In literature, the story teller (or narrator) is responsible for telling the reader all the information the author wants the reader to know about the story. They are the eyes, ears and voice of the story. In fact, it is only through the narrator that you receive all sensory input from the story world. The point of view (POV) of the story is the perspective by which the author allows the reader to receive that input. In other words, is the narrator removed from the action, close to the action, or someone up to their eyeballs in it? Are they an observer or an actor? Are they emotionally involved or an unbiased reporter (if there is such a thing)? Through POV, the author controls precisely what the reader is focused on at any given time, with the narrator acting as a filter.
You see, the narrator is a character too, even if they are not directly addressed in the story. The narrator has a personality and, you can bet, a unique perspective on the events of the story. This perspective will color how the story is told and ultimately how the reader feels about it. This can be the deciding factor in choosing the right POV for each story or scene.
- POV is broken down into three basic categories.
First Person. The first person narrator is telling you the story from the perspective of an eye witness. They are or were there and can tell you everything they experienced. This narrator uses the terms “I”, “me”, “my”, “mine” when describing their actions and experiences. They can also share their thoughts and reflections on events. The first person narrator is often the protagonist of his own story, but not always. One of my current projects is a novel I feel needs to be told by an eyewitness, the main character’s grandson, thus I am pursuing the story using the first person. Only time will tell if I am right.
Second Person. The second person narrator uses the terms “you” and “your” to directly address the reader. This rarest form of POV is an attempt to make the reader feel they are a participant in the story, not just an observer or someone listening to a tale. The author wants the reader to feel the immediacy of the story. Perhaps there is a level of excitement, fear, joy, anger or say creepiness that the writer wants the reader to be intimate with.
Third Person. The third person narrator uses the terms “he” or “she” (possibly “it”) to describe what the protagonist or character of focus is doing. This is the most commonly used POV. This narrator is not an active participant in the story, but an interested observer.
- There are four additional considerations for POV.
Objective Narrator. An objective narrator describes the story’s events, characters and dialog and relays the necessary sensory information with no (or at least very little) opinion. They’re a detached reporter of facts. This narrator also does not share any information about what goes on in the minds of the characters. They are much like you and I when observing others. We can not absolutely know the motivations and thoughts of other people. Therefore, with an objective narrator, the reader must draw their own conclusions about the characters’ motivations and feelings by careful observation of their actions and dialog. This method would be difficult to pull off coupled with anything but third person POV.
Omniscient Narrator. An omniscient narrator describes all the action the objective narrator does, but has the advantage of knowing all the histories, thoughts and feeling of all the characters in the story. They are also privy to events that may have happened in the distant past, or in a location away from the main action, or events in the future, and can share or hint at such information if they desire. This additional knowledge can be used to foreshadow events, justify actions, or make the reader more intimate with the characters. This supernatural perspective is primarily used with the third person POV, but could possibly be used with the others (to dubious affect – not recommended unless your narrator has god-like powers).
Limited Omniscient Narrator. A narrator with limited omniscience is much like the omniscient narrator, but their perspective and special knowledge about the characters’ thoughts and feelings are restricted to one character (or at least one character at a time). The nice thing about limited omniscience is that your readers can get to know your protagonist at a deeper level through direct contact with their thoughts and emotions and still have access to things that occur outside their limited experiences. However, a story is better when you show rather than tell, and that goes for all POVs. Limited omniscient third person has been my favorite POV for writing, but that’s in large part due to the stories I like to tell and my own discomfort with first and second person narrators. I do enjoy reading the other POVs when done well.
Unreliable Narrator. The unreliable narrator is primarily a factor in first person POV stories and is the opposite of an objective narrator. The narrator is obviously interested in telling what they saw and heard, but you are hearing it second hand. Are they a little too eager to tell you what happened in a key event or their opinions about a certain character? Are they painting themselves only in the best light – much like an unrepentant criminal being questioned by law enforcement? Maybe they’re leaving out information detrimental to their case, or maybe they simply don’t know the truth. Perhaps they are a child describing grown up activities they don’t understand. The unreliable narrator might not intend to be unreliable, they might just be out of their league. They could also be a habitual liar. Can you tell what’s really going on by the narrator’s observations or actions? What about the other characters? Even a liar may slip up and leave clues. It’s up to the reader to determine how much of what the narrator says is true, how much is biased, and how much is simply misinformed.
It is a good practice to pick one POV per story and stick to it. The alternative can lead to confusion for the reader and thus spoil an otherwise enjoyable story. Of course some stories will be better served by alternating the POV of the narrator (from one character to the next). My advice: the POV should be from the character with the most at stake in the given scene (generally the protagonist). And never change from first person to third or vice versa, or any other change in POV category within a story.