Points of View: What are they?
by Jason Black
In a more polite take on a rather coarse old saw, we might say points of view are like opinions: everybody has one. But what do literary types mean when they talk about points of view? Usually, they mean the grammatical side of point of view (hereafter, just “POV”), which has person, tense, and informational aspects. This conception of POV covers the manner in which the writer chooses to present the story’s narrative text. Dialogue and inner monologue are different beasts, and obeys their own rules; this article relates solely to narrative.
Beyond the grammatical take, there is a philosophical take on POV which I find much more useful. But, first things first.
Grammatical person indicates who the viewpoint character is relative to the story’s narrator. English has three grammatical persons: first, second, and third. First-person means the viewpoint character is the narrator:
I stepped into the rickety old house. A floorboard snapped, plunging me into the darkness below.
Second-person indicates that the reader is the viewpoint character:
You stepped into the rickety old house. A floorboard snapped, plunging you into the darkness below.
Third-person indicates that the viewpoint character is neither the narrator nor the reader, but is instead the subject of interest:
He stepped into the rickety old house. A floorboard snapped, plunging him into the darkness below.
Verb tense encompasses when the narrative is understood to take place, relative to the point at which the reader is experiencing it. Tense can be past, present, or future. The above examples are all in past tense, describing something understood to have already happened. Present tense indicates things happening simultaneously to the reader’s experience of it:
I step into the rickety old house. A floorboard snaps, plunging me into the darkness below.
The future tense indicates events yet to come:
I will step into the rickety old house. A floorboard will snap, plunging me into the darkness below.
This aspect relates to the scope of information the writer chooses to present to the reader. There are three main choices: limited, multiple-limited, and omniscient.
In a limited POV, the author only presents information that is available to a single character: his or her observations, beliefs, mental states, and so forth, but no one else’s. This single character is known as the “viewpoint character” and is usually (but not always) the story’s protagonist.
In a multiple-limited POV, the idea is exactly the same, except that the author takes turns showing the limited POV of more than one character.
In an omniscient POV, the writer leaves nothing unknown. The narrative freely presents to the user both the visible events taking place in the story’s world, plus the invisible mental states, motivations, and perceptions of all the characters. It is sometimes referred to as the “god’s eye” viewpoint. In short, readers get to know what everybody is doing and thinking, all the time.
In principle, you can combine the different choices for person, tense, and information any of the 27 possible pairings. The most common pairings are:
Why are 22 of the 27 potential possibilities missing from that list? They aren’t all viable choices. Well, first-person is an implicitly limited person, unless in some strange way your viewpoint character actually is omniscient. I have yet to see that in a published novel, though.
Third-person, for some reason, typically precludes present tense although once in a while you’ll see it. Third-person present does tend to give an academic, almost documentary kind of feeling to a story, which makes it rare in novel writing.
The entire second-person is a rare choice, as turning the reader into the protagonist conveys a presumptuousness many readers rebel against. Examples are hard to come by, with Jay McInerny’s Bright Lights, Big City being perhaps the best known example.
Similarly, the future tense is so rare I can’t recall having ever encountered a novel written in it. I suspect doing so would give a speculative, fortune-teller feeling to the whole thing.
The deeper meaning of point of view
That’s the technical side, which is important but offers no guidance on what POV to choose for your story. To me, the philosophy of POV is that it captures the relationshipbetween the reader and the narrative. POV is the dominating factor in how the reader perceives the narrative.
First-person narratives, and to a lesser extent third-person limited narratives, do a good job of putting us in a viewpoint character’s shoes. They are excellent choices when you want to build close empathy between reader and character. Third-person omniscient, on the other hand, tends to distance the reader from the characters and works against those close bonds. But what it lacks in emotional depth it makes up for in logistical breadth: those heart-racing geopolitical thrillers, which derive tension from the reader watching all the pieces simultaneously converging toward a larger climax, wouldn’t work at all if you couldn’t see everything.
Similarly, for all of its emotional strength, first-person can diminish the trust the reader has in the narrative. When we see the story from a specific character’s viewpoint, we understand that she may be wrong about some things. She may have misheard what somebody else said, or misinterpreted their actions. If it’s the kind of first-person where the viewpoint character directly addresses the reader—where the character is aware that they are telling their own story to somebody—then we understand she may even be lying to us. Real people shade the truth or hide embarrassing truths all the time, so why shouldn’t a first-person narrator do the same? But third-person viewpoints, in which the characters aren’t aware that the reader even exists, force us to accept what the narrative says as gospel truth.
All these choices—in person, in verb tense, in information—affect the relationship the reader has to the story. My advice is to think first about what relationship will best serve your story, and choose a point of view to match.