Setting the Stage: Choosing a Point of View
Let's Look at the Classics
May 16, 2019
All stories are told by someone.
Sometimes it's a chorus of voices as the writer dips into the consciousness of more than one character, revealing their thoughts. More often it's told by only one character, usually the one most affected by the circumstances of the story. On rare occasion, the story might avoid dipping into anyone's thoughts and simply relate what happened and maybe include some judgments by the unnamed narrator who does not seem to have access to the inner lives of the characters. Also rare, the story might have a named narrator who is related peripherally to the action and again reveals observations without being able to tap into thoughts. All of these choices are reflected in the phrase "point of view." All stories have a point of view.
The most common point of view is third person. In a third person story, no character is referred to as "me" or "I" in the narration. This kind of point of view might get very close to characters, even into their heads, but there is always the slightest bit of distance offered by the choice of third person. However, third person allows the narration to note things that the characters themselves might not necessarily notice or think. It also allows us to shift attention from one thing to another. Take, for example, the classic story, E.B. White's Charlotte's Web. Most of the book focuses on Wilber, a pig with an uncertain future, but the story opens without Wilbur on stage at all (though the opening moment does relate to Wilbur).
"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
This is third person, because the character driving the action in the moment (Fern) is referred to by name rather than as "I." In this example, the narration part (about Fern and her mother setting the table for breakfast) is very straightforward. The narration is not trying to be its own character. This is actually a common choice in modern literature. Only when the narration dips into the mind of a character will it mirror a specific character voice, otherwise it will tend to keep this less attention-getting tone because the goal is that narration shouldn't overshadow character.
This is not always true in third person stories. Sometimes the narration is so packed with voice that it's very much a character (even if unnamed). Consider this opening from Roald Dahl’s Matilda:
A funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.
As with many books by Dahl, the narration is full of voice, making it very much a character in its own right. You'll see a very similar sort of narration in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket (though in the Snicket books, the narrator does use “I” references so it is more of a first person narration from a mystery character). This kind of voice-filled narration is often chosen today to give a novel the feeling of being from years ago, since contemporary novels generally don't take this kind of heavily voiced narration unless the book is written in first person where the voice comes from being told directly by the main character.
In first person, the main character is the narrator. This means every single word (outside of dialogue) in the story must be told in the voice of the main character. Main character direct narration offers us certain abilities. We get to know the main character very well. We also open the door to the possibility that the main character is lying to us, the readers. And this makes first person narration something the reader must weigh (just as you weigh stories told to you by family or friends). What if the storyteller is lying? Or, what if the narration is simply being colored by the main character's viewpoint, without it being an intentional lie? Both are possible, and the second is absolutely going to happen. Any true story from our own life that we tell is limited to our own perspective and is almost certainly going to be flawed in some way.
Let's look at a very flawed main character in first person. This is from The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka:
Everybody knows the story of the Three Little Pigs. Or at least they think they do. But I'll let you in on a little secret. Nobody knows the real story, because nobody has ever heard my side of the story. I'm the Wolf.
Another aspect of first person narration is that it is absolutely limited to the experience of the main character. You cannot "draw back the camera" of the story and look at things outside the perspective of the main character. Some writers try to do a little of that by having the main character read newspaper accounts or blogs or journals (or even more clumsily launch into things like “I learned later” or “I know now that”), so that different perspectives and experiences can be brought into the story, but it's extra work for the writer to find ways to share things the reader needs to know that the main character may not know.
Ultimately you must decide how to handle the narration of your story. Who tells it? Is the narrator a character or not? And for the sake of slipping in some super fun definitions, let's look at what some of the examples I gave at the beginning of this post are called:
Third person omniscient: a chorus of voices as the writer dips into the consciousness of more than one character, revealing their thoughts.
Third person limited: the story is told by only one character, usually the one most affected by the circumstances of the story, but the character is still referenced by name or referred to as he/she.
First person: the story is told by only one character, usually the one most affected by the circumstances of the story, and the character is referenced as "I."
Third person dramatic: the story avoids dipping into anyone's thoughts and simply relates what happened and maybe include some judgements by the unnamed narrator who does not seem to have access to the inner lives of the characters.
So, now that you have some ideas of your options. Who's going to tell your tale?
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.