It’s like with stereograms, those images designed to create the illusion of 3d scenes from 2d images. Even though, at first, such images seem just a jumble of colors, their creators have worked hard to make sure each part of them is exactly where it should be to mimic the 3d effect.
However, while stereograms require the public to learn how to properly look at them, with point of view the opposite applies. In fact, the harder a writer works to make her use of point of view appear coherent and natural to the story, the less readers will notice it.
Types of point of view – First person
A story is in the first person when it is narrated by one of the characters. Like in Montana 1948, by Larry Watson:
“From the summer of my twelfth year I carry a series of images more vivid and lasting than any others of my boyhood and indelible beyond all attempts the years make to erase or fade them…”
The use of first person POV can give the narrative an almost startling sense of closeness to the characters.
Besides, since we are recounting the events from the unique perspective of a character, we can infuse such perspective with high doses of subjectivity and idiosyncrasies, so creating memorable and, sometimes, also quite unreliable narrators.
A word of caution. When using first person point of view we should try hard not to focus too extensively on the self of the narrator, unless it is functional to the story itself. After all, even the most interesting characters need a story to tell if they want to grab and, most importantly, retain the attention of their readers.
Besides, we have to place our narrator in a plausible position to relate the story. This doesn’t mean we have to stick to any particular convention or rule. As far as they have access to the events they recount, a ghost is just as fine as a serial killer as a narrator.
Finally, we should pay particular attention to those characters who are very similar to us. In fact, as Deborah Moggach said, given that such characters are so close to us, we might find it difficult to properly put them into focus.
Notable novels using first person point of view:
Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Christine – Stephen King
This is a relatively unusual choice, especially for a novel. Besides, it is quite difficult to pull out well. However, this doesn’t mean it cannot be done. On the contrary. In fact, many authors have written decidedly interesting works using it.
Just be aware that the use of you, which turns the reader into a character, is potentially upsetting.
This means that while the use of you can really command the attention of readers, on the long run all those yous may well end up getting on their nerves as well.
To avoid this we could recourse to second person POV in conjunction with first person POV, like Julie Berry does in All the Truth That’s in Me. This mix can work spectacularly well, also for a whole novel.
Another interesting novel to look up is If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.
It is considered a classic, and justly so.
Third person – God, demigod, or plain human?
Generally, third person point of view is the most common across all genres. In addition, it is the point of view we are most familiar with as readers. As a result, writing in third person should come quite natural.
Third person point of view is quite flexible. If you choose to tell the story through the eyes of just one character, you can make it almost as personal as first person point of view.
Instead, if you tell the story through the eyes of many characters you can even create an epic on par with The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien,
Irrespective of the number of point of views, it’s essential to keep them consistent. Besides, third person narrations can be divided into three categories:
- Limited ominiscience
- Objective point of view
In the omniscient POV the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters in the story. The narrator also knows about past and future events, and pretty much everything else. The narrator can also comment on what’s going on, and can also address readers directly.
This approach, in the past was quite popular. In addition to the already cited TLOTR you can also read The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway to see how it can work quite well also for shorter and more intimate works.
With an all knowing narrator, writers have at their disposal an incredible array of ploys to pepper their narrative with. At the same time it’s more difficult to achieve the same kind of closeness that first person almost naturally bestows on a story.
However, whatever perspective you choose for your story, it has to be well grounded, and readers have to know where they are in relation to the action as soon as possible. In this way they can get their bearings and readily lose themselves into the story.
In limited omniscient POV the narrator knows everything that a character knows and feels, but nothing more that that.
This approach is quite common nowadays. In fact, it allows writers a good degree of freedom while at the same time almost immediately giving the story an unmistakable personality.
I mean, if my characters all pertain to a gang of thieves, this aspect alone is enough to create a certain atmosphere. Instead, if I used an omniscient point of view this relationship between characters and atmosphere would be, to say the least, a lot more tenuous.
A great example of this point of view is The Liveship Trilogy by Robin Hobb.
Finally, in objective POV the narrator knows only those things he or she can see from the outside. The narrator has no direct access to any character’s thoughts, attitudes and the likes. Besides, there’s no interpretation or evaluation whatsoever. Objective POV is much like a documentary.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel adopting this point of view, so I cannot give you any first-hand example–if you have some suggestion, you’re welcome.
Choose your point of view and stick to it like a tick, the old saying goes.
But, if done properly, the truth is that we can mix up points of view.
For example, we could conceive of a novel with several characters all portrayed in first person, and with an omniscient point of view to open and close the story.
Using third person point of view we could also work with several characters, and then pepper the narrative with short chapters adopting an omniscient point of view to describe interesting aspects of the world.
Again, in a thriller we could follow a secret agent in first person, and describe instead his enemy using a third limited, or even a third objective.
What matters is that when we switch point of view, we make the transition as smooth as possible (I’m going to write a post about this).
In any case, remember that a novel’s merit is totally unrelated to the number of points of view it sports. Just as it is the case for many other aspects both in life and literature, less can be more.
Points of view are tools which help us to shape our stories. But we shouldn’t let them shackle us down.
And you? What is the type of novels you prefer reading?