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.
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