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What is Point of View in Fiction?

Point of view (or viewpoint) refers to how your character conveys your story. The perspective that you choose affects how much information you can offer the readers and how emotionally engaging you can make your story. The most common viewpoints in fiction are first-person viewpoint and third-person viewpoint.

First-person viewpoint is closest to the action. It is the most intimate and therefore more engaging but it is also the most limited way to convey information. You could say that a first-person viewpoint cannot see the forest for the trees – it cannot take in the big picture. Third-person viewpoint offers the most information, but it is more distant and less likely to engage the readers’ emotions.

First-person viewpoint tells a story with the pronoun I, leaving no emotional distance between the reader and the narrator. This is the most limited perspective because the character can only accurately convey what is inside his own head, though he can make educated guesses about other characters. He doesn’t know the future. He doesn’t know information or events that others have withheld from him. He is not aware of whether his own shortcomings or biases have made him an unreliable narrator. He may not understand the full reasons behind the novel’s plot twists or the consequences that will follow. But first-person viewpoint is the most intimate perspective because your narrator is so deeply affected by the plot. This engages your readers emotionally.

First-person viewpoint comes the closest to mimicking how people really talk (such as in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger), and is a good way to showcase a unique narrative voice, say, if your character has an accent or odd way of expressing himself. It is also a good vehicle for comedy because everything is filtered through the character’s close-up thoughts. Showing a discrepancy between what the character feels and what he dares to say can be very funny.

However, first-person viewpoint can backfire on a writer if the character’s personality and voice grate on the readers. There will literally be nothing else other than your narrator that can carry the story. It can also be difficult when using first-person viewpoint to hint at the non-viewpoint characters’ thoughts and motives. The non-viewpoint characters may not come across as vividly as the narrator does.

Third-person viewpoint tells a story with the pronoun he or she or them at a slight distance from the characters involved in the story. Here the characters may be just as affected by plot events as the first-person narrator, but the reader is hearing about him or her rather than seeing through the eyes of me.

Third-person viewpoint can be omniscient in which the perspective retreats to a godlike distance that permits a panoramic view of the big picture – including dipping into the thoughts of multiple characters, predicting the future, hinting at the past, and commenting upon the characters themselves (“he had no way to suspect…”), which conveys information that a closer viewpoint could not realistically possess. This type of writing is very effective for huge sweeping epics like The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, or for mysteries in which you would like to enter the minds of different characters without them knowing about each other.

Third-person viewpoint can also be deep, meaning it lodges itself very close in a character’s head. It can approximate first-person viewpoint with italicized thoughts and even sentence fragments that mimic the immediate way that sensory action impacts the brain (“The hall door swung shut on his knee. Lurch. Splash. Wet heat. Bitter smell of spilled coffee. His scalded fingers tingled. Almost dropped his cup. Damn.”)

Mostly, however, third-person viewpoint takes a middle-distance perspective. It can be a smooth and graceful way to alternate between viewpoints and show how characters see each other. Because you have access to their thoughts as well as their actions, you can show how they deceive and manipulate each other. How they yearn for each other, but dare not make the first move. How they gain the wrong impressions of each other.

One very popular way to tell a story is to alternate two viewpoints chapter by chapter. This works well for relationship-driven stories such as in the romance genre, but is also a good choice for mysteries where the main character and villain may be playing a cat-and-mouse game of survival.

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