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The Big Choice: Anika Scott

Chocolate or vanilla? Beer or wine? Third person omniscient or first person?
Choices, choices. Life is full of them, but for a fiction writer, there’s one choice that I can safely call the Big Choice. That’s point of view.

Point of view is much misunderstood, if not ignored, by new writers. Everyone knows about “I” (first person) or “he/she”(third person), but the finer aspects of point of view, the aspects that make it the most powerful influence on how a story unfolds, often remain a mystery.

It doesn’t have to. Once you get the hang of point of view, you’ll widen your storytelling horizons.
So what exactly is point of view?

It’s a filter through which the reader experiences the events in a story. Your choice of point of view affects everything else in the story, from which scenes you include right down to your writing style. Some writing coaches go so far as to say point of view is the only choice you have to make before you write a first draft.

Excluding second person point of view, which is rare these days and often badly used (it’s awkward to bring the reader in by constantly referring to “you”), there are two major points of view: first person and third person. Third person is broken down into three main categories. Let’s do a quick look at each one.

First person

This is the easy one. The “I-me” point of view is the confessional way of telling a story. Someone – a main character in the story, or a minor character who witnessed or later learned about the story’s events – tells the reader what happened.

What is the strength of first person? Its intimacy. I used the word confessional in the last paragraph for a reason; first person point of view gives readers the feeling they’re privy to the private thoughts and confessions of a real person. Famous first person narrators like Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby and Phillip Marlowe from The Big Sleep have a compulsion to say something to the reader, and they say it in their own distinct voices. This is what gives the point of view such power.

There are drawbacks, though. The “I-me” point of view limits the information you can give in a story. Your narrator can only report what he or she experienced or heard from others. Nothing else can enter the story – no events the “I-me” narrator didn’t witness or learn about — or the point of view is violated.

Another caveat for the beginner writer: Beginners often tell a story in “I-me” without developing the narrator’s personality and language style, without thinking how exactly a story would be told by that character. The story ends up a flat account of events that could have just as well been told in third person.

Which brings us to the next topic…
Third person point of view is the “he/she” way of narrating a story. It has three main categories: omniscient, limited and objective.

Third person omniscient

In this point of view, you the author get to play god, as Jonathan Franzen did in the opening pages of his prize-winning novel, The Corrections.
Ringing throughout the house was an alarm bell that no one but Alfred and Enid could hear directly. It was the alarm bell of anxiety. It was like one of those big cast-iron dishes with an electric clapper that send schoolchildren into the street in fire drills.

In part of this introduction to the world of his geriatric characters Alfred and Enid Lambert, the author Franzen has total freedom to pick any detail in the story (like the ringing) he wants to focus on. He can rove in and out of the minds of the characters, make free use of metaphors and similes (like the fire drills), add contextual information, foreshadow events the characters don’t know about yet. The style of Franzen’s writing doesn’t change when he shifts focus from Alfred to Enid and back again. In the omniscient point of view, the author is like a god, sees all, knows all, and has complete control over all elements of the story, including style.

Flexibility has its drawbacks. If you don’t watch out, an omniscient point of view could come out too alienated from the characters, too dry and authoritative (which is good to know if this is the effect you want in your story). You also have to be careful when shifting focus from one character to another within a scene; handled badly, it could confuse the reader.

Third person limited (Or central intelligence. There are other terms too.)

In this point of view, events in the story are filtered through a single character’s perception. At its best, third person limited can be as intimate as first person, but with the flexible elements of the omniscient point of view.

Modern literature loves third person limited. Many novels focus on one or several characters and shift between them in a limited godlike way. Within a scene, you the author can only write about what the point of view character sees, experiences, feels. No other characters get that treatment…unless you signal a shift in point of view by dropping down a line in the text, change chapters or use some other device to keep the reader oriented.

In its “pure” form, third person limited stories use a writing style that matches the personality of the point of view character. A truck driver’s story might be snappy and impatient, a doctor’s might be clinical.

But usually, writers take the limited point of view in a modified form that combines a focus on a single character with less blunt changes of style. Here are two examples from T.C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville. The first zooms in on the character Dr. John Harvey Kellogg when he meets his foster son again:

Father. Hello, Father.
He’d give him Father—he’d give him a swift kick in the hind end, is what he’d do. God, he was disgusting. Nineteen years old and he looked sixty. Filthy, fetid, a sleeper in doorways and alleys like his mother before him.

Here’s the second example, the character Will Lightbody’s reaction to seeing his wife eating at a different table at Dr. Kellogg’s health spa.

Will didn’t care. He was already lurching toward her, the fist in his stomach beating at him as if to force a way out— he didn’t want to be here, didn’t want to be in Battle Creek, didn’t want to be in a place where his wife was lost to him and people had to tell him how to chew his toast.

Kellogg’s example lets us read his mind; in Lightbody’s we see into his mind and body (the fist in his stomach). In the novel, Boyle gives an entire chapter to a single character; he never mixes two such intimate points of view in one scene.

Third person objective

For this point of view, think of film-making. Unless there’s a voice-over, the story unfolds only by showing the actions and dialogue of the characters, details of the setting and so on. The camera can’t read the character’s minds and feelings directly. It can only imply them.

So it is with third person objective. In this point of view, you don’t use variations on “he thought” or “she felt.” The story moves along like a film with no direct analysis from the author, who remains objective. Hemingway was as close to this sometimes as I’ve ever read; few writers seem to use a “pure” objective point of view through a whole story. It’s good for action scenes, but can get tiring to read if it goes on too long.

So…those are the main points of view. Yet defining them is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to writing. How do you decide which point of view your story needs? What does it mean to violate a point of view, and is it that bad? Can you use first person and third person effectively in the same story?
As they used to say on television…
For the answers to these and other questions, tune into the next episode of Hardline Magazine.

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