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What Does Point of View Mean?
Point of view (or POV) is the term used to describe who is telling the story and how they are connected to it. Let's learn more about POV and how to alter it within a story.
What This Article Covers
- What Is Point of View in a Novel?
- First Person or Third Person POV?
- Limited or Omniscient POV?
- Objective vs. Subjective POV
- Point of View Chart
- On the Importance of Maintaining a Consistent Tense
- Guidelines for Shifting Point of View in a Novel
Point of view in a story works very much like this well-known parable from ancient India:
Six blind men were taken into the presence of a large creature and asked to describe its appearance. Together they approached it, investigated and then reported what they had found:
The first man said, “It is flexible and long and round like the wide body of a giant snake.”
The second man said, “No. It is flat and wide and thin like parchment paper.”
The third man said, “You both are wrong. It is long and curved and hard as bone.”
The fourth man said, “What? All of you are wrong. It is thick and strong and immovable like the rough trunk of an aged tree.”
The fifth man said, “Absolutely not. It is vast—so wide a man cannot grasp it with both arms—and powerful and covered with skin that is wrinkled like the broad brow of an old man.”
The sixth man said, “Not one of you has it right in the least! It is thin and round and flexible, ending in a knot of hair like the rough fibers of an unwoven rope.”
“What can this creature be?” they all cried out. “What manner of best can be all of these things together?”
The creature, of course, is an elephant. For centuries, this parable has been used in all kinds of contexts to describe the human reality of limited perception. I use it here because it also presents an excellent picture of how point of view (POV) works in a story.
The elephant, though it is still the same animal, looks vastly different depending on one’s perspective just as a narrative, though it is still the same story, looks vastly different depending on one’s point of view. Understanding this and being clearly aware of the options available gives the author power and conscious control over this important element of how her story is told.
This is the purpose of this article: to give this power to the author by providing a basic understanding of the different kinds of point of view available and some of their various strengths and weaknesses, allowing the author to make more informed decisions when crafting stories. It also provides guidelines for how, when and where to switch point of view.
What Is Point of View in a Novel?
Reality is relative. We understand it according to who we are and where we are and when we are—according to our perspective. Rarely, however, are we consciously aware of the fact that our perspective is not necessarily the same as someone else’s; it is uniquely our own. This is also true of fiction. The narrator’s perspective on the story has a profound effect on what the story becomes, and, when well crafted, its influence becomes just as profound and unconscious for the reader as are the subtle influences of our own perceptions of reality.
Learning to write point of view in a story effectively begins with clarifying the kinds of perspectives that one can take. Point of view is divided into three areas of focus:
- Fist Person or Third Person
- Limited or Omniscient
- Objective or Subjective
First Person or Third Person POV
“First Person” or “Third Person” is a reference to the narrator’s personal involvement with the story itself:
What Happened to Second Person?
Second person is almost never used in fiction. It is best described as command form with the key word being “you.” From this point of view, the narrator speaks directly to the reader. It is primarily used in nonfiction writing for giving instructions or briefly addressing the reader directly.
In first person the narrator is a character in the story. The key word to look for is “I” as used by the narrator in retelling the story as if the events happened within his own direct experience.
This example, used repeatedly to demonstrate different perspectives, come from my unpublished novel manuscript entitled, Thoreston Hall. In this excerpt, Mrs. Rutherford, the ghost of a 19th century matron and mansion owner, addresses a small audience at her first piano recital in many years…
I stood up and addressed the small group with my very best stage voice, “Welcome. While I am aware that our time together has often been difficult, I, nevertheless, thank you for coming and taking advantage of this opportunity to expand your cultural sensibilities. I hope that my humble musical offering will assist you in this regard.” As I turned to sit at the piano, I then whispered, “Lord knows it would not take much.”
In third person the narrator is outside of the story. Key words in this point of view are “he,” “she,” and “them.” The narrator tells the story as if the events had happened to other people.
Standing up, Mrs. Rutherford addressed the small group in a voice lightly spiced with theatrical grandeur, “Welcome. While I am aware that our time together has often been difficult, I, nevertheless, thank you for coming and taking advantage of this opportunity to expand your cultural sensibilities. I hope that my humble musical offering will assist you in this regard.” Then, spoken under her breath as she turned to sit at the piano, she whispered, “Lord knows it would not take much.”
Limited or Omniscient POV
These terms refer to the amount of knowledge a narrator has available for the telling of the story. Since first person is always limited (see the note at right), these terms really only apply to third person points of view:
Limited (Third Person)
This refers to a story told by an outside narrator who restricts the perspective on the story to that of one character, following only this one character’s experience. The narrator may have access to this character’s thoughts, feelings and reactions to things, but does not have access to the thoughts and feelings of other characters other than through the primary character’s thoughts, experiences and observations.
See the “Third Person Sample” above, told entirely from the perspective of Mrs. Rutherford. Compare to the omniscient perspective example detailed below.
Why Is First Person Never Omniscient?
Human reality confines each of us to one perspective. Readers can accept a third person outside narrator moving around within the thoughts of the characters, but for a character within the story to move freely among the thoughts and feelings of the other characters makes no sense—it breaks with the reality of normal human experience.
Omniscient (Third Person)
In omniscient point of view, the narrator has access to the thoughts, feelings and experiences of all of the characters and will move freely among them according to the needs of the story.
Nervous but self-assured, Mrs. Rutherford stood up. As she stood ready to begin, Rolf sat in the audience running through a list of insults in his mind that, out of respect for Dr. Caulder, he did not speak aloud. The children, Chris and Tony, remembering Dr. Caulder’s stern face as he invited them to come, resisted the urge to laugh at her goofy clothes. Dr. Caulder sat behind them, watching carefully.
Finally, in a voice lightly spiced with theatrical grandeur, Mrs. Rutherford began, “Welcome. While I am aware that our time together…”
Objective or Subjective POV
These terms relate to the degree of psychic distance between the narrator and the characters—that is, how much access the narrator has or does not have to the thoughts, feelings and “hidden” motivations of the characters.