Point of View (Part One)

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)


Chapter Eight

Point of View

Point of view as it pertains to literature is the viewpoint an author chooses to tell a story from. A story’s point of view, or the angle it’s told from, falls under the three main categories: third-person, second person, and first person.

The author’s selection of POV is all-important because whatever vantage point they use will affect how the audience interprets the story and indeed how a story’s plot progresses. For example, if the story is told by the character themselves the reader can pretty much ascertain that the character isn’t going to be killed during the story (because otherwise how is she telling us the story in the first place?[1]) which has the effect of lowering the story’s stakes at the outset, downgrading it immediately from life-or-death to life-or-something pretty bad. Or, let us say, what if the story is being told by an outside party, such as another character in the story—how much information should be relayed as the story unfolds and how much access to information does the narrator have? Do they know everything? Just a little? How do they know what they know and what exactly should be relayed to produce the author’s desired effect?

You see what I mean? Digging into point of view opens up a whole can of worms. What I’ll do in this humble little chapter is cover a few basic POV terms I’ve personally found helpful to know and then give a brief overview of each main literary POV, pointing out the pros and cons of each as I see them. If you’d like a full textbook-style rundown on POV I happily point you to Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway.

Psychic Distance

Psychic distance describes how either close or detached a reader feels to a character. Does the reader have access to a character’s inner thoughts, as if she’s reading his mind? Or is the character totally remote from us, like any stranger walking by on the street? Or at some point in-between on the psychic distance spectrum?

This is also sometimes called narrative distance.

Temporal Distance

Temporal distance describes how recent the events being described in a narrative are. You’ve got your present tense—meaning the event is happening right now—past tense—meaning the event has already happened—or future tense—meaning the events are occurring at a future date from our present time.

Spatial Distance

Spatial distance describes how close we physically are to a character. Are we seeing things through his eyes as the story moves along or are we pulled back to a middle distance? Think cinematography and close-ups and mid-distance shots and panoramic shots. Think visual perspective.

The Unreliable Vs. The Reliable Narrator

An unreliable narrator cannot be trusted and is usually telling us the story with some kind of hidden agenda of their own. Unreliable narrators are tricky as hell to pull off. How long do you usually listen to a story somebody’s telling you once you realize they’re either omitting crucial details or lying to you outright? Every politician who’s ever been caught with a hooker has instantly become an unreliable narrator (if they already weren’t before).

On the other hand, a reliable narrator’s story can be taken at face value as true, though rarely is any narrator totally reliable and most narrators fall somewhere on the spectrum between reliable and unreliable (such is the fallible nature of memory and truth).

Omniscient Narrator

An omniscient narrator possesses a god-like knowledge of everything in a story. He’s a real know-it-all. The author’s big challenge when using this POV is deciding how much information to relay and at what pace. You don’t want to overload your reader with information or bog down the story.

Limited Narrator

A limited narrator knows some things but not everything. By using a limited POV an author can convey juicy inside knowledge like what a character is thinking while retaining the inherent tension that comes with uncertainty.

Oral vs. Written Narration

Oral narration is a story that is related verbally, like somebody telling you a story at a bar. Written narration is a story that’s written down and comes in a variety of formats, such as journal entries, letters (the “epistolary novel” tells its story mostly through correspondence, such as Dracula), reportage, confessionals, manifestos, etc.


Okay, now let’s move on to the three main POV categories themselves and get out of here before those worms from that big can we opened earlier devour us.

Oh god, they’re starting to glow…

The First Person Point of View

The biggest giveaway that a story is being told from the first person POV is the use of the letter “I” or “We”. If you see a sentence that starts with a big old capital “I” as in, “I went to the store to buy worm killer…” you’re reading a story told in the first person. “We” is the plural form of “I”—whoever is speaking/writing is being accompanied by at least one other character in the story they are relating.

In many ways, the first person POV can be the simplest point of view to utilize because we all have a lifetime of experience talking about ourselves and telling stories about ourselves. The “I” who is telling a story in a work of fiction is either the main character involved in the story or a character on the periphery of the action.[2] They can tell the story in the present tense (I’m walking to the store…), the past tense (I went to the store…), or the slightly crazed/prophetic future tense (I shall go to the store and buy worm killer!). They can relate their story aloud verbally[3] or convey it in some written format (i.e. oral or written narration). They might be in earnest or they might be lying through their teeth (i.e. reliable or unreliable).

The key thing the author of a first person story must decide, sooner or later, is who the hell the first person is addressing and how directly they’re addressing them. Are they addressing a general unseen audience (a popular indirect choice)? Someone who has wronged the narrator greatly (a spectacularly direct choice)? A jury? Their family at Christmas dinner? If it’s an oral narration, the author must decide the context in which the narrator is speaking to their audience. Are they cozied up together in a diner booth? Traveling together on a pilgrimage like in The Canterbury Tales? Or perhaps at a wedding like in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”?[4] Whatever the location, hopefully it’s somewhere pretty comfortable if this is a whole goddamn novel we’re about to listen to, with some snacks at hand (though readers are generally willing to suspend their disbelief in this area if the tale’s compelling[5]). If it’s a written narration, the author has the somewhat simpler decision of choosing the narration’s format (such as imbedding the entire story in a letter that has been delivered by post on a dark and stormy day).

Then, once all this logistical stuff is sorted, the author of a first person story would be advised to consider their narrator’s motivation for telling the story and their ultimate goal in telling it. Is this a confession of wrongdoing? A warning? An explanation? An argument with the intent to convince the other party of something crucial? The motivation for telling a story and the ways it’s told reveal much about the storyteller and happily this is all through indirect revelation, showing and not telling, and even a peripheral character who is telling a story about someone else becomes part of the story simply by relating it. The character’s motivation to tell a story may not be clear to themselves but it should be clear to the author, who might not figure it out until several drafts in (and if this is the case guess what? Time for another draft to make it look like you knew all along!).

And, surprise surprise, when you figure out your character’s motivation for telling a story you’re better prepared to judge the story’s conclusion and its effect both on the fictional audience and the reader themselves and hopefully, if everything’s fallen in place just right, the way the story has been told and who it’s been addressed to and the manner it’s been conveyed will all enhance your story’s intended effect, whatever that may be.

I’ve historically been hesitant to use the first person POV. Out of the fifteen novels I’ve completed I’ve written only two in the first person (and both of those were young adult novels—hmmmm…). I don’t know why this is, exactly. I’ve written several short stories in the first person and it served me well in the two novels I did use it in. I suppose it has something to do with the inherent difficulty of creating a narrator who can be interesting for the entire long haul of a novel. A reader can only absorb a character saying “I” this and “I” that for so long before their mind starts to drift, like talking to a windbag who’s cornered you at a party, so both the narrator and the story she’s telling need to be as compelling as possible throughout the entire novel. One false step in a first person narrative and the reader can feel like they’re being spoken at instead of being woven into the story and once that happens they begin to feel detached from the text and, as in romantic relationships, detachment can be an initial step toward breaking up. While relating a story in the “I” format is something I’ve been doing naturally all my life, I don’t find it as natural a process on the page, where you must wear the added mask of the character telling the story while unspooling the story itself—telling a good story alone already consumes so much of a writer’s energy!

The great argument in favor of the first person POV is voice, which it can provide in a splendor and quality that the other POVs cannot match. Through first person narration we experience the story raw and unfiltered, in the character’s own voice, and a compelling personality, with all its raggedy imperfections and soul wringing, is crucial—a storyteller should be nearly as compelling as the story itself.

[1] Unless she’s a ghost or an angel or something crazy like that.

[2] A classic example of the peripheral first person narrator is Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice I have been turning over in my mind ever since.”

[3] Huh. I wonder if a character has ever told an entire novel length story to other characters via sign language. Would that count as oral narration or what? Body relation?

[4] “He holds him with his glittering eye—

The Wedding-Guest stood still,

And listens like a three years’ child:

The Mariner hath his will.”

[5] Though when I’m reading a first person oral narration I always shake my head around a hundred pages in and ask myself, “Really? This other person is just sitting there listening to this long ass story? This would take five or six hours to listen to.”

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