Chip MacGregor

March 23, 2016

Literary Devices for the Real World: Point of View


Continuing my series on using literary devices outside of the literature classroom, I’m talking today about point of view– what it is, how it’s classified, and how to use it effectively.

In what may be one of the least necessary definitions in this series, point of view can be defined as the perspective from which a story is told, or the set of knowledge out of which the narrator is speaking. Point of view is most commonly expressed in first person or third person narration (see below) and an author may choose to use multiple points of view within the same novel (IF he’s careful– more to follow). In case you need a refresher, here’s a quick overview of several different points of view.

First Person (singular): The story is told by a single person using first-person pronouns (I, Me) to refer to himself. This person serves as the narrator and relates the events of the story as he experienced them firsthand, complete with inner dialogue/personal opinions/thoughts.

Pros: A story told in the first person can engage the reader deeply due to the personal, intimate connection created when she hears the story firsthand from someone who was there. The personality of the narrator can influence the tone of the story, and author voice is often displayed nicely by a first-person narrator.

Cons: It can be difficult to avoid combining the first-person narrator with your own all-knowing author persona– if not handled with finesse, a first-person narrator can turn into a two-dimensional puppet for you, the author, moralizing and manipulating the reader’s experience of the story (not to be confused with situations in which your first-person narrator character is a manipulative sociopath and you WANT him to come across as preachy and controlling).


Third Person Omniscient: The story is told by an all-knowing narrator using third-person pronouns (he, she, him, her, they). The narrator (not usually an actual character involved in the events of the story but a nameless, faceless storytelling entity) knows everything going on in the story universe at all times and can relate events simultaneously taking place in various places unlimited by geography or time. This narrator may provide insight into any character’s thoughts at any time.

Pros: This type of narration can provide a more complete picture of the story universe for the reader than first-person narration can, as it allows the reader to hear from both sides of a story, and to see/learn all the pertinent information for themselves and draw her own conclusions rather than having to take one character’s word for it.

Cons: This point of view can rob a story of some of the suspense/tone and color that is created when the story comes to the reader through a biased human being with a distinct personality of his own.

Third Person Limited: The story is told using third-person pronouns from a single character’s perspective/knowledge-and-experience base. So, while the narration conveys a bit more distance from the story than a first-person novel does (“He grabbed the gun and started shooting” vs. “I grabbed the gun and started shooting–” the latter is one step more immediate/more present to the reader’s experience of the story), the reader can still be made privy to that character’s inner thoughts and experiences (“He grabbed the gun and started shooting, his pulse pounding so loudly in his ears that he didn’t hear the shots. Don’t pass out, he told himself.”).

Pros: This type of narration can provide a good compromise between a storytelling style that isn’t a fit for first-person– not every story is, nor every author, nothing wrong with that– and a need or desire to tell the story through a certain character’s eyes rather than via a distant, impersonal omniscient narrator.

Cons: It can be hard to strike a balance between telling and showing when writing in third person limited– while you’re allowed to relay the private thoughts of a character, and while you will occasionally want to
include some flashback-type memory or bit of personal info in your narration to help explain something about the character, you have to be careful that you don’t go crazy and spend huge amounts of time bunny-trailing back in the character’s past or expounding in detail on his thought process/feelings/reactions at every second. Before you know it, three pages have passed of nothing but “He had always believed… Ever since he was a kid… He wondered for the fourth time that day where Anna was and whether or not she had gotten his voicemail.” Nothing wrong with any of these, but if you’re expecting your reader to follow you through two pages of “telling”/introspection and still be engaged in the story when you finally cut back to the character at Starbucks staring at the pretty blonde who just asked him if she could cut in line, you’re going to be disappointed, and the reader is going to have a hard time jumping in and out of the action and dialogue of the story.


Second Person: The story is told using the pronoun “you,” the goal being either to allow a first-person narrator to make a general observation about the human condition beyond his experience alone (“You try and you try, but no matter how much you want to, you can’t ever recreate a perfect moment after it’s passed. If that whole disaster of an evening taught me anything, it was that.”), or to put the reader in the position of the main character– in essence, to project the character’s experience onto the reader (“You walk into the room and immediately can feel that something is wrong. The house is too quiet. The air is too stale. You turn and walk up the stairs, dreading what you’ll find at the top.”).

You don’t need to know much about this point of view except that, if you’re not writing a choose-your-own-adventure novel, and why would you be, it’s 2016, you probably don’t want to use it. Most forays I see into the second person are made by mistake, by an immature writer who failed to construct his sentence properly– “Jeff looked around as if for a place to hide, but you can’t just hide behind a curtain or under a bed from the angel of death.” Unless the book is full of second-person references like these and it’s an intentional (and successful) component of the author voice, this jump from third-to-second-person in the same sentence signals weak writing– a better choice would probably be, “Jeff looked around as if for a place to hide, but a man can’t just hide behind a curtain or under a bed from the angel of death.”


Multiple POVs

As I said earlier, an author may choose to use multiple points-of-view within the same novel, and as long as this is done carefully, it can be very successful. In the Harry Potter books, the stories are chiefly told from a limited third person point of view, from Harry’s perspective. Occasionally, however, J. K. Rowling needed to impart some piece of information that Harry wasn’t privy to, or show some scene that Harry wasn’t a part of, for which she switched to an omniscient third person point of view, “zooming out,” as it were, to relate a certain scene or conversation, usually as a chapter by itself, and usually located at the beginning of a book. In this way, Rowling can create some suspense for the reader immediately by giving him some piece of information or hint at some mystery or danger that Harry will be blissfully ignorant of for the next 600 pages. The suspense stems from our knowledge of that danger or action on the part of some character and our inability to tell Harry or stop him from making some terrible mistake in his ignorance.

Another common practice for multiple POVs is to alternate between two or more characters while telling the story, e.g., Romeo and Juliet retold in a novel in which the chapters are alternately narrated in the first person, first by Juliet, and then by Romeo, or a western in which the story is told in three parts in the third person, with the first third told from from the perspective of the schoolmarm, the middle from that of the  outlaw, and the ending from the point of view of the cowboy. The advantage of using multiple points of view in this way is to explore multiple perspectives on a single issue/experience by seeing it through the eyes of people of different ages, backgrounds, or genders, as well as to surprise the reader by revealing new information about a situation, especially a mystery, as the story unfolds and various bits and pieces are revealed via each new point of view. One of my favorite examples of multiple POV is The Westing Game, a Newbery Medal winner by Ellen Raskin, in which the mystery is understood by the reader as the point of view shifts from chapter to chapter and more and more information is revealed, though most of the individual characters remain in the dark.

The most common problem I see with multiple points of view is that the author fails to set up their storytelling properly for the additional point(s) of view to be accepted by the reader. Readers understand that you make the rules for the manner in which you tell the story, and they expect you to abide by those rules– if J. K. Rowling had written six Harry Potter books strictly limited to Harry’s third-person perspective and then around page 700 of the 7th book decided to throw in a single chapter written in the omniscient-third-person, we’d find it jarring. It wouldn’t follow the rules she’d been playing by for 5000 pages and could accurately be described as a cheat, one made because she failed to set up a plot development correctly and needed a conspicuous info-drop in order to make the rest of the story make sense. If you’re going to use multiple points of view, set up your storytelling rules early on so the reader knows what to expect.

Ultimately, the “best” point of view  for your novel is the one that best fits your voice and skill as a writer and the one (or more) that best helps you give the experience you want to give to the reader.

What point of view do you typically use in your writing, and why is that POV a fit for your voice? What POV do you prefer as a reader? I’d love to hear your stories of POV experiments gone wrong (or right)! Share them in the comments, and thanks for reading.

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1 Comment

  • Warren A Johnson says:

    My problem started with the friend telling me about the movie he was going to make. He decided that it would never be made, someone should write the book. I took it. Problem with my POV understanding at that time came from trying to write a novel with a video camera director’s view. Drove my editor crazy, but being my daughter she carefully led me into putting the camera on only one person’s shoulder at a time (got that from someone else, but that’s what she did). Now I’m not great at it, but folks keep helping and I’m getting there.

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