Grossmont College

English 126:  Creative Writing

Instructor:  K. Sherlock

 

Narrative Viewpoint

 

 

 

Download a PDF of these guidelines  HERE.

 

POINT OF VIEW

When the story is told from a consistent perspective, that perspective is called a point of view ("p. o. v." for short).  Narrative point of view derives its lexicon from the number and person of its pronouns:  first person; second person; third person.  Additionally, pronouns are characterized as singular or plural.

 

 

1ST PERSON

2ND PERSON

3RD PERSON

SINGULAR

I, me, my, mine, myself

you; your; yours; yourself

he, she, it; his, her(s), its; him, her, it; himself, herself, itself

 

PLURAL

 

we, us, our, ours, ourselves

 

 

you; your; yours; yourselves

 

 

they; them; their(s); themselves

 

 

Rarely in narration is the point of view from the reader(s) (i.e., 2nd person), and even more rare is an attempt to write narration from a plural point of view.  As a beginning writer, you are advised not to attempt these.

 

 

OMNISCIENCE

A consistent point of view limits the range and amount of knowledge the narrator can invoke to tell the story.  This is called omniscience.  Depending on the narrator's relationship to the story and its characters, the degree of the narrator's intelligence may be classified as either omniscient, objective, subjective, or episodically limited.

 

OMNISCIENT

The narrator sees and knows all, and can describe as well as analyze the thoughts and emotions of any character.  Such a narrator is a god, and has control over the chronology of the story, moving backward or forward in time to present back-story or to inform the reader of future outcomes.

 

OBJECTIVE

The narrator is an observer, a "fly on the wall," but cannot enter into the minds of the other characters except in a speculative way.  Such a narrator is trapped by the chronology and immediacy of the story, like a reporter "on the scene" of an event transpiring.

 

SUBJECTIVE

A narrator of a subjective point of view (also known as "limited omniscience") knows everything about a single character only, and sees the story through the eyes of that character.

 

EPISODICALLY LIMITED

This narrative point of view is a hybridized version of omniscient and subjective p. o. v.  The narrator is omniscient from a subjective perspective, meaning that the omniscient narrator has the power to jump from one subjective viewpoint to the next--from one character to the next--and experience the same story in different narrative episodes.  (This method is used more commonly in novels than in short stories.)

 

 

There are advantages and logistical challenges to each of these kinds of intelligence.  And some are, obviously, more appropriate to certain personal pronouns than others.  First person narrators, for example, are by default considered subjective, and third person narrators quite often gravitate toward an omniscient or episodically limited viewpoint so as to draw closer to the feelings and internal landscapes of the characters.

 

The most important aspect of using controlled narrative points of view is consistency.  Even when the point of view switches episodically, the writer must do so with full awareness of how, when and why.  Since narrators are like spirit-guides to the story, when the point of view is unstable and inconsistent, readers feel rudderless and lost in the story's emotional landscape.

 

The following chart presents the basic principles of the most common types of narrative point of view, as well as some comments on the advantages and disadvantages of each.

 

 

 

FIRST PERSON

 

 

THIRD PERSON

 


OMNISCIENT


The storyteller is, both, a central ego in the story and has godlike abilities to move in and out of time, place, and character consciousness.

 

Advantages:  useful when trying to capture the perspective of fantastical characters, such as gods and ghosts.

 

Disadvantages:  the reader tires of its egotism and eventually distrusts the "objective" observations of the narrator.

 


The storyteller is a disconnected, disembodied voice--a floating consciousness that approximates the reader's own consciousness

 

Advantages:  allows tremendous flexibility for the writer to move through complex plots and to present comparative viewpoints; easiest to use when non-human characters are involved.

 

Disadvantages:  demands scrupulous management of verb tenses; can be hard to maintain consistently without eventually becoming somewhat impersonal to the reader; its greatest drawback is that, with so much free rein over the story and its characters, it can make for a story in want of more focus.

 


OBJECTIVE


The storyteller is like a reporter who is in the story, but not of the story: an invisible eyeball, self-aware but removed from the events being described.

 

Advantages:  creates a context of truth and accuracy, and puts the reader in the position of a story investigator rather than a story character.

 

Disadvantages:  can preclude the narrator from some of the more imaginative aspects of storytelling, and can be ultimately too impersonal, especially when the narrator is forced to be as objective about herself as she is about other characters.

 


The objective storytelling voice is best suited to third-person, since the removal of ego assures the removal of bias from the storytelling.  The storyteller relays the facts as they are and does not attempt to act upon them or extrapolate on their significance.

 

Advantages:  assures a trustworthy narrator, which is especially useful when trying to create intrigue or mystery; allows the writer to focus on minute details of special interest that will speak for themselves.

 

Disadvantages:  prevents the narrator (not the reader) from creating a more subjective interpretation of the facts, which can result in a rather dispassionate and disconnected feeling in the story.

 


SUBJECTIVE


This is the most practical and, for most writers as well as readers, the most enjoyable way to convey a first-person point of view.  The subjective experiences of the "I" are part of the storytelling, as the reader meanwhile discovers how much to trust the subjective viewpoint.

 

Advantages:  permits the storyteller to be an active part of the story, even as its protagonist; gives the reader a strong, complex, well-developed perspective with which to identify; oftentimes, it lets the writer be the narrator vicariously.

 

Disadvantages:  can create a "cage" from which the reader cannot escape in order to explore other angles and viewpoints; places responsibility on the writer to keep the internal landscape of the storyteller as interesting and compelling as the external landscape of the story, itself.

 


As with the first-person, subjectivity (or, limited omniscience) in the third-person narrator allows the reader to become one of the characters and compare that character's perspective with his or her own.  The main difference, however, is that the third-person narrator is a "bridge" between the reader and the character.

 

Advantages:  the writer can manipulate and bias the reader in ways useful and interesting to the storytelling without concern for how the narrator, itself, will be judged or perceived.

 

Disadvantages:  the storyteller is duty-bound to remain true to the chronology of events and to maintain just the one character viewpoint during times when more flexible omniscience would permit the story to be told more completely or more quickly.


EPISODICALLY LIMITED


Except for fantasy, sci-fi and horror genres, in which the "I" can conceivably occupy the bodies of other characters, this method is not used with the first-person p. o. v.

 


The narrative technique is tailor made for third-person narration, in which the disembodied narrator slips in and out of the viewpoints of different characters.  Preferable for longer stories and novels, where the writer can take her time to develop multiple viewpoints.

 

Advantages:  allows the writer a loophole around the restrictions of omniscient and objective storytelling; can create interesting behind-the-scenes parallels and contrasts between characters; can construct a version of the truth by way of building a consensus among different subjective viewpoints.

 

Disadvantages:  can be difficult for the writer to maintain in a balanced and useful way; can create confusion for readers and prevent them from identifying with one character as the main character or protagonist; demands scrupulous attention to transitions; should be used in conjunction with episodic shifts (in plot, setting, or chronological sequencing).

 

 

2005 Karl J. Sherlock