MY OWN V OF POV
by John M. Floyd
It seems so simple, this viewpoint thing. First person, third person — how hard can it be? Well, the truth is, it can be a stumbling block for writers who are unaware of the rules. According to Pat Kubis and Bob Howland in their book The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction and Non-Fiction, “If there is one simple reason why most new writers are unable to publish, it is because they do not understand viewpoint.”
So what’s the big deal? What’s difficult about it? For that matter, what are the different points of view?
Matters of a person-al nature
- FIRST PERSON. Self-explanatory, right? I did this, I did that; I said this, I said that.
Advantage: This is the most intimate POV a writer can use. It enables the closest possible connection to the reader.
Disadvantage: It’s also the most limiting. The reader can see and know only what the viewpoint character sees and knows. Some feel that it can also limit the chance to build suspense in a mystery/crime story, since the reader cannot see what dangers might be awaiting the character around the next corner.
- THIRD PERSON LIMITED. Almost the same as first person, in that the writer can express the thoughts (“get into the head of”) only a single character. And everything is of course “he/she” rather than “I.”
Advantage: Some writers say this allows them to distance themselves just a bit from the character and thus sound more like “traditional” storytellers, while still keeping the focus they want.
Disadvantage: Not quite as touchy/feely as first-person but just as limiting. In this POV, the writer can never say something like “a strange look came over her face,” (a frequent error) since the reader cannot see the viewpoint character through someone else’s eyes.
- THIRD PERSON MULTIPLE. The author can get into the heads of more than one character.
Advantage: This can make it easier to build suspense and conflict. The reader can now know, for example, what threats other characters might be planning for the protagonist, or hidden feelings they might have.
Disadvantage: The writer must be careful not to jump from one character’s thoughts to another’s too abruptly. This can sometimes “snap the reader out of the story” for a moment. Such switches in POV are usually done via a scene break in a short story or a new chapter in a novel.
- OMNISCIENT. Still third-person, but an all-knowing, all-seeing, God’s-eye view of the action.
Advantage: This allows the author to expand the scope of the story. The reader can not only be privy to the thoughts of all the characters, he can see things through the eyes of the external (and usually unnamed) narrator as well.
Disadvantage: This viewpoint can sometimes be too broad, and can limit the author’s and the reader’s closeness — and emotional connection — to any particular character.
- DETACHED. The last of the third-person POVs. With the detached viewpoint, the author cannot get into the heads of any of the characters. The reader sees things only as a camera would see them; characters are developed only via action and dialogue. This POV is of course employed in plays and screenplays.
Advantage: It allows the author to conceal the characters’ thoughts from the reader, and is therefore occasionally useful for surprise endings or plot reversals in the course of the story. (Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” used a detached POV because otherwise we the readers would have been tipped off beforehand to the twist ending.)
Disadvantage: This is the least personal of all viewpoints. The reader is kept at a much greater emotional distance from the characters.
NOTE 1: Many writers feel that the omniscient viewpoint is the same thing as third-person multiple, since an all-knowing narrator could be considered an additional character. Well, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, nothin’ wrong with that. The above list is just my take on the subject.
NOTE 2: I’ve omitted the second-person POV from this discussion because it’s seldom used, and I can think of only one short story — Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” — that used first-person plural (we did this, we did that — “we” being the entire town).
Can omniscient or third-person multiple POV be used at all in short stories? Sure they can. They often work best in a novel because of the length, but some short stories (like those in Grisham’s latest book, Ford County) are long enough that a wider scope can be useful. Admittedly, most shorts are written in first person, third-person limited, or detached.
Who should I choose as my viewpoint character? Well, it’s usually the protagonist — but not always. Ask yourself this instead: Who is in the best position to observe what happens, and who stands to learn the most from what happens? That’s who should tell the story. Scout Finch, little Joe Starrett, and Nick Carraway made far better narrators than the “heroes” or “main characters” would have, in To Kill a Mockingbird, Shane, and The Great Gatsby.
Which kind of POV should you use? Consider this: Would you rather read novels and short stories written in first person or third person? I don’t care, one way or the other — it all depends on the story, to me — but a lot of readers have a definite preference. If you do feel strongly about either first- or third-person, and if you’re also a writer, then you might want to try to stick to that POV in the fiction you create.
Otherwise, here’s a good rule to follow: The kind of POV you choose for your story should be determined by what you want the reader to know and how soon you want the reader to know it. And if you find out in the middle of your story that your chosen viewpoint isn’t working — maybe it’s revealing too much, or not enough — you can always go back and change it. (Just remember, if you do, to change every “he/she” to “I,” or vice versa.)
And a final question:
What, from your own POV, are your thoughts on this subject?