists in at all times, I believe. Since Teddy Ruxpin is a bear, does he tell you a story as he’s eating you?) It’s too much to talk about here, just realize that adding tense to point-of-view adds further variable to your storytelling offerings — first-person present tense feels very internal and in-the-moment, whereas third-person present carries the urgent-yet-distant action of a screenplay. Third-person past tense feels very traditional, whereas second-person omniscient future tense feels like you’re just fucking with everybody, you crazy avant garde sonofabitch.
25. When In Doubt, Rewrite To A New POV
If you’re hip-deep in the book and you’re just not feeling it, try switching to a new point-of-view before giving up. You may find that a different way into the story — a different lens, camera, and filter — will enliven your investment and reveal the story you really want to tell. Think of it like an Instagram filter: you’re like, “Man, this foodie photo of foie gras Buffalo wings just doesn’t do anything for me,” but then you start clicking Instagram retro filters and suddenly you’re all HOLY FUCKSHOES NOW IT’S ART. Try new things until the story clicks. Which is a good tip, I think, for all aspects of writing and storytelling, so tattoo it somewhere on your body. Maybe your forehead, backwards, so you can read it in a mirror!
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