Story components: Point of View

Point of View: Who Cares?

While sipping a latte in your local coffee shop on a rainy Saturday morning, you may notice a group of folks at a nearby table, chattering intensely among themselves. “Point of view,” one of them cries half rising from his chair. “Shame!”

“Yeah,” another says, “you can’t do that, it’s a violation of the point of view.”

You’ve stumbled upon a nasty little game writers play. We gather in small packs we call critique groups and play ‘Gotcha’. The object of the game is to ferret out point of view (POV) violations in other member’s stories and soundly chastise those who penned them.

So what exactly is point of view and why is it important? When I attended the Creative Writing program at Vermont College, my instructor likened point of view to a camera. It is the lens through which the author shows or tells us, the reader, the story. No POV, no story. There are many different types of points of view, but modern readers generally only need to be concerned with three: omniscient, first person and third person limited.

Back in the nineteenth century, the omniscient point of view was the rage. In the omniscient POV, the narrator is god-like. She can dip into any character’s mind at any time. She knows all, sees all and flits from character to character as she sees fit.  Here’s an example from Mark Twain’s THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER:

While Tom was eating his supper, and stealing sugar as opportunity offered, Aunt Polly asked him questions that were full of guile, and very deep—for she wanted to trap him into damaging revealments. Like many other simple-hearted souls, it was her pet vanity to believe she was endowed with a talent for dark and mysterious diplomacy, and she loved to contemplate her most transparent devices as marvels of low cunning. Said she:

“Tom, it was middling warm in school, warn’t it?”

“Yes’m.”

“Powerful warm, warn’t it?”

“Yes’m.”

“Didn’t you want to go in a-swimming, Tom?”

A bit of a scare shot through Tom—a touch of uncomfortable suspicion. He searched Aunt Polly’s face, but it told him nothing. So he said:

“No’m—well, not very much.”

The old lady reached out her hand and felt Tom’s shirt, and said:

“But you ain’t too warm now, though.” And it flattered her to reflect that she had discovered that the shirt was dry without anybody knowing that that was what she had in her mind. But in spite of her, Tom knew where the wind lay, now. So he forestalled what might be the next move.

We start this passage firmly in Aunt Polly’s POV, but even then Twain shows us something that Polly can’t know, that Tom is stealing sugar. As the passage progresses, we jump from Polly’s consciousness to Tom’s and back again. Twain plays God here.

In first person POV, ‘I’ serves as the narrator. We’re stuck in the narrator’s consciousness and can’t leave it.  Here in this example from my first novel, HARKNESS: A HIGH DESERT MYSTERY. In it, Sheriff Harkness interviews the mother of a missing girl:

Shacks in Okie town jumbled together in a warren of unmarked rutted roads on the backside of the stockyards just to the west of the main town.  Shirtless boys played in the dust with makeshift toys and stared at me with vacant distrust as I passed.  The Kelly house was no different from the rest, just another tumble-down, tiny one-room house with an outhouse in the back.  Barnes might use a place that size as a garden shed or for a kid’s playhouse someday.  Kate still had a hankering for kids.  I was still working up to taking in a damned wiener dog named Addison.

The Kelly place reminded me of my childhood home—a couple of chickens and a hardscrabble garden out back, almost enough to feed the family, too many people living crammed into a single room, folks always bumping into each other, walls pushing in on us, our greatest dream a moment of privacy.

Virginia’s older sister, sixteen and already out of school, opened the door.  I fumbled for her name, Hope or Charity maybe, so I just called her “Sis” and asked to see her ma. She didn’t seem surprised to see me, just told me to wait on the stoop, yelled for her ma, then disappeared into the house.  Her ma, Esther, a burned-out woman, came outside.  A husk of corn clung to her patched apron.  She wiped her hands on the apron and told me she hadn’t seen Virginia since yesterday morning.

In this passage, we’re firmly in the protagonist’s head. We have full access to his thoughts, feelings and memories. First person POV is visceral, a powerful way to tell a story. The main drawback is that we’re in one person’s head. We only can know what he knows.

In third person limited POV, the ‘I’ is replaced by ‘he’ or ‘she’. Though there’s less immediacy for the writer, she does gain flexibility. The camera can sit firmly inside a character’s head, on her shoulder or even move back for a wider view of the scene. Here’s an example from my work in progress, THUNDERHEAD:

Yellow stained fingers clasped a cigarette and a feeble light from a banker’s lamp cast deep shadows over the sharp angles of the Sheriff’s face. He didn’t look up from his studies. Butts in the glass ashtray twisted into sculpture.

Addison sat up in cardboard box bed, his tail thumping against the side in welcome. “Some watchdog you are,” Harkness said.  “Eddie here could have been bent on mischief even murder and you wag your goddamn tail.” There was a degree of affection in his tone.

“Evening, Eddie,” he said with his head still down. “I’m still on the wagon.”

Dilkes realized that by now Harkness had come to know his tread on the stairs. “One day at a time.”

“Platitudes no me no good.” Harkness looked up, a fevered light shone in his eyes. Dilkes had only seen it once, a few months ago when Harkness hunted the murderer of two teen-aged lovers.

“You asked for me to come. What does you good?

“Information. Give me a report about the sightings of flying saucers up in Portland.”

The quick change in topic almost threw Dilkes, but he recovered. “Over Oaks Park?”

Harkness nodded.

The camera starts with a wide view of the Sheriff’s office, then drills down into Eddie Dilkes’ POV. Here, I’m able to delve down into Dilkes’ deepest thoughts and feelings, or as in this example, stay closer to the surface.

Sometime in the twentieth century, the omniscient POV became passé and writers moved to employing either the first person or third person limited POV. Some critics say this was because modern readers had become more sophisticated in their tastes. I disagree. It isn’t a matter of the reader’s sophistication, but more of trends and the difficulty of doing omniscient POV well. Third person limited is popular now and can be used with just one viewpoint character or for stories told from multiple points of view. Steven King used multiple POV in THE STAND. Tom Clancy made a killing using multiple in his military thrillers.

That’s not to say that omniscient is extinct, but now is mostly confined to literary fiction. Check out Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE. It’s great stuff.

 A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining-room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta’s chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread.

“Holy Mother of God!” Úrsula shouted.

As a writer, one of your first tasks is to determine which POV will work best in your story. Most mysteries and other genre fiction use either first or third limited. For my novel-in-progress, I’m using both. It’s a risk and not for the faint of heart. And as a reader, understanding POV will not only help you in following the narrative, but can give you a clue as to which books are right for you. I hope this article has helped.


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