Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Point-of-view: Your Options

Point-of-view (POV) determines who tells the story. At its best, it can help reveal your characters and intensify emotions. At its worst, it can confuse readers and leave them detached from the story. If you read a lot of fiction writing books, you'll find many ideas about point-of-view and many in-depth explanations about the choices. In this article, we'll talk about two basic points-of-view: first and third person.

First Person
In first person, one of the character's tells the story. You know their thoughts and feelings and see things happen from their perspective. He or she may be right in the middle of the action or simply watching it. This method opens the way for an intense emotional journey. There are many good examples but one of my favorites is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Her ecstasy, despair, confusion, and obsession with Grace Pool would not be the same in another POV. The mystery and gloom that lingers throughout the book is due in part to our narrator. She's not clued in so neither are we.

The downside to first person is that you're limited to one perspective. Or are you? In Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir several characters take the stage and tell their side of things. Each chapter title reveals the narrator and Weir does a great job in creating unique voices for each. You don't even really need the titles to know who's speaking. Stevenson uses a similar approach, though more limited, in Treasure Island. This type of storytelling won't work for everything but it's certainly something to keep in mind.

Third Person
Third person uses an unnamed narrator who never enters into the story. This is where things get tricky. You can break third person down into many variations. For the sake of length, I'm boiling it down to three: limited omniscience, full omniscience, and objective.

Limited omniscience gives you the story from one character's perspective whether central to the action or not. This POV can work like first person in that you see right into the character's soul. But because they're not telling the story there is more objectivity and you can also see things that they don't, which can be very handy. "The Story of An Hour" by Kate Chopin uses limited omniscience. It can feel very much like first person. But Chopin could only produce such an ending with third person.

Full omniscience broadens the perspective to more than one character. This POV enables you to tell more than one side of the story. But it must be handled carefully to avoid confusion, especially when shifting between several characters. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell takes advantage of this method. Though primarily Margaret's story, it often switches to John's perspective. We see him struggling to keep his business from falling to pieces along with his longing for Margaret and his pain at her rejection. We would not have such sympathy or understanding of him if the story only relied on Margaret's perspective.

Objective third person is completely outside the characters and relies totally on dialogue and description to reveal what's going on. There is no one else interpreting the story but the reader. This obviously poses challenges and it may be difficult to remain that outside of the characters. However, masterful stories can be written this way. Carson McCullers did it with "The Jockey." There are some tense undercurrents in that story even though you never know for sure what anyone is thinking.

Now that we've tasted the options, which POV is right for your story? We'll delve into that conundrum next week.

Get Reading!
Sample the points-of-view by reading a variety of literature. You'll notice different authors favor different points-of-view and how they handle them varies. It may give you ideas for your own writing or help you use a certain POV more effectively. Here are some novels and short stories to get you started:

First Person
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
"The Third and Final Continent" by Jhumpa Lahiri
"The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe
"Out of the Girls' Room and Into the Night" by Thisbe Nissen
Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir
"Brownies" by ZZ Packer

Third Person
"Wunderkind" by Carson McCullers
"The Jockey" by Carson McCullers
Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
"Boule de Suif" by Guy de Maupassant
"Xingu" by Edith Wharton
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
"The Story of An Hour" by Kate Chopin


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