January 11th, 2017

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Point of View

It’s a new year, and time to get back to the writing posts. If you have a question or topic you’d like me to address, let me know. I’m also thinking about compiling these posts into an e-book. Would there be any interest in that? I’d have to figure out what a reasonable price would be. There would be a lot of content, but all that content is also available for free if you’re willing to dig through the blog archives.

Anyway, I’m going to address point of view because I recently tried to read a book and could never get into it because of a huge point of view error in the opening paragraph. So, time for a refresher!

There are four main points of view that you can use in writing fiction (and probably subgroups, but I’m going to try to keep it simple here).

The most common point of view used in fiction is probably third-person — the “he did” and “she said” kind of books. The narrator is outside the story. There are two main varieties of third-person POV.

Third-person omniscient has a narrator who knows everything, including what is in each person’s head and events that the characters don’t know about. To some extent, the narrator has his/her own voice as the storyteller, even though the narrator isn’t a participant. The narrator can dip into various characters’ heads to give their thoughts or can clue readers in on things the characters don’t know (the “little did he know, his life was about to change” sort of thing). You see this kind of narration in fairy tales and fables. It was also popular in a lot of Victorian fiction. Charles Dickens often used this POV. I think Jane Austen fits in here, too, as her books are very much in Jane’s voice, with a fair amount of editorial commentary on the characters and situations. It’s less popular today, but sometimes pops up in more satirical works, like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.

The more common version of third-person narration is limited third, where you’re in only one character’s head at a time. It’s still “he did” and “she said,” but through the eyes of a particular character. The perspective may change from scene to scene, so you get multiple viewpoints in a book, but while you’re in a character’s head, you only see, hear, think, and experience what that person would be aware of. To see that character from the outside, you have to get into someone else’s head.

Another point of view used in fiction is first-person. That would be the “I” books — The narrator is a participant in the story and is telling his/her own story. You see this a lot in mysteries. I write my Enchanted, Inc. and Rebel Mechanics series in first-person. Because the narrator is a character, you’re limited to what the narrator character sees, hears, and thinks. You can’t dip into anyone else’s head. You can’t show events if the narrator isn’t present.

Finally, there’s second person — “you” books. This is fairly rare and tends to be used either in more literary stories or in choose-your-own-adventure books. It turns the reader into the protagonist: “You wake up in the morning and don’t know what’s happening.” Aside from pronouns, this functions a lot like first person because readers don’t get access to anything the protagonist doesn’t know or experience.

That’s a broad overview. In the coming weeks, I’ll dig deeper into the more common viewpoints and address the strengths, weaknesses, and pitfalls.