Alright, you’ve decided on a story. You’re ready to jump in head first and start recounting the events that lead your protagonist towards his conclusion, but wait! Have you chosen a point of view to tell the story from? This all-important point in the story production process is one that is often left as the last thought, but can make or break any piece of fiction.
Narrative Viewpoint, at its simplest, is the perspective from which a narrative is being told. An easy method of illustration to help you quickly understand the concept (although I’m sure many of you do already), is to think of the narrator as a camera. The narrator serves as the eyes and ears of the reader. What the narrator wants the reader to know is ALL the reader will know for sure. Serving as the authors informational conduit, without the narrator and their point of view, a story does not exist.
While there are many variations in form for the following narrative points of view, we’ll be sticking to the two most used basics for this lesson and going into further details a little later. For now, our focus will be on the broad differences between first-person and third-person points of view.
First Person: The first-person narrative is presented from the point of view of a single person. The narrator is likely a central character in the story, often the protagonist themselves or any other character who is central enough to the tale being told. Making heavy use of “I” and “we”, the closeness of the first-person narrator to the events of the story allows the reader a certain degree of comfort in the truth of their narration. Speaking directly to the reader, we’re told the story through their eyes, knowing only what they know, feeling only what they feel. First-person is used most often in narratives that seek to capture the depth and emotion of highly character driven stories. The first person perspective of narration is often the go to choice for beginning writers. I’ve found that the claim is often that they find it easier to write this way because it requires them to recount the story in a way that feels natural, as they would any event in their own lives.
Third Person: While the first-person narrative gives us access to the views and thoughts of a singular narrator, third-person opens up far more possibilities. The third-person perspective is a way of recounting a story from an outside parties viewpoint. Through the usage of “he”, “she”, or “it” the narrator has a level of distance from the actual events of the story, but is able to convey a much larger expanse of information than the first-person. Continuing the metaphor of a narrator being a camera, the third-person perspective would be on par with setting the camera to the side and being a fly on the wall of the action in a scene. This is a popular style and used quite often because it allows the narrator to convey a much wider range of information. Rather than being confined to an individual viewpoint, third-person can narrate on a much larger scope of happenings and isn’t constrained to the depth of information they posses.
Each of these two most used narrative viewpoints can fall under different levels of omniscience. These varying degrees of knowledge given to a narrator organically dictate just how much information can be given to the reader.
Omniscient: The omniscient narrator is all-knowing. They are privy to the thoughts, emotions and inner workings of each character. The “god” of your story, they can work without the constraints of time, report and analyze on any character, and generally do as they wish.
Objective: An objective narrator recounts things as they see it. They can describe the actions of any character, express their obvious emotional contributions and convey the details of a scene. However, they must work in a purely observational manner. An objective narrator cannot speculate or reveal the inner thoughts and feelings of a character. Just as you or I, standing in a room full of people, can recount the conversations and movements of the crowd around us, we cannot, with any degree of certainty, speak to the thoughts and emotions of anyone but ourselves.
Subjective: The subjective level of omniscience (often called “limited omniscient”) allows the narrator a middle road between fully omniscient and objective. The subjective narrator is omniscient, but only in respects to one single character. This perspective lends itself beautifully to first-person narration. As the subjective narrator, you provide the reader with a solid and well-understood viewpoint that essentially puts them in the stories metaphorical driver seat.
With this quick understanding of the basic and most used points of view, you should be ready to dive head first into your story. If you’re not quite there, check out the previous installations of my Fiction Style Guide:
Write on Writers!