Read the screen. When embarking on a new writing project, it’s useful to review the point of view alternatives, their various advantages and disadvantages, and to make an informed choice. Sometimes, writers get in a rut, turning to 1st person or the limited omniscient out of familiarity or because they’re uncomfortable with trying something new. Try to put aside your preconceived notions and consider the following:
READ THE SCREEN: In the early stages of writing a story, it may not be at all clear to the author which of these points of view is most appropriate or which will best serve the needs of the story. Writers often draft scenes from a variety of perspectives, trying out various approaches until they settle on what is best for the story. You are welcome, indeed, encouraged to experiment a little with point of view using your journal.
The central narrator is always, as the term implies, at the center of the action; the peripheral narrator may be in virtually any position that is not the center. He or she may be the second most important character in the story, or may appear to be to be a bystander in the story. Think Great Gatsby.
It is also possible to make the first-person narrator plural, as Faulkner does in his famous, “A Rose for Emily,” where the story is told by a narrator identified only as one of “us,” the people in the town where the action takes place. This passage is from the opening of the story. Notice the use of the plural first person—we and our
Read the screen. Here, too, however, you will find the occasional exception, as in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Louise Erdrich’s story, “Snake Road.” In any case, the narrator may certainly interpret actions, deliver dictums, and predict the future, though these remain the fallible opinions of a human being. You may either want us to accept the narrator’s word or reject it. In the latter case, you are using a narrator deemed “unreliable.” (More about that later.)
In a sense, all first-person narrators are somewhat unreliable. Even the most scrupulous characters may, unconsciously perhaps, shade the truth to emphasize one fact over another to make themselves look ever-so-slightly better. However, if the answer to the question, “Who is speaking?” is a very young child, an autistic person, a psychopath, or a habitual liar, the reader understands that ordinary skepticism need not apply. This narrator has extraordinary limitations, and her version of the facts is not to be trusted. We refer to such people as “unreliable,” whether they’re characters or family members. (My mother insisted she was married only three times, denying the very existence of a man who lived in our house for more than six months but less than a year. Unreliable narration is something I know a thing or two about.) The slide lists several common psychological defenses that result in unreliability. LONG PAUSE
Read aloud. I often have a claustrophobic response to novels written in the first person. After a while, I just want another point of view on the situation. However, the novella is short enough that it lends itself to a close first person perspective.
Read aloud. The glam authors are featured on the right side of the slide—devilishly handsome, both of them. Person refers to the basic mode of a piece of fiction. In the third person, all the characters will be referred to as he, she, or they. In the first person, the character telling the story will refer to himself or herself as I and to the other characters as he, she, or they. The second person is the basic mode of the story only when a character is referred to as you. When one character addresses “you” in a monologue or letter, that narrative is still told by the “I” character. When an omniscient narrator addresses the reader as “you” (You will remember that when John Doderring was left hanging from a cliff in Dover), this is called “direct address” and does not alter the basic third-person mode of the piece. Only when “you” become an actor in the drama, so designated by the author, is the story or novel written in the second person.
Read aloud. An example of this last point is Lorrie Moore’s autobiographical “People Like That Are the Only People Here.” I will include a link to that story in the week’s offerings, for those who are interested in reading it.
Naturally, the second person has its down side, a rather steep downside, frankly. Read aloud.
Third person, in which the author is telling the story, can be subdivided again according to the degree of knowledge, or omniscience, the author assumes. As an author you are free to decide how much you know. You may know every universal and eternal truth; you may know what is in the mind of one character but not what is in the mind of another; or you may know only what a witness can observe. You decide, and very early in the story you signal to the reader what degree of omniscience you have chose. Once given, this signal constitutes a “contract” between author and reader, and it will be difficult to break the contract gracefully.
Read aloud. In the omniscient point of view, the author narrates the story in the third person, although he may speak now and then in his own first-person voice. (Think here of a book like Tom Jones by Henry Fielding.) The all-knowing omniscient narrator is godlike, for he sees, hears, feels, knows all; he may move from one character to another; he may move anywhere he wishes in time and space, giving the reader objective views of his characters’ actions, or subjective views of their thoughts. The roving, omniscient narrator strives for a balance between interior and exterior views of his characters. My second novel, now seeking a publisher, is written in the omniscient. It was tough to write, and it may be tough to sell because editors aren’t used to the broader perspective. They expect to identify with one character—that’s what they’re used to experiencing in contemporary fiction.
I have experienced all of these disadvantages in the process of writing and submitting my new novel, Sophie’s House of Cards. Even so, I stubbornly believe that the omniscient serves the story. Check back with me to see if I change my mind.
Read aloud.In the limited omniscient, the writer presents only what that character sees, hears, feels, thinks, knows. To use Henry James’s phrase, the character “reflects” events; he is not a straight teller of events as the first-person narrator is. It is as if the author were paraphrasing in the third person what the character would say if he were telling the story in the first person. Usually, the author adjusts his style and vocabulary to the age, mentality, and social situation of the point-of-view character.
Read aloud. Another advantage is familiarity on the part of the reader. Because it’s such a commonly used perspective, readers are comfortable with stories that are told this way.
Read aloud. And an advantage can also be a disadvantage. What’s familiar is sometimes forgettable.
Don’t you love this fly! I’m having fun with these images. READ ALOUD
Pesky fly. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of the objective. READ ALOUD. A couple of stories written in the objective are “Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck and “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest the Hemingway.
These are the sources I used to create this short lecture. If you have questions, let me know.
Point of view
Overview of Point of View
(cribbed from a variety of sources listed in the bibliography)
“Nothing’s beautiful from every point of view.”
The primary point of view decision you must make
before you set down the first sentence of a story is
one of PERSON
The story can be told using
the first person (I’m (we’re) hoping to understand point
the second person (You’re hoping to understand point
the third person (He/she/they
understand point of view.)
are hoping to
AN OVERVIEW OF THE FIRST PERSON
The term “narrator” is sometimes used to refer to any
teller of a tale, but strictly speaking a story has a
narrator only when it is told in the first person by one
of the characters.
This person may be the protagonist, the I telling my
story, in which case that character is a central
narrator; or the character may be telling a story about
someone else, in which case he or she is a peripheral
“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner
“When Miss Emily Grierson died, our
whole town went to her funeral:
the men through a sort of
respectful affection for a fallen
monument, the women mostly out
of curiosity to see the inside of her
house, which no one save an old
gardener and cook—had seen in at
least ten years.
It was a big, squarish frame house
that had once been white,
decorated with cupolas and spires
and scrolled balconies in the
heavily lightsome style of the
seventies, set on what had once
been our most select street. “
An inevitable shortcoming-Whether central or
peripheral, singular or
plural, a first-person
narrator is a character, so
it’s vital to remember that
she or he has all the
limitations of a human being
and cannot be omniscient.
Potential Advantages of the First Person
Generally speaking, first-person
stories establish a sense of
intimacy between reader and
Just as they also establish
And voice while providing
Potential for character
Common Psychological Defenses that Create Unreliability
Repression: forgetting and forgetting that one has forgotten; such
as incest victims repressing their memories but not realizing they’ve
Denial and Reversal: a refusal to accept things as they are and
transforming the denied fact into its opposite; thus, “I hate you”
becomes “I love you.”
Projection: acting as if one’s own feelings or behavior are someone
else’s feelings/behavior; thus the unfaithful spouse accuses the
faithful partner of infidelity.
Isolation: experiencing events without feelings; the unpleasant
event is recalled but the associated feelings are not.
Rationalization: denial of one’s true motives by covering over
unpleasant impulses with a cloak of reasonableness; telling children
you’re punishing them “for their own good,” for example
Potential Disadvantages of First Person
Differentiating between the authorial “I” and the
fictional one can be tough for writers and tempting for
readers who want to conflate author and character.
The narrator’s physical description is difficult to
And because writer and reader are stuck in the
narrator’s skin, claustrophobia can set in.
Additionally, writer and reader are limited by the
intelligence and vocabulary of the first-person
narrator, as in a naïve narrator.
“Showing” rather than “telling” can be a challenge since
the tendency is to write something that approaches
AN OVERVIEW OF SECOND PERSON
First and third persons are
most common in
literature; second person
remains an idiosyncratic
and experimental form;
however, it’s worth
writers have been drawn
to its possibilities—Lorrie
Moore and Jay McInerney
leap to mind.
Potential Advantages of Second Person
Assuming the reader accepts the new identity, the
second person pulls you deeply into the story,
creating actual identification.
Some writers choose second person to depict trauma,
as its slight sense of detachment mutes melodrama
and mirrors a sense of shock.
It can also make a highly individual experience feel
Another reason to use second person is as a
disguised first person—in these cases it seems clear
that the narrator is really speaking of him/herself.
Potential Disadvantages of Second Person
It will strike some readers as gimmicky.
The detachment it creates can be a minus as well as
Like the first person, the second person is an
interior point of view and conveying the
complexities of scene can be difficult.
The second person is closely associated with those
who made it acceptable, and the challenge for
writers is to differentiate themselves from the likes
of Moore and McInerney.
AN OVERVIEW OF THIRD PERSON
Potential Advantages of the Omniscient
The omniscient can objectively report what is
Or go into the mind of any character
As well as interpret for us that character’s
appearance, speech, actions, and thoughts
Move freely in time to give us a panoramic,
telescopic, microscopic, or historical view; tell us
what has happened elsewhere or in the past or
what will happen in the future
As well as provide general reflections, judgments,
Potential Disadvantages of Omniscient
Many writers find it is difficult to control—too much
freedom can be very confusing
Many readers are inclined to prefer fiction that doesn’t offer
an editorial perspective
The greater flexibility does result is a broader focus. The
reader’s (and writer’s) attention is spread more thinly
Usually calls attention to the presence of the author
Probably the most prevalent point of view in
contemporary fiction, the limited omniscient
generally refers to a viewpoint in which the author
can see events objectively and also grants himself or
herself access to the mind of one character, but not to
the minds of the others, nor to any explicit powers of
judgment. This point of view is particularly useful
for the short story because it very quickly establishes
the point-of-view character or means of perception.
Potential Advantages of the Limited Omniscient
The reader consistently experiences everything
through the character’s own mind and emotions with
considerable intimacy and immediacy.
Therefore, the reader is more likely to empathize
with the character.
The author is more likely to include only what is
relevant because the perceptions and experiences are
Potential Disadvantages of the Limited Omniscient
Just as readers sometimes mistakenly attribute to the author the
attitudes of his first-person narrator, readers often forget that in
limited omniscient stories, every perception is to be attributed to the
The point-of-view character must be present for all the events in the
It may sometimes be difficult to grant the reader access to and
understanding of the opaque character (the antagonist, say, or
another secondary character interacting with the protagonist).
Here we have the ultimate point of
view challenge, a real test of the
writer’s ability to convey
information in scenes. The narrator
in the third-person objective point of
view is denied access to even a single
character’s mind. The writer must
reveal everything about the story
conflict, theme, etc.) through
dialogue and action. The effect is a
little like reading a play. The
objective point of view is also called
“fly on the wall.”
It offers a sense of integrity and impartiality.
And it prevents a writer from over explaining since
explaining anything is off limits.
One of fiction’s major attractions is the opportunity
it offers to access the thoughts of others.
Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft. Sixth Edition.
New York: Longman, 2003.
Johnston, Sibyl. Where the Stories Come From: Beginning to Write Fiction.
New York: Longman, 2002.
Madden, David. Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers. New York: New American
Steele, Alexander, Ed. Gotham Writers’ Workshop Writing Fiction.
New York: Bloomsbury, 2003.
Stone, Sarah & Ron Nyren, Eds. Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate
And Advanced Writers. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005.
Szeman, Sherri. Mastering Point of View. Cincinnati: Story Press, 2001.
(The presentation is a little muddled, especially where 2nd person is concerned.)