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How to get more out of narrative point of view

November 16, 2010

Some fiction pundits have rigid ideas about POV, the perspective from which a story is told.  ‘Never use second person unless giving instructions,’ they say with forefinger raised, or ‘First person novels are too much all about me.’  It makes me immediately want to pen a story in the second person plural: ‘You found yourselves muttering to each other that you wasted your money coming to this fiction seminar.  In fact, in the break you agreed you’d all go home early and write any damn way you please from now on.’

A commitment to stories written only from a certain POV is like only looking at landscape paintings.

So, here are the different POVs and some reasons you might not have considered for using them.

First person singular

Think of the style and language (and even spelling) possibilities when your main character is the one doing the actual writing.

My legal name is Alexander Perchov.  But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name.  Mother dubs me Alexi-stop-spleening-me!, because I am always spleening her.  If you want to know why I am always spleening her, it is because I am always elsewhere with friends, and disseminating so much currency, and performing so many things that can spleen a mother.

First person plural

The royal we?  The Greek chorus?  The ‘we’ of the general public and society’s will?  The individual who is trying to disguise his or her close interest and involvement in the story by implicating all of us?

  • Example: Jeffrey Eugenides, Virgin Suicides Anonymous narrators reconstruct the story from their research, decades after the virgins die.  The use of first person plural gives the events the quality of legend:

It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.

Second person

The ‘you’ who is really I, the one telling the story.  More than any other perspective, this one beckons to the reader to come over here and stand with the narrator.  For this reason, it’s intensely intimate. Good for ramping up fear.  Think of the three different camera perspectives used in Jaws before a shark attack.  There’s the shot of the swimmer from the air, then the shot of the swimmer’s dangling legs from under the water (the shark’s view), and then the shot across the water as if the viewer is dog paddling alongside the swimmer.  Although you might imagine that the shark’s view is the scariest, the last shot across the water actually has the most impact because it makes you identify so closely with the swimmer’s vulnerability.

  • Example: Tim Winton, Long, Clear View Winton’s book of tales, The Turning, contains stories told from different characters’ POVs, in first and third person, some of them dealing with the same tragic events.  Only one story is told in the second person, and coming across it suddenly about halfway through the book gives you a jolt, as if you’re bumping into someone you didn’t want to meet.  The tension is palpable from the opening sentences:

You lie awake and listen to the rumble of talk through the fibro wall as it thins out into pent-up whispering.  From the old man’s sighs and your mother’s patient murmur, you know that nothing’s going right.

Third person omniscient

The old standard can be jazzed up.  Use it, for instance, to deliberately flout the ‘show don’t tell’ rule.

  • Example: Charles Dickens, Bleak House No one does high moral dudgeon better than Dickens.  He’s at his best when he’s not leaving the story to speak for itself but, instead, giving the reader his omniscient opinion about it.  Here he is, letting us know that a pauper has just died:

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, right reverends and wrong reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.

Isn’t that magnificent?  And it’s such a no-no in modern schools of fiction writing.

Third person intimate

A character tells the story as if they’re simply relating true events as they happened, but their own personality, prejudices and experiences are stamped all over it.  Interesting when your narrator is unreliable because they’re a liar, goofy or just blind to certain possibilities.  You can create a dual ironic narrative: your narrator’s version of the story and another reality, unspoken, beneath the surface.  Of course, you can do this with first person too, but with third person intimate, there seems to be a greater disconnect between the narration, because it’s written as if it’s objective, and the truth.

  • Example: Fran Macdonald, Wombat Blues Okay, yes, this is my own novel.  I wrote it in third person intimate because Joel, my main character, love him as I do, is self-absorbed but not very self-reflexive.  He tends to blunder through life often misinterpreting people and even his own motivations, and that distinction – between his take on the world and reality – is central to the story.  Here he is being totally together and not at all shit scared about how’s he getting on with his best friend Sebastian:

Joel had a cold shower and put on a load of washing before breakfast.  He was cool, he was tough, he could handle anything.  He’d checked the look in the mirror and that’s what it was – cool and tough.  And philosophical.  Yeah, that was it.  So Sebastian was dark on him.  Well, they’d talk and they’d work it out.  No sweat.

What next?

I recommend the Wikipedia page on POV for a different and fuller explanation, if you want to know more.  That page also lists many great examples to explore.  But you know that’s not the first thing you should do, don’t you?  That’s right, go ahead and try writing something from a POV you don’t usually try.  This is particularly useful if you’re stuck.  Write the next scene in your current story as ‘you’ instead of ‘she’ and just see what your imagination unleashes.  You can always change it back.

Photo by: Fairuz Othman

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tricia Bertram permalink
    November 16, 2010 10:53 am

    Another great post Fran. I’m going to print it out and pin it up near my computer to remind me to venture outside my comfort zone in POV and see what happens.

  2. November 16, 2010 12:02 pm

    Thanks, Tricia! You know, I’d love to have some more examples of work written in unusual POVs. Feel free to provide some – we’ll publish them here.


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