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Whose Story is This Anyway? Tracy Culleton on Point of View

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Tracy Culleton

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Point of View (POV) literally means just that. Whose point of view is the reader borrowing at any given time. From which direction is the camera lens pointing?

Point of View can be quite tricky to get right in fiction, as you draw the reader into your story and reveal your characters thoughts, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of head hopping – switching POV from one character to another – which is extremely confusing for the reader and jerks them out of the story. To ensure you get your POV right, it helps to know what the options are. Your story can be told in the:

First person

Third person objective

Third person limited

Third person omniscient

First person means that ‘I’ is telling the story. The camera lens is firmly behind the key character’s eyes. The main character/protagonist is usually also the narrator. First person can work well if the first person narrator is in fact not the protagonist at all, but the protagonist’s sidekick, e.g. Dr. Watson (Sherlock Holmes) or Hastings (Hercule Poirot).

Advantages of first person include:

It’s very easy to get into the head of your protagonist, and for the reader to identify/empathise with him/her.

There’s an immediacy and intimacy between the reader and the protagonist.

It’s natural – we all live our lives from our own point of view.

It can be easier to write, to really feel the characters emotions, thoughts and feelings – to see the story unfold through their eyes.

It’s easier to have an unreliable narrator* (both a deliberate UN and an accidental UN)

The writing can be chattier and less formal (e.g. Huckleberry Finn).

The disadvantages are that:

Only scenes directly involving the protagonist can be used. (It wouldn’t work for her to tell the reader what had happened – this would break the strongest rule of fiction – show don’t tell – and would be tedious to read.)

It can be difficult for the protagonist to describe herself naturally.

It takes away one tool of characterisation (i.e. other characters talking about your protagonist – unless she overhears somebody of course.)

Constant ‘I’s can get a bit wearing.

It’s very difficult to get a subplot in place.

Third Person

In all the third person categories there is a disembodied, unidentified narrator. It’s never identified who this is; if it’s well written, the narrator’s voice merges into the action and the reader isn’t necessarily aware of their presence.

The key difference between the various types of third person options is simply: Whose head is the narrator (and hence the reader) in?

In third person limited, the narrator has access only to (and therefore informs the reader only of) what goes on in one character’s head. This can be for the duration of the whole story, or the narrator can switch ‘heads’ with new scenes. But within each scene, the narrator will only be in one head. The narrator, however, can tell us what’s happening outside the ‘head’ character’s awareness – it just can’t tell us what the other characters are thinking or feeling. It can show us these things, by actions and facial expressions etc. But it cannot tell us.

In third person objective, the narrator isn’t in anybody’s head. It’s pure reportage. Of course, the narrator can give a lot of information by using detail well. But, the reader isn’t told anything that any of the characters are thinking or feeling.

In third person omniscient, the narrator’s in everybody’s head, all the time.

Advantages of third person limited:

It’s nearly as immediate and intimate as first person, without the constraint of only being able to relate what the first person narrator sees/experiences.

It’s easier to include subplots, or even parallel stories.

Disadvantages of third person limited:

It’s not quite as immediate and intimate as first person. Somehow it’s more natural to read, “I was so angry when he said that,” than, “she was so angry when he said that”.

Advantages of third person objective:

If done well it can make for a very compelling story as there has to be a lot of showing-not-telling. This is a good discipline for the writer.

It’s a good choice for thrillers and other action stories where emotions and feelings are secondary to the forward movement of the plot.

Disadvantages of third person objective:

It’s very demanding – you need to let the reader know what the characters are thinking and feeling by other means: e.g. their voices, tones, words, body language and actions.

It can make the reader feel distant and uninvolved. And a distant and uninvolved reader will not continue with the story. This is A Bad Thing!

Advantages of third person omniscient:

It can be one of the easier models to write, as it’s easy to relate what’s going on with all the characters.

You have no problems telling everybody’s story, and relating all the necessary information.

Disadvantages of third person omniscient:

This POV too can make the reader feel uninvolved. It’s a POV which has the camera lens floating above the action, seeing all. But this can mean that the reader doesn’t engage with any one character, doesn’t root for them, and doesn’t identify with them.

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of telling-not-showing.

It’s not popular with a lot of readers, who consider it to be head-hopping.

Getting your Point of View right can make or break a story. And although changing the POV of your book seems like a nightmare task,  it can work wonders to enliven a dead plot. Bestselling author Sarah Webb during one of the seven redrafts of one of her women’s fiction novels switched the POV from third person to first person. She still wasn’t happy, so she switched it back again, but what she learned in the process was invaluable to the story.

Don’t get stuck in a rut with POV – try and write everything from your favoured perspective. Some stories work well from a particular angle – short stories for instance are particularly effective in first person where you bring the reader straight into the story and they experience through one character’s eyes.

So what is the most important thing to remember about POV?

Stay in it!

Beware switching mid paragraph and telling us what another character is thinking – unless your protagonist is a mind reader, they will only be able to guess from the characters actions and behaviour what is going on inside their head!

About the author

© Tracy Culleton 2010

Tracy Culleton runs the http://www.fiction-writers-mentor.com/, and works extensively for Inkwell Writers Workshops.

Born in Dublin in 1964, she has been writing all her life, but began her professional writing career in 2002 with the non-fiction book ‘Simply Vegetarian’. Her fiction career began when she won the 2003 ‘Write A Bestseller’ Competition jointly run by Poolbeg and RTE’s Open House. This winning novel, ‘Looking Good’, went on to spend three weeks in the top ten. ‘Loving Lucy’ was published in 2004 and ‘More Than Friends’ in 2005. She is currently working on her fourth novel, ‘Grace Under Pressure’.

Tracy has extensive experience in adult education, having worked with NALA as an adult literacy tutor. Tracy is an expert in EFL and has a special interest in the reasons for, and the cures for, writer’s block. She has written a non fiction book on the subject, available as a free e-Book on her website www.fiction-writers-mentor.com

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