Point of View

I have joined the Florida Writers Association, which is an organisation (based in Florida, but open to non-Floridians) for writers of all kinds.  It has contests, seminars, meetings and plenty of interaction amongst members.

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The April 2015 monthly magazine, The Florida Writer, has an article entitled “Why the Point of View is Confusing and How to Think More Clearly About It”.  The article was written by Kristen Stieffel, a “writer and freelance editor specialising is speculative fiction”.  I have no idea what “speculative fiction” might be, but I thought her article was quite useful and interesting.

She says: “A story will be rolling along nicely in one character’s viewpoint, and then an omnipresent narrator will pop up with a history lesson.  Or mid-scene we’ll bounce around everyone’s heads to find out what they’re all thinking.  The author has lost control of the viewpoint.  A large factor in confusion about viewpoint is the labels we use.  If I tell you a story is written in Third Person, what do you actually know?  Only that it uses he and she pronouns.  Nothing else.  Person tells you nothing about viewpoint. Viewpoint is not about pronouns.  Viewpoint is about character.   So instead of saying ‘third person’ and then piling on a bunch of modifiers, I prefer to speak of viewpoint as being either Narrator Viewpoint or Character Viewpoint.  Viewpoint is the channel through which the reader connects to the characters in the story, which means that if the viewpoint is broken, the connection is broken.”

She gives an example from Tolkien which is told in Narrator Viewpoint, and she makes the point that the wide scope of the story and the multiplicity of characters make the omniscient narrator an effective way to tell the story.  She gives another example from Sole Survivor by Dean Koontz which is written in Character Viewpoint.  Both of these stories are written in third person, but their perspectives are quite different.  Stieffel says that Character Viewpoint provides a close connection between the reader and the character, but Narrator Viewpoint is necessary if the author wants to reveal information known to one character but not to another.  She says: “When readers have information the characters don’t, it can heighten tension, but it hampers the ability of the reader to experience the story in tandem with the characters.”

Stieffel says there are various kinds of Narrators: “from the omniscient narrator who knows and tells all, to the unreliable narrator who pretends to know all but lies about it to a narrator that makes no judgements acting as a camera and showing events without commentary or value judgements.”

She makes the point that it is possible to tell a story with both Narrator and Character Viewpoints, but that one has to be careful with  this mode not to lose focus.  It is also possible to tell a story with multiple Character Viewpoints, but it can be confusing and it means that the reader will not bond as tightly with each character.  I am currently reading a novel with half a dozen Character Viewpoints, and the difficulty I am having, as the scene shifts, is who’s talking?

Stieffel doesn’t mention first person.  Perhaps because it is a variation on a Character Viewpoint.  Sable Shadow and The Presence is written in the first person mainly because I felt it offered a better opportunity to connect the reader with the feelings of the principal character.  The novel I’m currently writing is also in the first person, because of the connection with the principal character’s feelings and to enhance the credibility of events that occur to a character who is clearly honest.  When writing in the first person, it is possible to transition into a kind of narrator viewpoint where the principal character becomes the narrator, but one has to be careful not to reveal anything in narrator mode that the principal character doesn’t know.

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