Now that you’ve dipped your quill and poured out your story, be open and ready for the trials-and-errors of its growth. In the previous article, we discussed author’s voice, sometimes referred to as narrative voice. Now it’s time to incorporate the next important aspect to your writing prose: point of view (POV).
Simply put, POV is the reader seeing, hearing, and feeling the world through the experiences of the main character whether written in first, second, or third-person. In more complex works with subplots, and where the protagonist is not present in a particular scene, the POV may be voiced through a strong, supporting character. Or, the POV may be a narrator relating a story within a story such as seen in Lemony Snicket, A Series of unfortunate Events. In this particular tale, the story is written in third person with the author of the story posing as the character Lemony Snicket. He speaks directly to the reader in second-person, interrupting the tale and warning the reader of what’s to come.
First and third-person are the most common narrative fictional modes. Below, examine examples of both.
“It’s really very simple,” Steve said calmly. “I have something you want, and you’re not going to get it. Well, at least not until we get the full story.”
Dr. Palmer leaned forward, pressing the full weight of his body onto his outstretched fingertips. For one mad instant, Steve thought Palmer would launch himself down the length of the table and attack them then and there. Instead, the creature simple took a deep breath and gave the same, thin smile.
“Very well then,” he said. “So be it.” He stood straight, looking pretentious and regal in his arrogance. “We are Syzzacks,” he announced.
In this passage written in third-person and taken from Encounter One – Static, by C. R. Swainward, you hear Steve, the protagonist, speak; and you can hear his thoughts. The scene is entirely seen from his POV. In third-person the writer/narrator refers to each character by a pronoun (he, she, it, or they) or by their names.
Now let’s look at a passage in first-person.
“What are you doing here? What did you do?” yelled Davida, leaning down into my bleeding, left, ear. I could taste blood and was more than certain I suffered a few broken ribs. Shattered glass from a nearby coffee table lay inches from my face.
I braced myself with a broken chair leg, struggling to get to my feet. I see she’s not going to help any. “It’s not what you think,” I said gingerly, guarding my sore ribs.
“Not what I think! Goddammit John, you’ve killed somebody in my apartment. What am I supposed to think?”
In this passage, John, the protagonist, is speaking directly to the reader. You can observe him speaking, hear his inner thoughts, and experience his painful injuries in first-person narrative.
By now, whether you have a few chapters written, or have the entire work poured out of your head and onto paper, during your early drafts, it is important to pay attention to POV. To understand it thoroughly, let’s examine it again, a bit more closely.
POV can be presented from one of three narrative viewpoints: first, second, or third-person.
First-person is inevitably the thoughts and voice of the main character of the story, making him or her also the narrator. As stated, the plot unfolds from the viewpoint of “I-me-my-mine,” and “we.” The readers experience is through the senses and the awareness of that character only throughout the entire fiction or non-fiction. Here’s another example in first-person; this time it’s in present tense:
“I’ve never been more frightened than when I woke up this morning. It was still dark. I was lying at the backend of an alley, covered in filth! —naked and alone.”
“How do you think you got there?”
As expected, Dr. Cho is asking me a bunch of dumb-ass questions. But obviously, she isn’t all that concerned, just going through the same old dull routine. The two of us are only separated by a cheap, scarred desk; a real County of Los Angeles issue. Damn! I need to get out of here. Now. I’m beginning to shake. I bet she notices. “Doc, I swear, I’ve been clean for over a month. I just missed a few doses of Methadone. I could really use some right now. That corner pharmacy guy where I live wouldn’t refill my prescription.”
“Karen, you know there’s no refills if you refuse to come to your counselling sessions.
“I know, but I try. Honest. I don’t know what happens to me. It-just-all becomes a blank. Besides, you know it’s not the first time I’ve woke up in a strange place. I just don’t know how it happens.”
“You must have some idea.”
I knew this bitch wouldn’t believe me. Dammit! —I need my stuff. “I—I can’t remember. Honestly. It all seems like a bad dream. When I closed my eyes last night, I was in my bed. When I opened them, there were strange faces…dark shadows, look’n down at me.”
You’ll notice from the above example that you are experiencing the life of the character firsthand, and as if it’s all happening right now. Nevertheless, and regardless of the tense, first-person allows you to develop a close relationship with the individual who is speaking. You are more empathetic and personally privy to their private thoughts; the thoughts and notions even other characters in the tale are not party to. As an author, first-person narrative will allow you to express the deeply felt, internal monologue and emotions of the person who is speaking, thinking, or experiencing the sensations, whether they be tactile, sensual, appealing to the palate, dreadful, horrifying, or so forth.
Let’s now concern ourselves with the least popular fictional mode. It’s rare to find an imaginary story written in second-person. But there is one that stands out in our time where the author, Lemony Snicket, who wrote A Series of Unfortunate Events, in third-person, becomes part of the story as he speaks directly to you, the reader, in second-person. And though his technique was not unique, his method was performed with great skill and lure. Therefore, in second-person, the POV is someone speaking directly to you, just as I am speaking to you here. Or, it is a narrator who makes reference to you, the reader, as if you are actually partaking some role in a fictional tale. But, however unpopular second-person is in fictional writing, it is very useful, and seen often, when employed in non-fictional works such as in educational, tutorial, or instructive literature. Using second-person makes you, the reader, a partaker of the exploits in the learning experience of the informational text. Here’s an example of second-person; a teen is reading a teen magazine for want’a-be rock band players.
So, what! — you can play a mean guitar. If you ask me, and if you really want to stand out in the crowd and be noticed, you’d go all-out.
Yeah, so you got a rock’n sound. You got the voice, and your lyrics are down. But that ain’t enough; you need that cutting edge, that something extra to help bring you out of your shell and make a bold statement.
Here’s what I think you should do. Dye your hair flaming red. Shave off the side hair of your head and serve-up a bad Mohawk. Wear a spiked dog collar and a pair of black, leather platform, knee-high boots. With that, and your sound, you’ll get ‘em pumped.
Notice that in this example, you have become the teenage boy or girl (the character) to whom the narrator is speaking. You are the young, shy, hard-rock artist about to make your debut.
As far as popularity of application, the third-person viewpoint is the most prevalent form of fiction writing. It allows you, the writer, full audience to all of your characters’ actions and thoughts: the all-knowing, all seeing, third-person. But also, the author may choose to single out one character’s actions and thoughts throughout the work: limited third-person. Either way, from this angle of writing, the reader views the story as a witness—an observer, who watches and listens to the tale as it unfolds, like watching a movie. This mode of writing provides you, the author, with greater flexibility in building a complex tale. Not only do you have access to the dialogue and internal monologue of the protagonist, but you also, when and if necessary, have access to that of all supporting characters. Subplots can sometimes develop where the protagonist is not present, and the main character needn’t accompany each supporting character or scene within the story.
Since you, the author, would need to avoid repeating a character’s name, you’d make use of the pronouns he, she, it or they, as opposed to the first-person: I, me, mine or we; or, as in the second person: you or yours. Therefore, the narrator unveils the story as the reader watches and listens, and the author/narrator’s voice is clearly heard. The author/narrator is never a participant of the story, as in first-person with the use of “I”, but has full knowledge of all characters, locations, actions, events, and time within the tale versus first-person, where the narrator is the character, and the reader’s knowledge is limited to that character’s knowledge and experiences.
For instance, observe the typical use of third-person in the passage below, from the novel Encounter One - Static.
Anxiety coursed through Steve’s veins like acid. I left the TV on, he realized as he pulled into the parking lot at Spectra Research Laboratories. Not that it mattered, but it made him aware that he was in a panic mode. Something was pushing him to work, to talk to someone—anyone.
His actions were not entirely under his control.
The research complex, as big as a small town, loomed ahead, a blocky outcropping of glass and steel and concrete. It had never seemed quite as menacing as it did this morning, even with the spring sun twinkling off the highest windows and the last wisps of tulle fog twining through the hedges.
As you can see from this passage, you have become the observer, not the vicarious participant in first-person, or the object in second-person. In your mind’s eye, you are watching the story unravel, like a motion picture.
By reading books on the subject of story development, you may wish to investigate POV further in order to develop a more in-depth understanding of the different aspects of “narrative voice,” or “narration,” such as in the use of “character voice” or “viewpoint character,” “stream of consciousness,” “epistolary structure,” “unreliable narrative,” “subjective voice,” “objective voice,” and “omniscient voice.”
Well, comrades, that’s POV in a nutshell. This article has provided you with the basic fundamentals, which should allow you, without fear and/or hesitation, to move forward in your writing.
So, cheers! It’s now time to put thoughts and pen to paper as we, once again, pick up our quills and write!