Point of View

December 27, 2007
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POINT OF VIEW

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

January 2008

"In First Person, the main character tells the story."
—Shapiro

The point of view is the most difficult part of literature to define. And wouldn’t you know it? It’s the first and most important decision an author can make.

In First Person, the main character tells the story. (I pulled up my collar as I walked into the brisk night.) It’s a point of view that allows a great deal of intimacy, as if the reader is sitting down with the narrator for a cup of coffee. You can hear the way the character thinks about himself and others and really experience his personality. Every event and character and setting is described through his perception. The drawback is that you can only know what the character knows. Charlie, the narrator, can’t peek behind Annie’s closed door to find out what she’s up to unless she comes right out and tells him or he eavesdrops.

"The first person narrator doesn’t actually have to have a big role in the story."
—Shapiro

The first person narrator doesn’t actually have to have a big role in the story. Think of Nick, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, who has little to do with the story. Or the narrator can be someone close to the hero like Watson with Sherlock Holmes. In Wuthering Heights, the narrator, Lockwood, is telling the story after the fact.

There are some cases where the story is told in the first person plural. In Joan Chase’s novel, In the Reign of the Queen of Persia, ” the narrator is “we,” instead of “I,” taking the point of view of three girls simultaneously, and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides does this, too.

"The second person is told from the “You” viewpoint and is very hard to manage
for a long work."

—Shapiro
The second person is told from the “You” viewpoint and is very hard to manage for a long work. (You pulled up your collar as you walked out into the brisk night.) A well-known example a novel written in second person that works well is Jay McInerny’s Bright Lights, Big City. The main character, a writer probably modeled on himself, a partier, a druggie, a lost soul iconic of the New York City scene of the 80’s, appropriately doesn’t even have a name.
"The omniscient point of view is when the author tells us directly what we’re supposed to see, think, has total knowledge."
—Shapiro

The omniscient point of view is when the author tells us directly what we’re supposed to see, think, has total knowledge. An omniscient author can go into every character’s mind and describe what they look like, their actions, and thoughts. The omniscient author can move freely in space and time. This type of narrative is your classic storytelling method and was used a lot in fiction in the 18th and 19 centuries, early novels, myths, legends, folktales, and the Bible.

"In the limited omniscient point of view, the author can go into the many characters’ thoughts, but not interpret them."
—Shapiro

In the limited omniscient point of view, the author can go into the many characters’ thoughts, but not interpret them. You may interpret one character’s thoughts and feelings, but only see the others from the outside. Usually the author only goes into the mind of one character.

Gail Godwin’s novel, The Odd Woman, is a good example of the limited omniscient point of view.

“It was ten o’clock on the evening of the same day, and the permanent residents of the household on the mountains were restored to routines and sobriety. Jane, on the other hand, sat in her kitchen, a glass of scotch before her on the cleanly wiped table, going deeper and deeper into a mood she could recognize as only familiar. She could not describe it: it was frightening and satisfying.”

"The third person is so popular today that almost every book you pick up
will be an example."

—Shapiro

The third person is so popular today that almost every book you pick up will be an example. (He walked into the brisk night.) The third person is sometimes called the “over the shoulder” point of view because the author only describes what can be seen by the narrator. It can be distanced or detached. “Just the facts, ma’am.” The author has to be like a fly on the wall or a camera lens. You can’t include any of the character’s feelings or inner thoughts or personality. Using the distant or limited third person, the author can include events and descriptions that the narrator is not yet aware of. The third person can have varying degrees of omniscience. But once the writer has decided what it is, he’s made his own rule and has to stick by it. If you have written five pages of Lulu Marples looking out her window thinking racy thoughts about her neighbor, Hiram Snodgrass, you can’t suddenly have Hiram look up at Lulu and think, How randy Lulu makes me feel! .

"There can be changing points of view within a story."
—Shapiro

However, even that rule is a malleable one. There can be changing points of view within a story. Zach’s Lie by Roland Smith, Bleak House by Dickens, switches from first person to third. And of course there can be multiple viewpoints. Kent Haruf gave each of characters their own chapters in Plainsong. Many of Faulkner’s novels are written in a series of first person points of view.

"Knowing all this information can give you mastery, help you avoid blunders"
—Shapiro

Knowing all this information can give you mastery, help you avoid blunders such as telling what Joe is thinking when Hal is the narrator and he isn’t psychic. But it cannot make your decision for you.

Once I heard Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha, tell an interviewer on an NPR radio show that he had written the whole book in third person. When he showed it to his writer friends, they suggested he do it in first person and then the book came alive. Alas, sometimes you just have to decide on the point of view, and then decide again, and again.

About
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s novel, Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) which was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award and is selling in Holland, Belgium, the U.K., is NOW OUT IN PAPERBACK in paperback in the states. You can order it on http://www.simonsays.com/ or Amazon.com or order it at your local bookstore.

 

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