Thursday, October 03, 2013

Nuts & Bolts: POV


Point of View (POV) in fiction refers to the perspective from which a story is told. There are three basic types of point of view, first person, second person, and third person, and each of these have subtypes. First person POV means that a character in the story tells the story. This offers an opportunity for the author to really revel in the character’s voice and share a great deal of information about that character, subtly. The character’s word choices, the things s/he chooses to share, and the things s/he actually notices all tell the reader a lot about that character. There are two types of first person POV: omniscient and limited. First person omniscient POV means the narrator has access to information that s/he wouldn’t normally have, especially information only other characters might have, such as their thoughts and feelings. This usually implies that the author has some connection to the narrator, or maybe is the narrator, though there can be ways to work around this. Usually, though, first person omniscient is a difficult POV to pull off because the reader often finds it unbelievable that the narrator would have access to certain information. There are ways to work around this, of course. First person limited means that a character narrates the story but only has access to information that s/he would normally have. This can be an especially “limiting” perspective because the only information really available to the reader is that which the narrator knows. On the flip side, this can add mystery and be used to further characterization, and it does usually add believability to the story.

It’s tempting for novice writers to always use first person because of the inherent benefits, but it shouldn’t be overused. Because of its limitations, it can be alienating and even annoying to the reader. And if the narrator doesn’t have a distinctive voice, first person perspective is kind of wasted. If the voice isn’t distinctive, the writer should use third person and take advantage of the opportunities that offers.

Second person POV is an oft-maligned, little understood perspective. Instead of the “I” used in first person POV, second person uses “you.” This POV addresses the reader. This can be unsettling to many readers and is therefore rarely used. Probably the most successful usage has been in the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books for young people. There have been many novels, also, written in second person (Bright Lights Big City, by Jay McInerney), though it’s rare for these to achieve mainstream success, and many other novels will lapse into second person occasionally, especially in dialogue. Colloquially, we often will use second person in dialogue when telling stories: “You work all day and get home to a dirty house and a bunch of ungrateful kids…” The thing to understand about second person narration is that it basically acts as a kind of colloquial first person, usually. When the narrator (or storyteller) says “you” s/he really means “I.” As with first and third person POVs, second person can be limited and omniscient but it has the same limitations and/or advantages of first or third person limited and omniscient. Second person creates a distinctive feel in a piece of writing, and because of that, if handled well, it can be very engaging, once the reader gets over the shock of its strangeness.

Third person POV is probably the most common POV. Basically, there is no narrator, or the author is the narrator. A third person limited POV is the most common. Often, it follows a character closely though it doesn’t delve into his/her thoughts. This is called a “close third” POV. Currently, this is accepted as the most realistic POV. Close third allows a fairly close narration, even slipping quite close to first person at times, and also allows the author to add details that the POV character wouldn’t necessarily know, usually handled in a third person POV description of another character’s actions, but is limited by not being omniscient. Third person omniscient is rarely used these days but was quite popular in centuries past. One of the main reasons it has fallen out of favor, other than the lack of believability, is that it often verged on solipsism for the author. Authors tended to ramble, when using this POV, which also turned off readers. It has been done beautifully, of course. It’s important to remember that these are all guidelines, not rules, and that anything is possible to do well. But there are reasons things are usually done certain ways.

Now let’s talk about who is actually doing the narrating. There are two main characters in 99% of stories, the characters between whom a problem exists, which is what the story is really about. More on this later. These characters are known as the protagonist and the antagonist. The protagonist is the one with the problem; the antagonist is the one in the way. Sometimes the protagonist is referred to as the “hero” of the story, but this is a little too simplistic. For one reason, the protagonist might not be a hero; s/he might be deeply flawed or in the wrong or what have you. In Nabokov’s Lolita, for example, anyone would have a hard time labeling Humbert Humbert a “hero” but he is most assuredly the protagonist. He’s also the narrator, which is a quick and dirty but not always reliable way to figure out who the protagonist is. (Jay Gatsby is the protagonist in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, though Nick, his neighbor, is the narrator.) But often the narrator is the protagonist. The antagonist, on the other hand, is the person (or sometimes place) that gets in the way of the protagonist solving his/her problem. Some refer to this as the “villain” but that’s also a pretty limited view. The antagonist isn’t always bad and isn’t always trying to make things difficult for the protagonist, and maybe isn’t even aware what’s happening. Life, as they assay, is complicated and so is fiction. And one thing to remember when talking about characters in a story is that every character thinks s/he is the hero. Very, very rarely does anyone do things for nefarious reasons, really. Even then, it’s usually mitigated by all sorts of other complicated motivations. This is good because readers don’t really like obvious, stock characters or situations, but it means more work for us.

There are also a couple types of narration we haven’t touched on: unreliable vs. reliable. Reliable narration means the reader trusts the narrator’s perspective and doesn’t doubt the veracity of what the narrator says. This can be complicated, if we delve too deeply. Remember the lesson of Akutagawa’s story “In a Grove” (often confused with “Roshomon”) or Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried, both of which feature seemingly reliable narrators who offer differing, at times contradictory, versions of events; basically, it’s difficult to pin down reality because it’s filtered through the senses and experiences of its observers. But let’s not go too deep since we didn’t bring our shovels. The other end of the spectrum is the unreliable narrator. This is someone who, for whichever reasons, the reader doesn’t trust. Usually, this distrust grows over the course of the story or novel and is the basis for some big reveal on which the plot is hinged. The possible drawback to unreliable narrators is that the reader can be put off by this. It calls into question the reality of the story and this can be off-putting. And so, to be done well, unreliability in a narrator must be mitigated and clear, many would say.

Getting back to that perspective idea, it’s important to realize that any perspective in a story is influenced by something. Even a third person narration is influenced by the writer’s own preconceptions, choices, etc. The key is to be aware in order to allow these choices to be purposeful.



Anonymous said...

But... as a reader, I love first person. And second person is my favorite. One of the benefits of the second-person-phobia is that only really really good second person stories get published, I think.

Maybe I'm just weird.

(no maybe about it)

CLBledsoe said...

I think you're absolutely right, Karen. 2nd person can be great if handled well.