Novel Fridays: Points of View

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Happy Friday, novelists! I hope your muses have been kind this week. Recently, we’ve considered ways of staying productive, research methods, getting to know your characters, and how you might approach submitting your novel to contests. For the next few weeks, we’ll spend some time thinking over technical considerations of novel writing.

We’ll begin with one of the most fundamental questions for any narrative: what is the point of view (POV)? What is the perspective? Do we switch between a number of characters or do we stay with one individual for the entirety of the story? In novels, point of view often becomes much more complicated than in shorter works–but there is also more room to explore possibilities.

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First Person

We might otherwise call this the direct narration POV. One character tells the story directly. E.g., we know immediately from the moment we read “Call me Ishmael” that Ishmael (or whoever wants to be called Ishmael) will narrate Moby Dick. Some novels do transition from one first person narrator to the next, as in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Others even shift from first person to another point of view, as in Bleak House by Charles Dickens, which switches from first to third person. Unlike in a short story, where there is limited space to manage transitions, shifting first person POV can be an effective way of showing the different dimensions of your novel and its setting. However, this strategy only works so long as the reader is willing and able to make those switches with you. If a new character narrates each chapter, you risk losing the reader.

Variations include: Epistolary (letters, diaries, etc.) as in Dracula by Bram Stoker and first person plural as in The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Second Person

Also known as “you.” While we encounter this point of view more often in short fiction, it does occasionally appear in novels, perhaps most famously in Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, which addresses the reader directly. Second person may be a worthwhile choice for a section of a novel, particularly in the case of one character addressing another. However, it is difficult to sustain for long passages or the entirety of a novel, as you run the risk of monotony. Tonally, second person often has the quality of command or direction, which also limits its use.

Third Person Omniscient

You’ve probably encountered third person most often in your reading. However, it has a few different iterations, determined by the closeness of the narration to the characters. The most distant narration is third person omniscient, which reports the thoughts and actions of any number of characters as they happen. It helps to think of this as “fairy tale” point of view, as it often has the same dispassionate quality we encounter in that mode. The narration may move in and out of different characters’ consciousnesses. Examples include: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. In contemporary literature, it’s often the default choice for most mainstream fiction.

Third Person Limited

However, in both genre and literary novels, we may encounter third person limited, which falls at the other end of the spectrum. This point of view bears many resemblances to first person, save for the fact that the character is not directly communicating the narration. But the reader only knows what the point of view character knows. (For example, in The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, we only see the parts of the ending battle Bilbo sees.) The prose often bears a similarity to the way the character thinks, as it would in first person. And as in first person, sections of the novel might focus on different characters.

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How do you pick the right point of view for your novel? It depends what kind of story you want to tell. A mystery might be more easily told in third person omniscient–but it might have more suspense in first person or third person limited. A confessional could easily be written in first person, but how might it change in second?

It might be you hit the perfect point of view in your first draft, but as with most of your novel, you’ll likely have to try several approaches before you get it right. Never be afraid to stop and switch things up just to see how they look and sound!

Do you have a point of view preference? What POVs best suit which stories, in your opinion?

About the Author: Julia Patt

JuliaBiopicJulia Patt, Contributing Editor, from Chestertown, MD, is a graduate of Sweet Briar College and the MFA program at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where she was a fiction editor for The Greensboro Review. Her young adult novels—i was a fourth grade zombie slayer and Through Waterless Places—were both shortlisted for Mslexia’s 2012 Children’s Novel Competition, and her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Surreal South ’11Stymie, and PANK.

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