I went onto the Sussex Downs at the weekend and was in awe of the beautiful rolling hills punctuated by the brilliant yellow of the rape fields in bloom. I mentioned to a friend how beautiful they were and his response was tempered by the fact he was allergic to them. We had a different point of view on how great they were. Different opinions.
In writing, Point of View or POV, refers to who is ‘speaking’, or from who’s ‘vantage point’ the narrative is written. Before I became a writer, I hadn’t paid much attention to this. Waiting for me was the mine field of ‘Point of View’, with all it pratfalls.
Prior to the 20th century, the ‘omniscient ‘ POV was the norm. The omniscient author, who knew everything about the plot, the characters, and was often free with their opinion, told the story. Think of this wonderful opening line:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”
‘Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens
-Yeah it was, but says who? The author of course.
Because omniscient authors are god-like, they know what’s in everyones mind at all times, which they may or may not share with the reader. The author can choose to have a ‘limited omniscient’ POV, and in that situation the author focuses on only certain characters, and their inner thoughts.
The other end of the spectrum is first person – the story is told, not by the author, but by a character in the novel. While they can act as a narrator, more often than not they are the main protagonist.
In first person, the reader is in the mind of the person telling the story at all times. It’s sometimes considered an ‘easy’ way to go for a debut novel, as you only have one POV to put forward. But the main drawback to first person POV, is that the reader is limited to the experience of the character telling the story. We can only know what they know.
There are ways around this e.g. someone else recalling an experience to the character. Murakami usually writes in first person, and uses this technique of a separate individual telling a tale in the ‘Wind-up Bird Chronicles’. We’re taken from the world of Murakami’s quirky narrator who enjoys cooking and music, to a Japanese soldier’s recollection of wartime Manchuria. For me, the latter was in some ways the most memorable part of the novel, in part because of an exceptional, albeit graphic, portrayal of a brutal scene.
First person POV is often used when the protagonist has a very strongly defined character. Catcher in the Rye is a perfect example of first person, prominent protagonist. We immediately catch a glimpse of the kind of strong character Holden Caulfield will be. Not all first person novels have protagonists with such a striking personality, but the POV certainly lends itself to doing so.
‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
‘Catcher in the Rye’ by J.D.Salinger
In second person POV, the author tells the story. It’s a very underused POV, but it too can have an intimacy to it – as if we’re being told secrets by the author that only we the individual reader will know. It’s more often used in an instructional way, like in a ‘How To Book’.
“Rub a little on the back of your neck, your forehead and your wrists before you start fishing, and the blacks and skeeters will shun you. The odor of citronella is not offensive to people. It smells like gun oil. But the bugs do hate it.”
Camping Out.’ by Ernest Hemingway
The most commonly used POV is third person. The narrative is told by the author, but from a particular person(s) point of view. Third person has the most variety of possibilities of all POVs and though the term suggests objectivity and distance, it doesn’t necessarily mean the reader is remote. We create distance or closeness in the way we write. Closeness can come in third person by the description of concrete things and letting us hear a character’s thoughts.
“His chest was heaving. He could smell Jack –the intensely familiar odour of cigarettes, musky sweat and a faint sweetness like grass, and with it the rushing cold of the mountain.”
‘Broke Back Mountain’ by Annie Proulx,
Using more than one POV, once considered radical, has become more commonplace. Innovative novels such as ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell and Margaret Atwood’s ‘Oryx & Crake’ used this technique. It lends itself to interesting work, if it’s well written.
Generally speaking, switching POV’s is most successful if the entire chapter is in one POV, or at the most, only changed paragraph by paragraph. A classic novice mistake is to change the POV in the same sentence without even noticing e.g. ‘I was two hours late, and ran upstairs to avoid my mother, who was more relieved than angry.’ – In this first person excerpt, how could the narrator know what the mother was thinking?
Though it’s more usual to have a novel written in one or two POVs, modern fiction constantly challenges the so-called rules. However, if there are too many POVs for the content to support, then it becomes an unconvincing piece of writing. In ‘The Sacred Art of Stealing’, a satirical thriller by Christopher Brookmyre, there are five POVs. It was a humorous read until the author turned to lazy writing, adding in POVs merely as a convenient way to move the plot along, without any of the initial punch of the novel.
Literary agents typically want to know ‘whose story is it’? So then it’s a tough call for an inexperienced author to give multiple POVs without making sure there is one clearly rising above the rest. I sometimes question if visual entertainment can successfully have an ensemble cast, then why can’t novels do the same?
Trying to convey a theme, or premise can be done using any Point of View. But deciding which POV is best to use to present your premise, is one of the biggest challenges a writer faces, and will most likely determine the success of the novel.
What POV do you prefer either as a reader or writer? What problems or frustrations have you had with this issue?
Footnote: This post is dedicated to the writer Ged Duncan. He and I have spent countless hours over the past few years discussing POV. He’s also allergic to rapeseed flowers.
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