An Examination of Point of View
By Evan Braun
As an editor, one of the things I find authors struggle with the most is point of view. It seems to me that a lot of people sit down to write having figured out their point of view instinctively, without even knowing what the term means. Even more people, however, sit down to write having never heard of point of view, and end up violating a lot of unwritten writerly rules as a result. Nothing will get you in trouble with an editor faster than mishandling this skill. It’ll get you in trouble with your readers, too, though it’s likely readers won’t be able to put their finger on just what exactly is wrong. So if you want to be a great writer—or even just a good one (though if you’re only aiming to be “good,” you’re not aiming high enough)—you’ll need to figure out what editors and authors mean when they refer to “point of view.”
Start by casting your mind back to junior high school. At least, that’s when the subject was first broached in my English education. The first thing I learned is that there are two essential perspectives from which to write:
- First person.
- Third person, omniscient
- Third person, limited
This may be a bit different from the three you’re used to seeing—first person, second person, and third person. For all practical purposes, second person is never used. It’s incredibly rare, a fun curiosity, but you’re not likely to write in it. Whereas there are actually two forms of third person, which I’ll get to in a minute, and both are very common.
A story written in first person means it’s literally written as though the main character is doing the writing him or herself. “I was hungry. I formed a mental image of a pizza dripping with cheese and pepperoni.” By its very nature, first person narrative is very personal, very tight. What do I mean by tight? I mean that the perspective is constrained by what the point-of-view character is thinking and feeling. This means that there’s no room in this style to detour into the thoughts and feelings of any other character except the main character. You can’t write “I was hungry. My friend Steve formed a mental image of a pizza dripping with cheese pepperoni.” That would be cheating. When you’re in first person, you don’t know what your friend Steve is thinking. To find out, you’d have to ask him. This mirrors real life, in the sense that we are only privileged to hear our own thoughts and experience the world through our own observations, and no one else’s.
Let’s move on to third person. Most authors write in this mode, so it’s the one you see most often. Put simply, third person tells the story from a more distant perspective than first person. This kind of narrative is written at a slight remove from the character. “Evan was hungry. He formed a mental image of a pizza dripping with cheese and pepperoni.” But what’s the difference between third person omniscient, and third person limited?
Third person omniscient (for our purposes, TPO) is the kind of writing most of us think of when we hear the words “third person.” If first person is tight, then TPO is very loose. One of the most common ways in which we use the word “omniscient” is when referring to God. It means “all-knowing.” In TPO, the story has the ability to see all and know all. The writer’s perspective is omniscient, and he or she can jump handily from one character’s perspective to another’s. With TPO, there’s no impediment to writing “Evan was hungry. His friend Steve formed a mental image of a pizza dripping with cheese and pepperoni.” Both characters’ perspectives can fit into the TPO point of view, because it is very broad.
Third person limited (TPL), on the other hand, is a blend of first person and TPO—and incidentally it’s the kind of third person writing you’re likely to encounter in books these days. With TPL, you’re telling the story from a slight remove, like with TPO, but you’re constrained to only one character’s point of view at a time, like with first person. You can’t jump around between Evan and Steve, but rather you have to pick one or the other. If you want to switch characters, you’ll need a scene break or a chapter break to achieve it. Once again, TPL is very tight, but it’s not as tight as with first person, where you only have one character; indeed, you can have as many characters as you want (within reason). These are called point of view characters.
It requires more discipline to write in TPL and first person styles, because as the writer you build a series of narrative rules for yourself which you aren’t allowed to break. That may sound like a drag. However, by limiting what your characters see, hear, and feel in this manner, by extension you also place limits on what the reader can see, hear, and feel, and thus your story has a greater capacity to generate suspense. Not only that but the limited narrative styles also tend to have a stronger focus on individual characters, which often makes them more popular with readers. Readers can connect to these characters more quickly and with greater ease.
So when you sit down to write your story, it’s important to make some conscious choices about your point of view. A little bit of planning and forethought will go a long way.
About this Contributor:
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored two novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has also released a sequel, The City of Darkness (2013), with a third entry in the series due later this year. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.