Distance and Depth and the Stuff in Between: Point of View in Fiction


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Which point of view to use in fiction is one of the fundamental questions writers are faced with when beginning a story.  Will it be an intimate and subjective point of view or distant and objective? Will it be told by someone in the story or by a narrator removed from the story? And how deep into the character’s mind should the perspective go?

John Gardener, in The Art of Fiction, gives an example of the varying degrees of psychic distance in point of view, from very distant to very close:
1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
3. Henry hated snowstorms.
4. God, how he hated these damn snowstorms.
5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul…

The first sentence is quite distant, giving us a sort of factual account, whereas the last is quite deep, giving us a look inside the speaker’s mind, so much so that we can feel what he feels. You can also see that the voice, or tone and style, changes as the distance or depth changes. The more distant we are, the more objective and general the voice. The closer we go, the more distinct and subjective the voice becomes.

Another question to ask yourself in the exploration of point of view is, who is the story being told to? Someone in the story or the reader? Jane Eyre, which is told in the first person point of view, addresses the reader in this example: “Reader, I married him.” However, it might, instead, simply be implied that the story is being told to a reader without naming her, as most stories are. Or perhaps the story is told by one character to another, like in the form of a letter or memoir. Knowing who the story is being told to also helps you figure out what kind of voice you might need.

Following is an overview of some of the fine points of point of view–how to use them and their individual drawbacks and benefits.

 

Third Person Omniscient

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The third person omniscient point of view is characterized by a narrator who sees and knows all. This type of narrator is often referred to as “godlike.” In this sense, the narrator can enter into a character’s head, when necessary, to reveal thoughts and feelings; however, this point of view tends to be more distant from the characters than intimate. It may also incorporate commentary, making sweeping judgments about the story world or society.

For example, the first chapter in The Scarlett Letter is made up entirely of narrative that does not contain our main character. This passage, in which the narrator tells us about a rose bush outside the town’s prison, is an example of this type of narrative (it also shows us who the story is addressed to):

Finding it so directly on the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers and present it to the reader. It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.

Although this was a popular perspective in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, today, there are some widely accepted drawbacks. One is that jumping from one character’s head to another, also known as head hopping, can be disorienting to a reader. Another is that this point of view may come off as morally superior because of its often judgmental tone, which can put off readers. And because of its distance, the story may feel too cold for readers today. Furthermore, it takes a skillful hand to maintain enough distance to be consistent and not jarring, and enough occasional depth that we understand what we need to about the characters and the story.

 

Objective Third Person objectivethirdpg

The third-person objective point of view uses a narrator who tells a story without delving into any character’s thoughts, opinions, or feelings. Through third person objective, we see and hear what the characters are doing, but we never enter their heads. We understand the characters by what they say and do, but not what they think. I think of this perspective as being like watching a movie. In a movie, we aren’t inside a movie character’s head (unless there is voice-over to show internal thoughts), we are told the story through action—what each person says and does.

The difference between omniscient and third person objective is that in omniscient, the narrator, being godlike, can get into the characters’ heads to reveal inner thoughts or feelings, whereas in third person objective, this is not possible.

Professor James Hynes suggests that this point of view may be the most lifelike because in real life, we are not able to get into other people’s heads to know what they are thinking. Nevertheless, it is a less intimate prospective.

The Maltese Falcon is a good example of this POV. We aren’t privy to the characters’ thoughts—we only know what they say and do:

“We didn’t exactly believe your story.”

“Then—?”

“We believed your two hundred dollars.”

“You mean—” She seemed not to know what he meant.

“I mean that you paid us more than if you’d been telling the truth,” he explained blandly, “and enough more to make it all right.”

 

Close Third Person closethrid2jpg

Close third person point of view is told through one character (although an author may choose to alternate the perspective by telling certain chapters through other characters’ points of view). This point of view allows us to go inside the head of its main character but not others. Therefore, besides what is shown through action, the reader relies on this character to provide information about other characters or what is happening in the story. Because our information is filtered through one character’s lens, a close third person character could be biased in what he tells us. It is closer to the subjective side of the point of view spectrum.

This POV can also use varying degrees of closeness, such as indicated in the previously mentioned sentences from John Gardner’s examples:

1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
3. Henry hated snowstorms.
4. God, how he hated these damn snowstorms.
5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul…

This point of view has many advantages. It allows for flexibility, and although it may seem counterintuitive, close third person allows the reader access to the character’s mind in a way that first person, which often has the most intimate feel, cannot, because a person only has so much self-awareness.

 

Objective First Person objective1st

Objective first person point of view uses the first person pronoun “I.” In this perspective, the story is told by someone who is not the main character. Because he or she has some distance from the main character, he is more objective.

An example of first person objective is Moby Dick, in which Ishmael reports the story of Captain Ahab’s obsession with the white whale:

I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul.  A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine. With greedy ears I learned the history of that murderous monster against whom I and all the others had taken our oaths of violence and revenge.

Another example is Nick Carraway’s narration of the story of Daisy and Gatsby’s relationship in The Great Gatsby. Nick is an observer somewhat removed, although he is friends with the other characters, and we only know what Nick sees the other characters doing or saying.

 

Subjective First Person subjective1stjpg

Subjective first person point of view is an intimate POV. It is told from the perspective of the main character. The reader is entirely inside the character’s head. We see and hear everything that character does and thinks and feels, but only from his perspective.

From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

You don’t know about me, without you having read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter.

Again, notice the distinctness of voice here, the way Huck speaks, which comes with this point of view. Because of its psychic closeness, it is intimate, personal.

In this point of view, we are limited to what this character thinks and the action that she sees, making it the most limited point of view, but this can be an advantage because of the closeness we feel to the character. Stories about personal journeys and character growth do well with this POV.

So, decide what kind of story you want to tell and then choose your POV. A detective story might call for third person objective if the story is largely about the mystery rather than a focus on the character. A romance might need close third person to get a sense of the character’s feelings, and a YA coming of age story might need subjective first person so that we truly grasp what our character is going through as she grows up.

Happy writing!
~Erin

In a Perfect Word Editing

My name is Erin Beth Liles, and I have several years of editing experience. Aside from my bachelor's degree, I have a certificate in copyediting from UC San Diego, and I have studied developmental editing with the Author-Editor Clinic. I've worked with both independent and major publishing houses, but my true love is working directly with authors. I also write young adult fiction. My YA novel Phoenix Burning is represented by Mansion Street Literary (and I have another novel in progress) and my short stories have been published in Ladybug, Stories for Children, and Knowonder. Several of my nonfiction articles have appeared in Austin Family Magazine, Mothering Magazine online, and Mamapedia. My children's picture book A Friend for Freckles was published by Guardian Angel Publishing in 2013. My novelette, Outside the Walls, is featured in Clean Teen Publishing's Wonderstruck Anthology. I am a member of the Professional Editors Network, Copyediting, SCBWI, and She Writes.

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