The Artistry and Craft of the
Bard© 2002 by Lifetrekker
Point of View—An Overview
"Point of view may be the single most important choice
a writer makes.... Point of view offers the controlling
that shapes any fiction and determines its
Alyce Miller, Author of Stopping for Green
Lights (Obstfeld, 38)
Point of View is an essential element in the
artistry and craft of the bard. It is the lens from which we see a
story unfold. If you were to go to your collected library of
mainstream literary novels, mysteries, romances, adventures,
fantasy, etc. and flip through the pages, you would notice that
every single story is told from a specific point of view. Several
different options are open to a bard when it comes to choosing a
point of view. They are writing from the perspective of a first-,
second-, or third-person narrator.
First-Person Point of
In first-person point of view, the story is
told through the eyes of a single character. It is the eyewitness to
the action. The reader receives all of her information through the
filter of the character, usually the protagonist or another main
character. The predominant pronoun is the first person: "I, me,
mine, us, our, and we."
Example: "I woke up this morning with a splitting
headache. Perhaps it was the fifth of gin I had consumed the night
before or maybe it was my guilt pounding at my conscience. Whatever
it was I knew the day already sucked. There was no way I could
simply hide in my darkened bedroom. I had to go. I had to go and
find her. I had to go and find her and tell her that I had been a
complete ass and beg her forgiveness. I had to ... oh, hell, and at
that thought a violent spasm took hold and I wished for Hades
himself to help me end the agony."
First person is a favorite among writers. Edgar
Allen Poe used the first person in his "The Tale of the Tell-tale
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered
my brain, but, once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object
there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had
never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had
no desire. I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! One of his eyes
resembled that of a vulture -- a pale blue eye with a film over it.
Whenever it fell upon me my blood ran cold, and so by degrees, very
gradually, I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and
thus rid myself of the eye forever."
Another famous novel written in first person is Mark
Twain’s Huckleberry Finn:
The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and
allowed she would civilize me; but it was rough living in the house
all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow
was in all her ways; and so when I couldn't stand it no longer I lit
out. I got into my old rags and my sugar-hogshead again, and was
free and satisfied. But Tom Sawyer he hunted me up and said he was
going to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would go
back to the widow and be respectable. So I went back.
There are many wonderful examples. Why is this point
of view so popular? Raymond Obstfeld writes in the Novelist’s
Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes (Writer’s Digest Books, 2000)
that "the intimacy of the ‘I’ immediately makes the reader feel like
she has a friend who’s going to share some juicy personal
experience. It’s like reading someone else’s diary." (Obstfeld,
To do justice with this voice, the author, much like
an actor, must step back from herself and block the voice she most
often hears in her head, her own voice. Unless the first-person
point-of-view character is herself, as in an autobiography or
memoir, the character is that, a character. The voice should be
distinctive from the author’s.
To put this in perspective, think of your favorite
actor. If you have seen that person somewhere, like an interview,
simply being who she is, recall that reality. Now, take that person
and think of the roles or, better yet, the characters she has
created. No relationship. The actor is not the character and the
character is not the actor. The actor may draw upon pieces of
herself and bits of knowledge acquired through experience
(Stanislavski’s Method), but the product, the character, is not the
In building a first-person narrator, the bard must
do the same. Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game, Speaker of
the Dead, Xenophile, Children of the Mind (Learn more about
Orson Scott Card at http://www.hatrack.com/), writes
in Writer’s Digest Books’ Elements of Fiction series: Characters
and Viewpoint that "when you use a first-person narrator, you
are almost required to tell the story in someone else’s voice—the
voice of the character telling the tale. A careless writer will have
all the first-person narrators talk amazingly like herself, but if
you take characterization seriously, the use of first person will
lead you to discover a new voice for each story told by a different
Monica Wood adds a wonderful list of first-person
dos and don’ts. Beside the first two, which I have discussed above
in detail, she adds:
If you want the reader to get a physical picture
of the narrator, be careful about letting the narrator describe
[herself]. Don’t use mirrors, ponds, or storefronts to let the
narrator see [herself] and relay what [she] sees to the reader.
The "I" narrator should describe himself only if
the description also reveals [his] personality: "I admit I was a
handsome devil." Otherwise try the following
- Allow the "I" narrator [her] own quirks,
prejudices, and vocabulary.
- Make sure the "I" narrator’s observations fit
with her world. A professional skater might call the night sky
"black as ice"; a printer might call the same sky "black as ink."
- When the narrator is a child, simplify the
vocabulary but don’t necessarily drop all imagery from the prose.
A child sees in simile, too: "The dog was big as a bear."
- When the narrator is an adult looking back (a
reminiscent narrator), watch for sentimentality. Avoid cliché. Use
the specific in place of the abstract. Replace indistinct feelings
("I felt nervous") with something the reader can see or feel or
hear: "Every tick of the clock sounded like a gunshot." (This is also true for the other points of
- Describe by association: "I’m husky like my
- Use the plot: "Because I was tall she put me last
- Use an observant second party: "I thought you’d
look much older," he said. (Wood, 99-100)
There are dangers and disadvantages in using the
- First-person narrators can be
unreliable. They might lie. They might lie
to others, the audience, and to themselves. If the character is
meant to be a liar, the bard must find ways to let the audience
know that he is a liar. The easiest way is to have the character
get caught in the lie. The story of Pinocchio, if told from
Pinocchio’s point of view, would be a good case in point. Almost
immediately in the story, he lies and his nose grows and he is
forced to admit he has lied.
Another way to let the reader
know if your narrator is lying is to create a character whom the
reader can trust. That character can verify the information and
key events that take place in the story. In Pinocchio, Jiminy
Cricket is the character who corroborates the truthfulness of the
The movie, The Sixth Sense, is another
excellent example of this technique. In this film, the main
character played by Bruce Willis does not know he is dead. Various
clues like the appearance of red and the dropping of the
temperature provide clues. More important, the young boy played by
Haley Joel Osment sees dead people. As the film progresses, the
audience comes to understand that Bruce Willis’ character is dead.
The clues and build-up are subtle. A masterpiece of writing and
- First-person narrators can withhold
information. First-person narratives often
take place in the past. The narrator describes what has already
happened. Since the events have already taken place, the narrator
knows the story’s end. (This is not so in first-person narratives
that take place in the present tense. Sandra Scoppettone’s Lauren
Laurano mystery series is a must for alt writers who would like to
explore first person working in the present tense. To learn more
about this author visit http://www.imt.net/~gedison/scoppett.html).
Let’s say you pick up a novel and read the
By the end, I had figured everything
out. The mystery was too obvious. Cheryl was no murderer. Kip
had not died. He had faked his death and left behind the hate
that had festered within his soul. The marriage had been a sham.
He had only done what society had expected him to do. He had
married, sired children, had worked off his ass to provide
hearth and home, complete with the requisite tree house and a
white picket fence. Dead, he had exacted his revenge and had
escaped to the Castro and melded into the fabric of the life
conformity had denied him.Why go any further? The plot is solved, all major questions
answered. The reader has no need to read on.
- Another error authors make in regard to
first-person narrators is the way they handle information in
"Tell me about Delores," I pressed
Taking a deep breath, Daisy’s eyes flicked up the
street and down. "You don’t know what you’re asking. I’m one dead
bitch if Arlo thinks I’ve snitched."
"Snitch or not, what do you think Arlo’ll do to
you when he learns that you and Delores are like this." I held up
my left hand, the middle and index finger crossed. "You’ll be a
dead bitch any way." I smiled when I saw the flame of disgust
spark. I had to sigh. Somehow, she looked vulnerable. So young.
Scared. "Daisy, come," I whispered and guided her back down the
"Where we going?"
"Somewhere safe," and when we got to my Ranger, I
opened the door. "Come on. The corner’s no place until we find
Arlo. Come on."
She slid in to the passenger seat.
"Buckle up," I chuckled, as I fastened my own and
fired the ignition.
"How can I trust you?"
I put a hand on her arm. It was cold. Shaking.
"You can always trust me." She nodded and I pulled out into the
traffic. "Okay," I said when I was sure that the Waste Management
truck bearing down on my bed wouldn’t land us both in Dominican or
worse. "Spill it, sweetheart."
"She’s dead," she said. Then she told me
Here the author, in this case, me, is "diddling" the
reader. While the reader may allow the first-person narrator to
withhold the ending, holding back information that allows the reader
to connect the dots of the plot is at the very least annoying.
She is creating more distance between the story and
us by making the narrator an artificer, our enemy in the quest for
information instead of our ally. The author who does this thinks
she’s increasing the suspense. In fact, she’s weakening the suspense
by decreasing the reader’s involvement with and trust in the
narrator.... instead of saying "Then she told me more" ... some
authors don’t even say that much—they just have the character
remember at some key moment later on, "I thought back and remembered
something else [Daisy] said, something that didn’t seem important at
the time." Now, if what [the narrator] remembers is something [she]
told us [Daisy] said at the time, that’s perfectly fair; but
if this is new information to the reader, [the reader has] a right
to feel ... improperly deceived.
The worse case is when the first person narrator
refuses to tell the reader something that she herself did.
This error in writing doesn’t just occur in
first-person narratives. All too often, novice writers make the same
mistake when writing in third person.
- First-person narrators cannot read minds unless
they truly have the gift of clairvoyance.
I watched Nova as she spoke to Marie. She wore an
easy, gentle smile and laughed. She was happy. Her boyfriend had
proposed and she was already making plans for the wedding she just
knew would be spectacular. Everyone back at the country club would
not just be green with envy, but they would forever be in her debt.
Just to be invited, especially if the new president could also
Clearly, as the first-person narrator relates this
event, she cannot know what either Nova or Marie is thinking. This
is an error almost all novice’s make. The error occurs not only when
writing in the first person, but when writing in the third person.
The only way a narrator can know what is happening is by overhearing
the conversation or being clairvoyant.
- First person is more presentation than second or
third person, and the readers notice the narrator
more. It is also intimate, and the reader
can come to know the character, not just be part of her thoughts
and dreams but feel what she feels.
(To be continued.)
Card, Orson Scott.
The Elements of Fiction Writing Series: Characters &
Viewpoint: How to Invent, Construct, and Animate Vivid, Credible
Characters and Choose the Best Eyes Through Which to View the Events
of Your Short Story or Novel. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books,
1988. Pages 126-174.
Checkoway, Julie, ed.
Creating Fiction: Instructions and Insights from the Teachers of
the Associated Writing Programs. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1999.
Davis, J. Madison.
Novelist’s Essential Guide to Creating Plot. Cincinnati:
Writer’s Digest Books, 2000. Pages 61-77.
Ducornet, Rikki. The Stain. Normal, Illinois: Dalkey
Archive Press, 1984.
Fiction Writer’s Workshop. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1995.
Writing Fiction: Step By Step. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1998.
Obstfeld, Raymond. Novelist’s
Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest
Books, 2000. Pages 38-50.
The Elements of Fiction Writing Series: Description: How to
Engage Readers and Keep Stories Moving by Creating Vivid, Believable
Depictions of People, Places, Events and Actions. Cincinnati:
Writer’s Digest Books, 1995. Pages
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