Point of View in Fiction: Who’s Telling Your Story?
Since we’re talking about point of view in fiction today, let’s start out with three different examples of it. They’re all taken from novel intros, so I’ll be sure to note their titles and authors as we go.
Point of View Example #1:
The Ecosystem breathes.
I crouch at the edge of the forest, waiting. Waiting for its attention to shift so I can make my dash across the greensward. Waiting until I can Sense its thoughts in my bones.
There are no guarantees, Sarah, Aaron told me before I set out this morning. There is only the Sense of things: eyes and ears and nerves and muscle. And, he added, smiling, a little bit of luck.
– Ecosystem by Joshua David Bellin
Point of View Example #2:
An hour before Azalea’s first ball began, she paced the ballroom floor, tracing her toes in a waltz. She had the opening dance with the King… who danced like a brick.
But that was all right. She could add flourishes and turns that would mask the King’s stiff, flat steps. If there was anything she was good at, it was dancing. And this year, she was in charge of the ball, as Mother was too ill to host. Azalea was determined it would be perfect.
– Entwined by Heather Dixon
Point of View Example #3:
Sabrina Johnson was sitting across from a sociopath who was out for her blood. Or at least he belonged to a sociopathic organization with that particular goal.
Not that she had any clue about his evil intentions. She just thought it was a bad date.
A really, really bad date.
– Not So Human by Jeannette DiLouie
Really, we could list off example after example after example more. But since that would require me to go find those examples, let’s just explain the three we have above.
Of course, in order to explain the three we have above, we first need a definition to work with. What is point of view in fiction in the first place?
Point of View:
Abbreviated to POV by the cool kids, this term describes the narrator through tense (i.e., past, present or future), person (i.e., first, second or third), and awareness (i.e., objective, limited or omniscient).
If that seems a bit on the strange side, you might be operating under the idea that you, the author, are always going to be the narrator. Which just isn’t true. Sometimes the main character is. In other stories, that role might be filled by a secondary figure. Whoever the narrator turns out to be though, he, she or it does a lot to set the tone.
Every story told takes on one possibility out of each of the three categories listed above: tense, person and awareness. Therefore, authors can choose to write in:
First-person, present-tense objective, as Joshua David Bellin did in Ecosystem
Third-person, past-tense objective, as Heather Dixon did in Entwined
Third-person, past-tense omniscient, as Jeannette DiLouie – i.e., me – did in Not So Human, at least for those opening lines. After that, admittedly, I switched over to third-person, past-tense objective.
Clearly then, an author’s point of view can change as he writes his story. It all depends on what that author decides. (More about this on Friday.)
So, see! You do matter after all.
While the tense you choose should be easy enough to grasp, “person” and “awareness” are less simple to define. So here’s what we mean by these two factors...
Writing in first-person simply means that your main character is narrating a piece or the whole of your manuscript. And since your main character sees himself, herself or itself as “I” and “me,” that’s how actions and reactions are noted.
To quote Ecosystem again, “I crouch at the edge of the forest. Waiting.”
Writing in second-person turns the “I,” into “you.” As in you’re telling the reader what he or she is doing. “You see the alien moving toward you, extending its hand, beckoning for you to come.”
Since that’s more than a little awkward almost all of the time, nearly no fiction writers work with second-person. Typically, we prefer third-person, truth be told.
This brings us back to Entwined, which opens with, “An hour before Azalea’s first ball began, she paced the ballroom floor, tracing her toes in a waltz.”
Not I or you.
In the same way, most fiction writers prefer writing in the past tense, as evidenced by both Point of View Example #2 and #3. This makes #1 an exception, though it’s hardly alone. If I had to take a guess, I’d say that 5%-10% of novels are written in past tense.
(More about this on Thursday.)
For the record, most people know this category as “perspective.” But since I don’t think that properly defines it, I prefer “awareness.” As in, how much does the narrator know or is willing to give away?
An objective narrator doesn’t know (or isn’t willing to give away) anything outside of what the main character knows. Readers aren’t meant to find out what’s going to happen in the story until it actually happens.
Only makes sense? To a large degree, you’re right, but let’s keep going. Because a limited narrator is able to hop heads, saying what “he” is thinking in one line and what “she” is thinking at another point, still staying in the moment in the process.
And yes, this kind of narration is usually done in the third tense.
Finally, an omniscient narrator is one who knows all – including what’s still to come – and is quite willing to share all when the mood strikes. This kind of storytelling voice might say stuff like:
Little did she know what was in store for her.
If I had only had a clue what was coming next.
He said yes in the moment, thinking he had all the facts. Yet time would prove him irreversibly wrong.
Now that you’re an expert on what point of view is, let’s try putting it into practice…