The Point of View (POV) in a story or novel is the narrative perspective from which the story is told. When you tell a story about other people using he, she or they (or it) to describe the events they experienced: that is a third person narrative. It’s a natural way for us to tell stories about things that happened to other people or things.
In third person narrative it is clear the narrator is not personally involved in the story and play no part in the events and have no influence on the outcome.
There are two distinct ways to use third person narratives: close or limited and roaming or omniscient. Here I will discuss the latter.
A story in the omniscient or third person roaming point of view has a narrator who has a complete overview of every event, they can see every character and, more importantly, are privy to the thoughts, feelings and motivations of everyone in the story. So an omniscient narrator can be authoritative and truthfully tell us what is happening to all the characters.
The idea of a ‘roaming’ third person narration comes from the idea that the third person narrator is sitting on the shoulder of a character seeing, experiencing events from their point of view and able to see and hear their thoughts and inner dialogue you (just as a third person close or limited narrator would) but the roaming narrator can move from one character to another. One thing to be wary of in this type of narrative is ‘head hopping’ where we move to rapidly between characters or even back and forwards between them.
Stephanie was pleased to have found a parking space so close to the bar. Strictly speaking the space was only to be used after 6pm and it was still only five minutes to but she was already late and it was pouring with rain. She congratulated herself as she ran for cover popping the central locking over her shoulder as she went. Unbeknown to her the traffic warden had sheltered in the shadows of the funeral parlour doorway and he gave a smirk as he realised he would achieve today’s quota today after all.
The bar was busy but Stephanie spotted Nicola holding course on the far side of the bar. Nicola was sipping from a glass of something pink. She spotted Steph and called across the bar, waving her arms and indicating the empty seat next to her. She’d been saving it and was relieved to see Steph was finally there as the bar was filling up and more than one person had already asked if it was taken. But that was typical of Steph, Nicola thought with a moment’s irritation, always later than you expected and then easily offended if you hadn’t managed to save her a seat as if you didn’t care enough or something.
Steph plonked herself onto the bar stool and shrugged her jacket off.
‘Have you see, Jack?’ she asked Nicola off scouring the crowd for him.
‘He’s over there, ’ replied Nicola flicking her head in the direction of the juke box. That was odd, he’d been there will Craig just a moment ago. ‘Or he was,’ she added, puzzled.
Jack peered from behind the pillar wondering if he could make it to the door without being spotted by the girls. He just wasn’t in the mood tonight.
As you can see from this example, moving too fast between characters makes the story choppy and hard to follow but done well it’s important to consider when it’s appropriate to move from one character to another and how you can make the transition.
Epic stories with huge numbers of characters benefit from this kind of storytelling as the narrator can access all areas of the world and report on events, thoughts and conversations wherever they occur. Many countless classics have used this POV.
Consider this passage from ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens
Art or nature though, the original stock of Louisa’s character or the graft of circumstances upon it,—her curious reserve did baffle, while it stimulated, one as sagacious as Mrs. Sparsit. There were times when Mr. James Harthouse was not sure of her. There were times when he could not read the face he had studied so long; and when this lonely girl was a greater mystery to him, than any woman of the world with a ring of satellites to help her.
So the time went on; until it happened that Mr. Bounderby was called away from home by business which required his presence elsewhere, for three or four days.
The narrator is able to tell us Louisa’s reserve baffles Mrs Sparsit and that Mr Harthouse is unsure of her and then in the next paragraph we learn Mr Bounderby was called away on business – all thoughts and activities are known to the narrator.
In this passage from “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett the story is focused on Mary.
During the confusion and bewilderment of the second day Mary hid herself in the nursery and was forgotten by everyone. Nobody thought of her, nobody wanted her, and strange things happened of which she knew nothing. Mary alternately cried and slept through the hours. She only knew that people were ill and that she heard mysterious and frightening sounds. Once she crept into the dining-room and found it empty, though a partly finished meal was on the table and chairs and plates looked as if they had been hastily pushed back when the diners rose suddenly for some reason. The child ate some fruit and biscuits, and being thirsty she drank a glass of wine which stood nearly filled. It was sweet, and she did not know how strong it was. Very soon it made her intensely drowsy, and she went back to her nursery and shut herself in again, frightened by cries she heard in the huts and by the hurrying sound of feet. The wine made her so sleepy that she could scarcely keep her eyes open and she lay down on her bed and knew nothing more for a long time.
Many things happened during the hours in which she slept so heavily, but she was not disturbed by the wails and the sound of things being carried in and out of the bungalow.”
This too is told from an omniscient POV. Despite the focus on Mary we are told that she ‘was forgotten by everyone. Nobody thought of her, nobody wanted her, and strange things happened of which she knew nothing.’ At the end of the excerpt we read ‘Many things happened during the hours in which she slept so heavily, but she was not disturbed by the wails and the sound of things being carried in and out of the bungalow.’
So the narrator knows the thoughts of other ‘off-stage’ characters and things happening of which Mary was unaware. So this is an omniscient or roaming narrator even though the prose is focussing on one character’s experience.
Rewrite the head hopping example above using a 3 rd person roaming or omnisicient POV and post it in the comments below for review.
The Point of View (POV) in a story or novel is the narrative perspective from which the story is told. When you tell a story about other people using he/she or they (or it) to describe the events they experienced: that is a third person narrative. It’s a natural way for us to tell stories about things that happened to other people or things.
In third person narrative it is clear the narrator is not personally involved in the story and play no part in the events and have no influence on the outcome.
There are two distinct ways to use third person narratives: close or limited and roaming or omniscient. In this article we will discuss the former.
This narrative perspective allows you to stay close to one character so you can create an intimacy as you might with a first person POV. The narrator can tell us what our character is doing and is privy to their thoughts, ideas, observations and motivations. However, the actions, motivations and emotions of other characters will have to be shown and inferred from the things the central character is party to: dialogue, facial expressions, body language, actions or behaviour.
As with first person POV there is a challenge in exposing important events that happen ‘off stage’ or between other characters as the narrator cannot witness them.
Third person point of view enables you to be more objective that first person. By definition a first person POV is subjective. Someone telling their own story might say another character was completely unreasonable and haughty but in a third person narrative it’s easier to show the other character trying to meet the protagonist halfway. The narrator and the viewpoint character are different people so third person can say things a first person might not.
So for example, a passage from my own novel, Lacking Grace.
“Blue, you’re distracting me,” muttered Grace.
Blue had her fingers laced together and rested in her lap, thumbs rolling slowly around one another.
“I’m not making a sound.”
“You’re twiddling and fiddling and it’s annoying.”
“Grace is trying to write a letter.” said Mabel.
“I know that,” Blue rolled her eyes, “That’s why I was sitting quietly minding my own business.”
“Oh will you two just stop squabbling. I am trying to concentrate.” snapped Grace.
A first person narrator might just say, Blue and Mabel wouldn’t stop interrupting me and I asked them very politely to stop (because that’s how the character imagines things were.) If I am telling you about myself I am less likely to paint myself as bad tempered or unreasonable that a third person narrator who is likely to be more honest.
I chose third person close/limited for my novel because, Grace, the protagonist, has periods of deep depression and self-loathing and I felt we needed some distance from her at those times. However, I wanted the immediacy of being able to bear witness to her journey even at times she didn’t understand what was happening to her.
Here’s an excerpt from Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, ‘Unsheltered’.
“I didn’t know there was like a baby,” she said finally.
Willa resisted pointing out it wasn’t like a baby, it was the actual article. This was not much of a friend, if Tig hadn’t mentioned the baby bomb dropped on the family.
“I mean, that you guys were still, you know, parents. It’s little.”
With some effort Willa worked out the girl’s mistake, and nearly laughed. She could have been flattered but knew better; fifty-five and thirty-five look just alike to the more self-absorbed of the younger set. They don’t see themselves reaching either of those ages, so it doesn’t matter. And it wasn’t a compliment: braless in her sleep T-shirt and sweatpants, Willa was the picture of worst-case motherhood. And in no mood for chitchat about the family tragedy, frankly. She opted to stick with small talk until she could be dismissed.
This is being related from the POV of Willa but in third person limited. We are privy to Willa’s irritation that the girl uses the word ‘like’ inappropriately and her amusement that she is mistaken for the baby’s mother (she’s his grandmother) but the description of her braless in her sleep T-shirt and sweatpants and the conclusions ‘Willa was the picture of the worst-case motherhood’ is probably harsher than she might have described it. Perhaps she would have excused her slovenly appearance on the basis she’s a grandmother, coping with a small baby at a time when she could be expecting to relax and enjoy time to herself.
Take a passage from a favourite book written in the first person POV (ie. a story told from the perspective of ‘I’) and rewrite it in third person closed. Analyse how this changes the immediacy, honesty and intimacy of the piece. Post your ideas and thoughts in the comments box below.
The Point of View (POV) in a story or novel is the narrative perspective from which the story is told. When you tell a story about yourself you use ‘I’ (or ‘We’) to describe the events you experienced: that is a first-person narrative.
A first-person narrator, by definition, can only see and interpret the world from one position and that is their own. The reader will be intimate with the opinions, thoughts and feelings of the narrator but not of other characters.
So how do you tell a rounded story from only one view point? And can you be sure your character
is interesting and engaging enough that the reader wants to ‘listen’ to them for hundreds of pages.
Perhaps more challenging is how you expose things that have happened in another room or
between other characters if the narrator cannot witness them?
Of course, the narrator may overhear conversations, read someone’s diary or accidentally spot a text message, read a newspaper article, find a letter or receive a third party report of something
material. All of these things could happen but be careful of overusing such devices. It soon becomes obvious to the reader that these expositions are unnatural and can create a feeling that the story lacks authenticity.
Some authors have more than one first-person point of view to tell a whole story. It can be
interesting to highlight characters’ differing interpretations of the same event or to get a different perspective on the world. If you choose to have two characters speaking in the first person you will need to be very sure the reader can distinguish them by giving them particular tics or obsessions.
For example, in ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ by Barbara Kingsolver there are five first-person narrators: a mother (Orleana) and her four daughters (Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May).
The family move to the heart of Africa when the husband and father, Nathan, decides to be a missionary there.
Adah is disabled from an accident at birth so likes to play with words in her head, Ruth May is obsessed with small animals, Leah strives to be the son her father never had and Rachel longs for the teenage life of lipstick and music she left behind in America.
Because their characters are so distinctive, as a reader, I was never in doubt as to who was speaking to me. But that’s Barbara Kingsolver! For us mere mortals, two distinct narrators may be a challenge.
“Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman is written from first person point of view.
“The doctor was doing that thing where they talk to you but don’t look at you, reading my notes on the screen, hitting the return key with increasing ferocity as he scrolled down.
‘What can I do for you this time, Miss Oliphant?’
‘It’s back pain, Doctor,’ I told him. ‘I’ve been in agony.’ He still didn’t look at me.
‘How long have you been experiencing this?’ he said.
‘A couple of weeks,’ I told him. He nodded. ‘I think I know what’s causing it,’ I said, ‘but I wanted to get your opinion.’ He stopped reading, finally looked across at me.
‘What is it that you think is causing your back pain, Miss Oliphant?’
‘I think it’s my breasts, Doctor,’ I told him.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘You see, I’ve weighed them, and they’re almost half a stone – combined
weight, that is, not each!’
He stared at me, not laughing.
‘That’s a lot of weight to carry around, isn’t it?’ I asked him. ‘I mean, if I were to strap half a stone of additional flesh to your chest and force you to walk around all day like that, your back would hurt too, wouldn’t it?’
He stared at me, then cleared his throat.”
Eleanor is the first-person narrator of the story, telling us (the readers) what happened to her. We are ‘seeing’ the story unfold from her perspective.
However, while we have intimacy with Eleanor, we can only INFER the other character’s thoughts or motives from his behaviour, facial expression, body language or dialogue because Eleanor is filtering those ideas and interpreting them in her own way. This tells is about Eleanor as well as the way she sees the doctor.
For example, ‘The doctor was doing that thing where they talk to you but don’t look at you’. This suggests the doctor is in some way disinterested in Eleanor and she, in turn, has seen this kind of behaviour before. The picture we get of him, ‘hitting the return key with increasing ferocity as he scrolled down’ shows perhaps irritation? Anger?
And then his dialogue, ‘What can I do for you this time, Miss Oliphant?’ hints that she is a regular visitor to his surgery, perhaps even a hypochondriac?
Look at the final line of this excerpt, ‘He stared at me, then cleared his throat”. Again Eleanor is reporting what he did but in such a way that we can infer his surprise at her curious (even bizarre) conclusion that the weight of her breasts is a problem and we can even see him trying to process that she has gone to the trouble of weighing her breasts (on kitchen scales as we discover later).
Rewrite the extract above (about Eleanor Oliphant’s visit to the surgery) from the Point of View of the doctor.
Perhaps his surgery is running late and he is anxious to get away? Maybe he is simply fed up with Eleanor’s demands and increasingly bizarre assertions.
Post your ideas in the comments below for others to review.