Point of view, viewpoint, first person, third person: a story can't
be written without "using" point of view. And the better we know the
ways in which it can be used, the better use we will make of it.
The two main points of view are those of third-person narration,
in which the narrator stands outside the story itself, and
first-person narration, in which the narrator participates in the story. The first
type always uses third-person pronouns ("he," "she," "they"), while
the latter narrator also uses the first-person ("I").
These are not the only distinctions, however. Besides exotic types
Like second person narration (the standard form for text adventures), first
and third person can be used in many different variations.
The omniscient third-person narrator may choose to guide the reader's
understanding of characters and the significance of their story. This
type of narrator may be intrusive (commenting and evaluating, as in
the novels of Austen, Dickens, and Tolstoy), or unintrusive
(describing without much commentary, as in Flaubert's Madame Bovary
and Hemingway's short stories). Another possibility is third-person
limited (and with it, successive third person limited), probably the
most frequently used point of view in contemporary fiction. Here the
narrative voice limits itself to describing in the third-person only
what is experienced by one character, or a series of characters in
succession (stream-of-consciousness narration fits into this
The character who fills the role of filtering the events of the
story to the reader is sometimes called a "focalizer"--he or she
provides the focus for the story. This kind of narration is also
referred to as selective omniscience and multiple selective
omniscience - the story is told as if it is coming directly from
the minds of the characters, but the narrative voice has access to
some of those minds and is thus "selectively omniscient."
The first-person narrator is generally a character within the story
and therefore limited in understanding. He or she might be an observer
who happens to see the events of the story or play a minor role in the
action ("I" as witness as in Melville's Moby-Dick ), or might
be the main character ("I" as protagonist as in J. D. Salinger's
The Catcher in the Rye ).
This is the most common way of looking at point of view--but it
isn't the only way. The narratologist Wayne C. Booth, for example,
(The Rhetoric of Fiction ) uses as his main distinction whether
a narrator is dramatized or impersonal. According to this scheme,
the intrusive, authorial narrator telling a story in the third person
is in the same category as the first person narrator because both are
dramatized. The emphasis here is on the way the narrator appears
to the reader, the effect the narrative voice has on the reading
You, "the author," and authorial voice
Your characters are not the only ones that end up having a voice
in your fiction. Surveys of readers have shown that the impression
they have of the "author," the teller of the tale, also influences
their experience of the story. For this reason, a distinction is
sometimes made also between the narrator, the author, and the
implied author; the implied author is a presence inferred by the
reader as the guiding personality behind the work, not necessarily
synonymous with the actual author, who may have written other books
with a different "voice," thus creating different implied authors.
Voice refers to the controlling presence or "authorial voice" behind
the characters, narrators, and personae of literature. It is also
described as the implied author. The particular qualities of the
author's voice are manifested by her or his method of expression (an
ironic narrator, a lyric persona), specific language, and so forth.
There are a few other interesting terms to know when considering the
many possibilities of point of view beyond first person and third
- The self-conscious narrative, which draws attention to its own
- The self-reflexive narrative, which describes an act of fictional
composition within its story (like a play-within-a-play)
- The fallible or unreliable narrator, as in Henry James' The Turn of
the Screw (1898)
- Editorial omniscience--Narrative dominated by authorial voice,
speaking as "I" or "we"; the tendency is away from scene and towards
summary narrative. (Henry Fielding's Tom Jones).
- Neutral omniscience--No direct comments by the author, but the
scene is rendered as the author sees it and not as any individual character
Here are some questions you can ask yourself when considering how
to use point of view:
- In your story, who will be communicating with the reader?
("author" using third or first person, character in first, or
ostensibly no one)
- Do you want to write in your character's voice, your "own" voice,
or use a relatively "objective" voice?
- From what position or angle regarding the story will he or she tell
it? Where will the "camera" be? (above, periphery, center, front, or
- What channels of information will the narrator use to convey the
story to the reader? (author's words, thoughts, perceptions, feelings;
character's words and actions; or character's thoughts, perceptions
- What distance does he or she place the reader from the story?
- How much of the story will be "telling" and how much "showing"?