What is Your #Point of View?

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Rape fields in bloom on South Downs

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.

‘I’ = first person POV

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

‘You’ = 2nd person POV

 

 

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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Comments

  1. Great post, A.K.

    As someone who writes non-fiction in a 1st person style, I prefer what you’re calling 2nd person POV for my non-fiction reading.

    But if I’m reading fiction (which I don’t write or have an interest to) I really enjoy books that follow the 1st person POV thru a strong character.
    Doreen Pendgracs recently posted..guest post on fiction writing by Robert BennettMy Profile

    • Good point Doreen – it makes perfect sense that you write in 2nd person. I think my current favorite is multiple POV. I’m warming back up to 1st person – I used to think it was too limiting until I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, and saw how much a good writer can do with it.
      Thanks so much for your comment!
      (Sorry this is late I posted it straight away, but separate from your comment by mistake!)
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..What is Your Point of View?My Profile

  2. I tend to write in all three POVs, depending on what it is that I am writing. But after reading your blog post (which was actually more like a small book — girlfriend, I hope you’re copyrighting this stuff) I have decided that from now on I want to write strictly in omniscient POV.

    Why? “Because omniscient authors are god.” Well, I just love that idea!

    As an author and as a person I want to be omniscient, omnifarious, omnivorous, omnipresent and above all, omnipotent. Is that too much to ask do you think?

    Kay in Hawaii

    • Thanks Kay – I love your energy. Not too much to ask at all!
      As you know, I only post about once a week, so I like to go all out sometimes.
      But I say go for it Kay. Be god-like if the mood takes you, and certainly in your writing if you want to know and see everything, omniscient is the way to go.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..What is Your Point of View?My Profile

  3. I am a story teller. As a result I write in the first person. Usually it is a person experience that only I can speak to. In saying that I realize that other parties in the experience may have had a very different POV. If you get bogged down in to many opinions nothing will ever be written or what it will be so watered down not one would enjoy it. To me, part of writing anything is to provoke thought, to illicit a response, no matter what the flavor (POV), That is the fun of it. Just my two cents, :-), Susan
    Susan Cooper recently posted..A Blogger’s Adventure At A WineryMy Profile

    • Hi Susan, good to see you again. I think in the case of story-telling, then I agree first person is the only option really. In your situation keeping the story your own is important. But in other situations, broadening it to other points of view can work if it’s done well. And that’s really the key. As you say it can end up watered down.

      Provoking thought is an important part of writing for me too. I enjoy playing around with POV (flavor is a great way of putting it BTW) and holding what you want to say in your mind at the same time is the challenge. If you change the POV, you may inadvertently end up changing what it is you are saying. But then accidental shifts often provide the best results.
      Thanks so much for the comment.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..What is Your Point of View?My Profile

  4. “Golly,” said Julian. “One of us is going to have to be protagonist. I suppose that had better be me, as I’m the leader.”
    “I think that’s a good idea,’ said Anne. ‘You’ve helped us get out of some jolly scrapes.”
    “Why should he be the protagonist?” asked George, thinking that it was typical of Julian to want to take control. “We’ve all played our part in solving the mysteries. Even Timmy.”
    “I don’t think you can do that,” said Dick, kindly.
    “Do what. All I said was we shouldn’t assume that Julian will be protagonist.”
    “You thought something. You can’t think anything unless you’ve got Point of View.”
    “And if I haven’t?”
    “You’re not allowed to think.”
    “Perhaps we could take it in turns to have Point of View. We all have opinions, even me sometimes,” said Anne, who was very good at making things better between the other three.
    “Who said that?” asked Julian.
    “What?”
    “That bit about Anne.”
    “I think it might have been God, or some other omniscient being,’ said Dick, importantly.
    “Ease off on the adverbs, Dick,” said George.
    “Woof,” said Timmy.
    “He says he’ll have some of your adverbs if you don’t want them,” said Anne. Everybody laughed. Anne was very good at…
    “There He is again,” said Julian.
    “Or She,” said George.
    “Let’s get back to the subject,” said Julian. “We’ve been told that five Points of View is too many, and we’ve got to decide whose story it is.”
    “Says who?” asked George.
    “A K Andrew.”
    “Why?”
    “It’s a mystery to me.”
    “Ooh. Let’s solve another Mystery,” cried Anne. “I bet we’ll have lots and lots of adventures and lashings of ginger beer.”

    Excerpted from ‘One Runs Away Together’ part of Enid Blyton’s updated ‘Famous One’ series.

    • Well that’s brightened up my morning Ged – what a hilarious take on the whole issue – brilliant!
      Thanks SO much for such an innovative comment. Signature Duncan Satire at it’s best.(originally posted yesterday)
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..What is Your Point of View?My Profile

  5. When i used to write stories in my mother tongue, I used the first person point of view very successfully. The main character was the one telling the story, experiencing things and having the feelings…. It was many years back.

    Your posts are giving great insights about the craft of writing. I never give much attention to the POV before. After thinking about it, I think,, I like first person POV . After reading fiction, I like to think about the feelings and experiences of the character. Also, like to dream about the different options, the story could have taken .

    Thanks Andrew.
    Bindhurani recently posted..Spring at Rosebank DriveMy Profile

    • Thank you for the comment Bindhurani. It must be a such a change for you not writing in your mother tongue, and interesting that you were then using first person.
      I am flattered that my posts are helping you with the craft of writing. I do think it is a craft that can be learned. Some people may have a natural gift , but for the rest of us, we need a bit of guidance to let our creativity give itself a voice.
      It’s certainly a good sign of a book if you are then left wondering what the options could have been, or what happened to the characters after the novel finishes. Sometimes it’s hard to let go.
      Good to see you here again!
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..What is Your Point of View?My Profile

  6. Hey Andrew,

    Awesome post on POV. As a kid, I never really liked the idea of different points of view. But, now I really like it (in fact, my entire blog is based on the idea of different perspectives). I also see that nowadays, there are more authors and movie directors who are willing to tell the story from a different perspective (I like those kinds of movies/stories). It is always about something different.

    As humans, most of us have always been fixated on the perspective on us, humans itself. We try to solve simple problems in complex ways, when those problems can itself be solved with simple solutions.

    Anyways, thank you for the explanations,

    Jeevan Jacob John
    Jeevanjacobjohn recently posted..The Concept of Simplicity: Simplicity vs. Complexity?My Profile

    • Thank you for your comments. That is a good point you made that movies as well as novels also show the narrative with different Points of View. It makes all the difference when a movie has a well written screenplay, and generally speaking the best tend to be those based on a novel. ‘Broke Back Mountain’ quoted in this post is just one example.
      A.K.

  7. This is a very interesting post. The style of the point of view to be adopted would depend on the content.I pen a monthly column on taxation. To keep the content interesting for the lay reader, an Aunt is featured here, who expresses her views (more often than not) in first person. I had to blend fact with fiction to make it catchy and interesting for a reader who does not special in taxation. Sometimes, it is vital to provide another point of view as well. This is done in second person, by saying some experts believe that “xxxxx”. Or I quote another character.
    A personal experience should always be written from the authors point of view. When it comes to fiction, variety is available to the author.
    I came here from the LI group, Blogger Helping Bloggers and am glad that I did.
    Lubna recently posted..Law Street (The Economic Times:April 27, 2012)My Profile

    • Hi Lubna -Your blog sounds fantastic – I look froward to reading it.
      You obviously have a good grasp on POV – and using a fictional device for your blog is a wonderful idea.
      Thanks so much for your comments. – I’m off to your blog now! Thanks so much for your comments.

  8. I used second person in my last novel. It feels like a first person narrator for much of the book because the narrator is telling her story but every now and then this ‘you’ appears and at first the reader wonders who it is she’s talking to—because I take quite a while to reveal who the ‘you’ is—but I think it proved a good way to hold the readers’ interests. The whole book turns out to be a letter. This was an interesting book to write because I wrote most of it in the third person and then went back and rewrote it what I thought was going to be the first person but, as I’ve said, ended up being the second.

    My third novel is a bit of an oddity because the first quarter is written in the third person, the next half we have a first person narrator and the final quarter is entirely in dialogue and in the present tense. Tense is also a consideration when it comes to POV and, on the whole, I don’t enjoy working in the present tense because by doing so you hamstring your narrator; he or she can only look back on events up to and including that point. I did once write a short story in the future tense which worked. We are presented with a man sitting alone on a park bench are told what he’s going to do. Don’t think I could pull off a whole novel.
    Jim Murdoch recently posted..Verruca MusicMy Profile

    • Really great comment Jim, thank you. You’ve really wrestled with POV too I can see. That’s really interesting that 2nd person was disguised as 1st – I’ve never seen that before but can imagine how you might do it – what an innovative way of giving an unexpected twist.
      I’m also having to go back and change a third of my current novel from 3rd person to 1st. i don’t mind actually because it gives one a fresh eye on the work and what’s important to include or edit out.
      Your third book sounds great from a POV perspective – and when you throw in tense too… I do agree that while first person is great to give immediacy, for the whole novel it could have serious restrictions.
      Future tense – now there’s one I didn’t include. I will have to mull it over. Looking forward to reading your blog.
      Thank you, and hope to see you here again.

  9. Agree with you AK that deciding POV is challenging.

    Read a lot and it varies. Just read one book with two different POV’s. Actually found it a bit annoying even though I really like the book. Am at the moment though, again, reading one of Somerset Maugham’s early books so it’s in first person.
    Catarina recently posted..Let’s deprive people smugglers of their income!My Profile

    • Thanks for the comment Catarina. I agree with you that multiple POV, even if only two can be annoying . I think the key to the success is to make it obvious to the reader the POV has switched. Otherwise the reader feels tricked. Crime writers often use it as a cliff-hanger device which can work well.

  10. A.K.:

    This POV post was great.

    I have just completed a multiple point of view novel called “The Cheaters.” I have a book proof I’m going through now and will approve it within the next few days.

    I wanted to mention to you a book I read a few years ago; “Writing the Blockbuster novel.” By Albert Zuckerman.

    He has edited Ken Follett, Ellen Gudge . . .

    He says that all blockbuster novels have one thing in common: Multiple points of view with all of the characters revolving around the same thing or situation. “Gone With the Wind, The Godfather, The Man From St. Petersuburg, The Thornbirds all have the multiple character POV.

    Ed, San Francisco California USA. http://stealinglasvegas.wordpress.com/

    My blog is to show prospective buyers of “The Cheaters” is that I know what I am talking about and actually did cheat casinos at one time.
    Edward Curley recently posted..The Magnetic Roulette BallMy Profile

    • Thanks so much for the comments Edward. Good to here someone who wrestles with the same issues. I’ll have to check out the Zuckerman novel. It’s true what you’re saying -and generally speaking I like that mode when it’s not overdone. Look forward to your blog.

  11. Claire Cappetta says:

    Great post and thought provoking… I like to try my hand at all 3
    I was watching a show the other night and saw rape seed fields, I was so allergic to them and don’t miss them one bit here in NY! I feel for your friend and I love the Enid Blyton in the comments! Reminds me of eating “raw jelly” cubes from a box as a child. I asked my husband if he did that when he was a kid… but I got a very blank look lol :)

    • Good to ‘See’ you again Claire. It really must be awful to be allergic to the rape seed as the fields are so big! Pleased also that you enjoyed the comment too. I think that’s the part of blogging I like the best is the interaction afterwards. And yes there’s definitely the cultural divide when it comes to Enid. I lived in the US for many years so I know what you mean. :-)

  12. AK don’t you get surprised when your character in your writing has a different point of view completely opposed to your own.

    • Hi Vivian – I hear you on that one – you definitely can’t shoehorn characters into lives they don’t want to lead. Kinda spooky that fictional characters can have that much power but they do.
      Thanks for the comment. :-)

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