Point of view and fiction
“Writers don’t write from experience, though many are resistant to admit that they don’t. I want to be clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy,” Nikki Giovanni.
Many first-time writers of fiction settle on the first person point of view when writing their novels. This is a symptom of the fact that many first-time writers settle on writing novels with heavy autobiographical elements. It just seems easier to use the first-person pronoun, I, when telling their stories. But with experience, one learns that the first person point of view is only superficially easy. It is one of the hardest stylistic choices to pull off.
What is point of view in fiction? Point of View may be described as the ‘hidden camera’ through which the reader perceives a scene. This practical definition works best to describe how scarce a resource this tool is.
The most commonly used point of view in modern fiction is the third-person limited point of view. This is closely followed by the first-person point of view. There are several others. There is the ever-irritating second-person technique (which can be helpful when communicating a feeling of dissociation, but can quickly get very tiresome.)
Consider the scene below:
“Chinedu smiled to himself as he watched Ifueko clench and unclench her fists, the way she smoothed her perfectly ironed skirt, the way she brought her hands back to her laps. He said, “You should consider standing up when listening to the National Anthem. It is always a safe choice.” He looked on, his amusement now bordering on irritation, as she sat still, her eyes betraying the fact that she was sitting on the stolen wristwatch.”
Notice that we, the readers are only in Chinedu’s head throughout this snippet of a scene. We see things how he interprets them. We are shown, instead of told, what ifueko is doing in the scene and we are given Chinedu’s interpretation of the evidence before our eyes.
But what if this same scene is written this way:
“Chinedu smiled to himself as he watched Ifueko clench and unclench her fists, the way she smoothed her perfectly ironed skirt, the way she brought her hands back to her laps. He said, “You should consider standing up when listening to the National Anthem. It is always a safe choice.” Ifueko stared back. Her nervous tick was back. How could she stand up when she knew that her knees would fail her? It was about the stolen wristwatch, she knew. She was just ashamed that Chinedu would suspect that she had taken it.
See the difference? This second version is the third-person omniscient point of view technique. In the same scene we move from one mind to another. We are not limited. It is also called the God point of view. It works for certain types of writing but has fallen out of favour in genre writing. You can see how it would not work for mystery and detective fiction. Where would the suspense be, if at any time we could jump from one head to another? How would we luxuriate in our own interpretations of the scene if we were told everything? And it is rather jarring to the contract that the writer has with the reader to swing him from character to character. Readers come to your writing with expectations borne of writing conventions. They want to stay on a journey with your characters, to get to know them, to live their lives, even though only vicariously. Although at first glance, omniscient narration might seem an ideal way to involve the reader in every aspect of the story, it actually ends up making the reader feel unconnected to all the characters. The rule is simple: pick one character, and follow the entire scene through his or her eyes only.
But, you say, we must want an idea of what other characters in a scene are feeling and thinking. A way to look at the ‘hidden camera’ concept in relation to fiction is to highlight its relation to that truism in fiction: Show, Don’t Tell. What tools do we have to show the reader what someone is feeling without having to get into that character’s head and show them? What does our point of view character see? What are the physical cues that show anger, deep emotional pain, sorrow, anxiety? Look at the example above. What does Chinedu see that makes him feel Ifueko is uncomfortable? He watches her fidget. That he reaches the wrong conclusion as to why sits at the heart of most conflict in fiction. It was what we breathe for. It is tension, it is the wrong conclusion, it is fiction.
Note that third-person POV limited does not mean that you stick with one character throughout the novel. It just means that for a scene, you stick with one character. With a chapter break, or a blank line between chapters—conventions that signal to your writer that there is a break coming in place, time and/or point of view—you can switch the point of view to another character to provide another perspective of the events as they unfold.
At the start of this essay I wrote that the first-person point of view technique was one of the most difficult to pull off. Why is this so? In first-person POV fiction we have one character, the narrator, also taking part in the action. We can only stick with their point of view; we can only see them how they present themselves. Inadvertently, they may be perceived by the reader quite differently from how they are presented on the page by you the writer. There are many things that readers take away from our characters that we may not be aware of. Is your first-person POV character perceived as arrogant and unlikeable? Did you, the writer, want them to be perceived as such, or was this just an artefact of their being sure of themselves and “right” all the time? How do you mine the depths of human perception to present this character in full when you only have one point of view to show through in the entire novel?
What about things that happen when the first person POV character is absent? How much of the action is missed?
Point of view is a scarce resource since it implies that only one character can be used per scene. Readers tend to identify with, and will be sympathetic to, the point of view character chosen by the author in any given scene and will consider them pivotal to the story. This tool is a valuable one for identifying main and pivotal characters from peripheral ones. Use it wisely.