What is Point of View For, Anyway?
Sat Feb 27 2016
Writers usually discuss POV in the superficial terms of the grammatical differences between first, second, and third person writing. Occasionally the conversation will touch on what you can and can't get away with telling the reader within those POVs, and therefore, how to identify and avoid POV breaks.
Rarely, though, does anyone talk about what POV is actually for and what POV can do within your story. I've been guilty of that myself. If you look at the earlier incarnation of this article on the Internet Wayback Machine, you'll see I talk a lot about why you might choose one or the other, but not a word about what they're for.
That's vague. I'm sorry. Here's an analogy: A hammer is for pounding on stuff. If you know that about hammers, you know what you can do with one and you can see how to apply a hammer in your daily life. Likewise, my aim here is to teach you what POV is for so you'll be able to see what you can do with it in your novels.
Still, I think that's pretty important information to have when you're faced with actually picking what POV to use. As you are at the start of writing any novel, short story, or even personal essay. (Note, as in that earlier article, I'm not going to linger over the grammatical definitions of first, second, and third person writing. You can look that up if you need to.)
I believe there are four main levers POV allows you to pull within your story:
POV Affects Readers' Perceptions
The first lever of POV is to influence how readers perceive the story and its characters. As in the picture at the top of this article, things look different depending on where you see them from.
This is fundamentally an opinion management job. You show and describe everything in your story through words (duh). But words have two levels of meaning: denotative and connotative. The denotative meaning is the one you find in the dictionary. The connotative meaning is all the social and cultural baggage a word brings with it.
Don't believe me? Well, consider: the words "African American" and "negro" have essentially the same denotative meaning. But they're vastly different in their connotations, and I'll bet you'd have very different opinions about a narrator that used one vs. the other, wouldn't you?
Just about everything in your story is subject to this phenomenon. By being selective about exactly which words you use to describe the events in your story, the characters, and what they do, you can draw on all the rich social and cultural baggage those words carry. To do this effectively you must be very conscious of what those connotations are.
When you use a word, make sure it means what you want it to mean, but also make sure it feels how you want it to feel. That last is where I most often see writers mess up, creating moments in the novel that feel very differently than the writer intended.
This relates to POV because you only have this ability within your story's narration. When characters are talking, that's them making word choices and any connotations are thus attributed to the character's mindset. But outside of dialogue the word choices belong to the narrator, and every story's narrative voice is strongly influenced by the POV choice.
First person narration offers the greatest ability to influence readers' perceptions. Because the narrator is a character within the story, the author can use connotations more or less freely, because readers will ascribe them to the narrator character. The narration itself is "in story," as it were, and therefore tends not to clash with the reader's sense of being along for the ride with the narrator. That said, since the narrator ostensibly has free choice of what to put in their own narrative, readers are well within their rights to assume that the narrator believes whatever their word choices imply. It is incumbent on the writer to make sure that the connotations of the words the narrator uses are consistent with the narrator's mindset.
Third-person narration offers less ability to influence readers in this way. The reason is because the narrator is no longer a character in the story, but is you. And if you-the-author are constantly injecting a lot of emotionally loaded descriptions into the story, it can come across as author intrusion. Readers end up feeling like the wall between the writer and the world of the story is breaking down, which makes it harder for them to keep their minds in the world of the story. For this reason, third-person narration should usually stick to emotionally neutral descriptions.
Second person narration, I would argue, offers the least ability at all to wield this type of influence. Because second person uses the conceit of reader-as-protagonist, trying to insert value judgements through connotation can readily come across as telling the reader what to think or feel. Readers tend to rebel at that. I mean, who likes being told how to feel? However, as second person is such a rare POV, this is unlikely to be a problem for most novelists.
POV Determines the Limits of Observation
The second lever of POV is to set the limits on what readers can expect to observe.
This is fundamentally an information management job. As writers, we constantly have to manage how information flows in our stories. We manage the flow of information between characters by controlling when and how they communicate with one another, and what they say (or withhold!) when they do. But we manage the flow of information from the story to the reader by means of the story's POV.
This level works in a fairly obvious way.
Third person omniscient is the POV that says to the reader, "You get to see everything that matters, all the time." It is the choice of not setting any limits on what readers can expect to observe. That may sound very liberating as a writer. Just tell the reader whatever you want! Any time! And indeed it can be.
Third omni is a great choice for some stories, especially ones with complex plots, but it comes with some down-sides. You pay for the flexibility and high-level view that third omni affords by sacrificing a large measure of emotional closeness with the characters. This level is at least partly connected to the emotional attachment lever; more on that later.
First, second, and third person limited are POVs that say to the reader, "You can only see what the viewpoint character sees." The rule is straightforward: if the viewpoint character cannot see, hear, or otherwise observe something happening in the story's world, then Thou Shalt Not Narrate That Thing.
In first person writing, it only makes sense to do this. Since the narrator is the main character, how could they tell the reader about stuff they themselves are not aware of? In second person writing, you pretend that the reader is the character, so again, narrating about things not within the reader's immediate purview goes against the nature of the POV itself.
It's trickier in third person limited, though. In this POV, sometimes called "close third person", there is an external narrator, one who watches the viewpoint character as they go through the story. This narrator studiously avoids telling about anything the character cannot directly observe, but because the narrator is external to the character, it's very easy for writers to slip up and accidentally tell the reader about the thing lurking around the corner.
The motivation is clear: as writers, we're trying to build suspense or drama by revealing a contrast between what the character knows and what's true in the world. That is, we're trying to give the reader different information than the character so that readers can experience the tension of waiting for something pivotal to happen. Understood, but it's still a POV break. The whole point of third person limited is to keep the reader as much in the character's shoes as possible.
Exercising the self-discipline required to write good third person limited narration is not always easy. Sometimes, you reeeeally want to tip the reader off about something the character doesn't know. Resist this temptation, because the lever of emotional attachment connects to the lever of observation exactly at the boundary of the viewpoint character's knowledge.
POV Directs the Reader's Focus
The third lever of POV is to direct the reader's focus, and thus, to influence what the reader is paying attention to.
This is fundamentally a selection job, and secondarily, a labeling job. The world of your story is a big world. There's a lot of stuff in it. In conveying this world you describe parts of it, but never the whole thing. You provide the skeleton, but it's the reader that fleshes that skeleton out by filling in the details you don't have the time or space to provide.
When the reader imagines the scene in the old church graveyard as it unfolds, they could potentially be focused on any part of it. They could be thinking about the stone spire on the church building, reaching towards heaven. But they're not. They're thinking about the gravestones, because that's where the POV has put the focus.
Just like in the picture: you can look at the church if you want to, but your eye is drawn to the gravestones because of how the image is composed and what's in focus. It's the same in a story. Readers could be thinking about anything in the world of the story, but mostly they don't. Mostly, they'll be focused on whatever your narrative is looking at right now. Sometimes their minds will stray. You can never control that. But mostly they'll look where you want them to look so long as you do a good job of pointing the narrative's camera where it ought to go.
Making the reader look where you want is the selection part of this lever. So what can you do with that ability?
One of the best uses of selection is to pull the wool over the reader's eyes. The best twists in a novel are the ones where the reader slaps their forehead and says "Ah! I should have seen that coming!" But they totally didn't. They can look back and see that they had all the information they needed, but they still didn't see it coming because you did a good job of directing their attention away from those clues by selecting other things for them to be focused on.
I think this is easiest to do in first person writing (and, I suppose, second), because the narrator isn't omniscient and therefore can't be expected to automatically know where they should be focusing. In first person, you can hide stuff in plain sight by having it happen in the background while the narrator is fixated on something else.
You do have to mention the thing you want to hide. No fair not talking about it at all. But having mentioned it, move right on and let the viewpoint character worry about something else.
For example, while Sonja is trying to find food in the marketplace, go ahead and mention the black carriage turning into the next street over. Bury it in with all the other details and descriptions that go along with her reaching town and finding the marketplace. Having done so, let her be fixated on the fact that she has exactly two copper pieces to her name, hasn't eaten in the three days it took her to escape her captors in the woods and make her way to town.
In first person POV, readers are right along with her. We know she's starving. We want her to find some merchant who will look kindly on her and fill her belly on the cheap. We'll quite easily forget all about the carriage until later when she sees it again and--well, who knows what might happen.
(And if you want an extraordinarily excellent example of this technique in action--and you do--go read Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me. Then re-read it, really carefully, to watch how she hides all those clues in plain sight. It's really quite something.)
Labeling is the other half of the focus lever. Labeling happens because readers implicitly assume anything the narrative bothers to focus on must be important. Otherwise, why would you have bothered to write about it? On the flip-side, readers tend to label anything that's not focused on as unimportant.
That's where I usually see writers screw up. It's easy to remember to mention stuff that's important and is happening right now. But it's easy to forget to work in mentions of stuff that isn't happening right now but is still important.
For example, you might want the reader to believe Sonja is still carrying a torch for Brenda even though they haven't seen each other in ten years. But if in the 75 pages of narrative that cover those ten years you don't once show Sonja thinking about Brenda, if Brenda's name doesn't even come up in all that time, then readers are entirely justified in concluding that Sonja is over her.
The trick with selection is mentioning your clues enough so that readers get the information, but not so much that they can tell it's an obvious clue. The trick with labeling is to manage both what is and is not selected, in individual scenes and across the whole story, so as to accurately convey the importance of what is supposed to be important.
POV Influences Emotional Attachment
The fourth lever of POV is to govern the level of emotional attachment readers have with your characters.
This is fundamentally an empathy management job. This has everything to do with who you want readers to be rooting for and who you don't.
In general, you want readers to have a strong emotional bond--to empathize with--your protagonist. Sometimes you also want a strong bond with various supporting players. Usually, though, you specifically do not want your readers to have a strong bond with your story's antagonist. You can achieve this by how you deploy POV.
The more readers feel like they know and understand a character, the more they will naturally empathize with that person. The more they'll care about that person and will wish for them to succeed in their struggles. And the best way to get readers to feel like they know and understand a character is to show that character close-up.
First-person does that better than any other POV. In first person, the reader is often in the position of riding along in the protagonist's mental side-car. The reader is privy not just to the character's experiences and observations, but often to their inner thoughts and feelings as well. It's hard to get much closer than that. One might even argue that first person writing can place a reader closer to a character than that reader can even get to real people in their lives.
We only ever see other people from the outside. But we can see the character in a first-person story from the inside. That's empathy galore.
Next in line is second person, because again the reader is inside the protagonist's mind, but second person can get weird because of that conceit of reader-as-character. It can often feel backwards, like the character is trying to be inside our minds instead, which if not handled deftly is more likely to fall flat than anything else.
The next step down the empathy scale is third person limited. Because the narration hews exactly to what the character can perceive, the reader is brought pretty closely along on the character's journey. We see and hear all the same things, and therefore, our emotional reactions to events are likely to resemble the protagonist's. In this POV, authors can also choose to reveal selected thoughts and feelings ("inner monologue"), which helps too.
At the bottom of the scale is third person omniscient. In this POV, the reader is fully outside of all the characters, having equal access to their observations and thoughts as the narrator chooses to share them, as well as having access to information none of the characters may have. In this POV, though, everyone is viewed from such a distance that it is difficult for readers to form close emotional bonds with any of them. Not impossible--just poll your friends for their feelings on the characters in Game of Thrones--but difficult.
The takeaway here is clear: for characters you want readers to like and root for, stay close to them. Keep the reader's experience as similar to the character's as you can. Share the character's thoughts and feelings, either directly (first person) or through inner monologue (third limited). And conversely, for characters you don't want us to like, stay out of their heads.
As a tool, POV is more of a multi-tool you can deploy for any of the four jobs discussed here: Affecting perceptions, limiting observation, directing focus, and building emotional attachment.
Stay tuned next week when we'll look at how to use these factors to choose the best POV for the novel you have in mind.