This is the first of a three-part series identifying what the point of view elements are and how they can be manipulated for greater writing success!
Today’s post distinguishes the three roles every author must step into (one is almost always forgotten!) and then covers the first 3 of the 5 elements of point of view: Grammatical Person, Pronoun Number, and Verb Tense.
Point of view is a complex subject—and a necessary one—that must be mastered if you are going to excel in writing fiction well.
Unfortunately, point of view is often oversimplified. So much so, it is to the detriment of the aspiring author.
This has led to writers being told to fish when it comes to POV, but not how to fish. Many are poorly equipped to execute POV because they are simply unaware of how to manipulate its underlying structure. No wonder it’s a primary reason manuscripts are rejected!
I’m going to break down the technical details of POV in easy-to-digest content. You’ll learn how it works and can be adapted to your story’s needs. Whether you are new to POV or somewhat familiar, there will be something here for you.
The Three Roles of an Author
First things first, I need to clarify the three primary roles you as the writer step into when forming your story. It's not as sexy a topic as character development, plot creation, or weaving tension in dialogue, but it is just as essential if you want to write well.
Many writers are only aware of two roles.
You, as the author, create the story. According to Google, create means to bring something into existence. An idea pops into your head and you want to make it tangible on paper.
You, as the character(s), experience the story. You step into your character’s shoes to understand where he is coming from so you can accurately present his perspective.
It is impossible to navigate from the role of author to the role of character without another role in between them. And this is where most people get confused.
You, as the narrator, tell the story. Create is not the same as tell. Tell means to communicate or reveal information (facts and perceptions) to someone in spoken or written words (also courtesy of Google).
You, as the author, are ultimately responsible for everything about your story. Think of this in terms of a chain-of-command. The author is the leader, in charge of it all. But in order to effectively manage the entire creation of said story, he has to delegate certain responsibilities. He simply can’t do it all because he must maintain a high-level perspective of the story.
The author segregates those certain responsibilities into separate roles: the narrator and the character. Then, he compartmentalizes his brain when he steps into each role and puts words onto paper.
It’s difficult to be continually mindful of these three separate roles because the author and narrator roles are invisible. This is why the role of the narrator is often overlooked despite every story having one.
Authors who write well have taken the time to master these separate roles; when they haven’t (or are simply unaware of them), readers can sense when an author steps on a narrator’s toes or when a narrator steps on a character’s toes! (I explore the author and narrator roles a bit in my Teaching by Example review of Airborn by Kenneth Oppel.)
The Real Definition of Point of View
As someone or something must be telling the story, point of view, then, is the position, or perspective, of the narrator. The narrator can be a character, the author’s persona, a God-like being, or a non-sentient object.
You get the idea.
So when you hear “Let’s talk about point of view,” it actually means “Let’s talk about [your narrator’s] point of view.”
At some point, you, as the narrator, will have to slip on contact lenses so you can communicate your character’s point of view accurately. This is when the terms viewpoint character or viewpoint character’s perspective apply.
But what does the perspective of your narrator mean exactly?
Imagine for a moment you are reading a story. As you process the words on the book’s pages, you absorb the narrator’s position, or perspective, on reality and fantasy (fantasy being defined as anything other than dispassionate truth).
As a reader, you take on the involuntary role of “listening” to the narrator communicate facts, opinions, and judgments about the characters and events of a story. You experience the narrator’s perspective!
You may have already heard of the four major classes of POV, but in case you haven't, your narrator's perspective will be structured by either an omniscient, third person, second person, or first person framework.
The Four Classes
We need to cover some details about the attributes your narrator can have. It’ll make the mechanics easier to understand.
What Makes a Narrator Have an Omniscient Point of View?
This type of narrator is an observer of the story’s events and has special powers that are best categorized as God-like. He is all-knowing and all-seeing of the characters and events of a story and is not constrained by anything, including the story’s chronology, setting, or world.
The omniscient narrator is all-powerful. He can reveal the perspectives of non-human and non-sentient entities, such as bugs, animals, objects, nature, or even of time and space. He can establish a collective viewpoint, make connections between characters or anything else that would have never been otherwise considered, and share relevant information available from outside the story world.
The omniscient narrator is all-understanding of the story. He is not all-telling; he uses his own discretion in what he shares. This means that while he can access the thoughts and emotions of all characters and entities, he may choose to only report several perspectives, or selectively report a certain character’s thoughts (think villain).
Because of the omniscient narrator’s powers, it can often feel like the narrator is viewing the story from high above the storyworld. The reader is always aware she is being told the story, rather than being given an immersive experience.
What Makes a Narrator Have a Third Person Point of View?
A third person narrator tells a story to someone about characters other than himself or the one he addresses. He, too, is an observer of the storyworld like the omniscient narrator, but is physically closer to the viewpoint characters and events.
He stands outside of the viewpoint character and has what is called limited omniscience. His omniscient powers are limited, or restricted, to the perspectives of one or several characters and their immediate surroundings in the storyworld.
He is all-knowing and all-understanding of these characters. He is all-seeing of their actions and what they could observe in their immediate surroundings but otherwise don’t because they are preoccupied. (This is especially useful in creating tension.)
What Makes a Narrator Have a Second Person Point of View?
A second person narrator tells the story by addressing the primary character, a “you.” Because you is ambiguous, who the primary character is tends to remain unclear. You can represent the reader herself, an actual fictional character, or the narrator talking to himself (typically, it’s the reader).
Second Person POV stories are not as popular because the reader is required to participate and tell the story (by virtue of the pronoun you itself). In other words, the reader becomes both the character and narrator of the story. Depending on the genre and story event, this can conflict with the reader’s own will.
For example, a Second Person POV in a contemporary fiction piece about everyday life may not sit so well because the genre itself is pretty close to reality. But the same POV in a sci-fi/fantasy story will be more easily received because the reader intuitively knows sci-fi/fantasy requires him to suspend his disbelief.
What Makes a Narrator Have a First Person Point of View?
A first person narrator is a character participating in the story itself. He tells his story to the reader directly, who gets to see inside said character and experience the storyworld events literally through his eyes.
It sounds simple enough but is actually quite challenging because the character has to be capable of taking on the responsibility of narrating the entire story. Not only does he share his dialogue, thoughts, and actions, but he also has to reveal setting, mood, and the dialogue and action of other characters.
So even though the narrator is the character, the narrator is the character in a different place in time. (I'll talk more about this in part 2.) This distinction helps set apart the narrator’s responsibilities in the author’s mind, but also affects the degree of emotional intensity shared with the reader.
Point of View Affects Your Reader's Experience
Each of those four POV classes provides a different experience in how the reader receives the story. Regardless of which type is chosen, it comes down to this: your narrator’s point of view impacts the level of connection or projected emotion a reader may experience with the story’s characters.
This is the singularly most important reason to master point of view because it deals with your narrator’s communication to your reader, which is why distinguishing between the three roles you take on as a writer is so important.
If you, as the author, and you, as the character, do not have clearly defined boundaries apart from the responsibilities you, as the narrator, handle, confusion ensues. You might not notice it, but the reader will.
She’ll notice the story seems “off” in some way. The characters might come across cool in some parts, but accessible in other sections. The story might even seem like it is everywhere and nowhere all at the same time.
But when you know what each of the three roles is responsible for and you maintain that separation well (because it is hard), the reader has a great experience! She won’t even notice point of view. She simply absorbs the content of the narrator’s perspective, instead of noticing the delivery (experimental techniques being a semi-exception).In other words, POV should be invisible.
The Elements of Point of View
There are five primary elements that comprise point of view:
- Grammatical Person
- Pronoun Number
- Verb Tense
- Number of Accessed Viewpoints
- Narrative Distance
Most of these elements can be mixed and matched to create a unique point of view that fits your story. Some elements, when paired with others, don’t work so well together and would need exactly the right story to pull off the point of view. Other elements, absolutely.
That’s why we have eight common POV types: Authorial Omniscient, Essayist Omniscient, Objective Third Person, Limited Third Person, Deep POV, Second Person, Central First Person, and Peripheral First Person.
Here’s a chart so you can see all the elements and options at a glance.
In the last post of the series, I’ll break down these elements in three POV types you’ll likely use in your writing (Essayist Omniscient, Limited Third, and Central First Person).
I’ve created a cheat sheet that breaks down all eight POV types, organizes their 35+ different names, and includes example scenes and the chart above so you can see each POV type in action! You can get access by subscribing to my blog.
1) Grammatical Person
In the writing community, person indicates two things. First, it refers to how the narrator addresses both himself and the story’s characters. Technically, this is known as grammatical person, which is the relationship between a subject and its verb.
We’re going to skip over the verb conjugation element and instead just focus on the perspective of grammatical person, which distinguishes the speaker (first person) from an addressee (second person) and others (third person).
In first person, the narrator is directly speaking about himself (the subject). He uses the personal pronoun I when telling a story.
My finger felt slick against the trigger. I waited for the velociraptor to reappear. It knew where I was. It was toying with me. A twig cracked. I let bullets fly.
In second person, the subject is being spoken to, or directly addressed, by the narrator. He uses the personal pronoun you.
Your finger feels slick against the trigger. You wait for the velociraptor to reappear. It knows where you are. It’s toying with you. A twig cracks. You let bullets fly.
In third person, the narrator speaks about others (the subject) without directly addressing them. He uses the personal pronouns he, she, and it.
Her finger felt slick against the trigger. She waited for the velociraptor to reappear. It knew where she was. It was toying with her. A twig cracked. She let bullets fly.
Many authors simply refer to person as POV because POV inherently references the narrator’s grammatical perspective in the story.
“You decide which POV you’ll use for your unicorn apocalypse WIP?”
“Oh, I’m using first person! I thought about third, but decided the story being told from the unicorn’s perspective was much more engaging.”
But what about omniscient?
An omniscient narrator can use either first, second or third person to communicate his perspective. Third person is most common; first and second person are rarely used.
It’s quite common for omniscient to be informally lumped into this “person” category because it is considered one of the four major POV classes (first, second, third, and omniscient). This is due to the distinctive traits an omniscient narrator has that first, second, and third person narrators do not have.
So . . . in a way, person is also used to reflect certain narrator attributes. However, for the sake of simplicity, I am not including omniscient here. I will reference it in a later category so you can see how an omniscient point of view is actually built and customized.
2) Pronoun Number
Once you have an idea of which person you want to tell your story in, the next consideration will be choosing the grammatical number.
Generally, grammatical number refers to matching a noun’s pronoun to the noun’s singular or plural format (number). I prefer to call this pronoun number.
So, if Matthew took a walk down the road, he took a walk. If Matthew, Mark, Luke and John took a walk down the road, they took a walk.
That said, in the context of fiction writing, the grammatical number represents if the narrator (1) has a single consciousness or is a single viewpoint character, or (2) has a collective consciousness or is a collective viewpoint character.
The majority of stories are told using a point of view with the singular pronouns I, you, he, or she to represent the single consciousness of the narrator or character viewpoint.
On the more experimental side, stories can be told with a point of view using the plural pronouns we, you, or they to represent the collective consciousness of the narrator or character viewpoint.
Think of a story told from a society's perspective. There are many individual characters within that society, but they all speak as one entity:
We heard and felt the volcano erupt. Then we saw it. Ash poured on our heads as our beautiful town disappeared before us. Lava coursed through the streets and buildings caught fire. We cried.
3) Verb Tense
There are three grammatical tenses in which your narrator’s point of view can be told: past, present, or future. These tenses refer to verb conjugation, which indicates when an action occurs.
Each can be combined with four aspects that indicate how said action takes place in time. All together, they create the twelve grammatical structures in the English language.
The past and present tense are common in storytelling, while the future is not so popular. Certain points of view work better with some tenses than others, but remember that anything can be done in fiction, as long as you do it well.
The past tense is the most popular tense in which to have your narrator tell a story. Because it is so common and reliable, it is considered invisible—the reader doesn’t notice the tense itself.
Matilda opened the oven door and checked the cupcakes. Steam fogged her glasses. She propped them on her head while testing the cakes with a toothpick.
First person, third person, and omniscient work in past tense; second person doesn’t work as well to engage the reader because the reader already knows what he’s done in the past. Suspension of disbelief is greatly diminished.
The present tense is not a new trend but has had a recent surge in popularity, especially in the YA genre. Present tense is hard to do well as its biggest advantage can also be its biggest downfall. It creates a cinematic, "immediate" effect that can easily turn into a "now-now-now" claustrophobia.
Matilda opens the oven door and checks the cupcakes. Steam fogs her glasses. She props them on her head while testing the cakes with a toothpick.
All four point of view classes work with present tense, but if its grammatical strength is not fully understood, omniscient and third person narrators can come across as phony.
The future tense is experimental and extremely difficult to do well (as the tense’s repetitive nature can stand out). That said, future tense has a speculative effect because it naturally considers the potential of a situation. It works best in shorter pieces.
Matilda is going to open the oven door and check the cupcakes. Steam will fog her glasses. She’ll prop them on her head while testing the cakes with a toothpick.
First and second person work with future tense. Third person often has future tense in dialogue and character interiority. Omniscient is possible but would be challenging to do effectively.
And here is where I’m going to hit the pause button. Next Friday, we’ll look at the Number of Accessed Viewpoints and Narrative Distance—which is the most complicated element in point of view!