The Artistry and Craft of the Bard
(III)© 2002 by Lifetrekker
Point of View—An Overview
Part Three—Third-Person Point of
"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)
In third-person point of view (POV), the pronouns used for
the narrator are: she, he, it, they, them, her, him, its, etc.
Third-person point of view may be either objective (a factual,
eyewitness account), limited (confined to one character), or
omniscient (all-knowing). Third person is the most used point of
view, yet for the novice writer it can be one of the most difficult
objective or dramatic, the story’s narrator plays the role of a
reporter or camera, like a detached, fly-on-the-wall observer who is
not a character in the story. The narrator reports what the
character is doing without entering her head and can only tell the
reader what she sees. She has no idea what the character is
thinking, nor is she aware of any events or actions that occur
outside the scene. Here is an example from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s
"Young Goodman Brown." Everything we know comes from the
Young Goodman Brown came
forth at sunset into the street at Salem village, put his head
back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss
with his young wife. And Faith, as the wife was aptly named,
thrust her own pretty head into the street, letting the wind play
with the pink ribbons on her cap while she called to Goodman
"Dearest heart," whispered
she, softly and rather sadly, when her lips were close to his
ears, "prithee put off your journey until sunrise and sleep in
your own bed to-night [sic]. A lone woman is troubled with
such dreams and such thoughts that she’s afeard of herself
sometimes. Pray tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all
night in the year."
"My love and my Faith,"
replied young Goodman Brown, "of all night in the year, this one
night must I tarry away from thee. My journey, as thoust callest
it, forth and back again, must needs be done `twixt now and
sunrise. What, my sweet, pretty wife, dost thou doubt me already,
and we but three months married?"
Why is this objective?
This is objective for the following reasons:
- The narrator is an
outside observer and only paints the scene;
- The reader only
knows what each character thinks through the dialogue and the
"showing" of action; and,
- The voice and editorial
prerogative of the author are absent.
An excellent example of
third-person objective, "Young Goodman Brown" is in the public
domain and easy to find online through a search engine. Take a peek
at it. Read it for fun, then go back and read it again for the
structure of the objective point of view.
Other examples abound. Some
have said that third-person objective is the most frequently
used viewpoint in literature. Look back at the classes you have
taken in literature or English. While much of modern narrative
literature uses a broad spectrum of voice and point of view, the
earliest stories and pre-novels—the Bible, the Qaran, Aesop’s Tales,
almost every myth or bardic legend ever recorded, Boccacio’s
Decameron, medieval epics like Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight, The Song of Roland—use this third-person objective point
of the view.
In more modern fiction,
which tends to use more limited and omniscient voices, the objective
viewpoint is still prevalent. Shirley Jackson’s "The Lottery," John
Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and his short story, "The
Chrysanthemums," Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Dashiell
Hammett’s pot-boiler The Glass Key, George Orwell’s Animal
Farm, Clive Cussler’s Valhalla Rising are just a few.
Using third-person objective
has a number of benefits: it is the least intrusive; it does not
editorialize; it even may be the most reliable because, like the
film of a camera, it does not lie. Characters may lie through
action, deed, and dialogue; but the objective narrator may not. This
narrator is only a spectator. Because the objective narrator knows
only what he observes, he is ignorant of future events. This
ignorance is useful to an author in building suspense and is
frequently found in the horror/suspense genre of modern commercial
Third-person objective also has its
limitations. This point of view relies heavily on action and
dialogue: the reader learns what a character knows or feels only by
means of what he or she does and says. Therefore, the narrative can
become superficial and lack psychological depth. Examples of this
flaw are easily seen. Compare some great stories that emphasize
character and their thoughts and motivations with how those stories
have translated to film. Often they fail. Not just because of
Hollywood’s craving for the next big blockbuster and emphasis on
action over character, but because the camera alone cannot capture
intrinsic emotions. Films rely more on dialogue, setting, and the
descriptive abilities of the camera. The same is true for the author
who chooses to tell a story using the objective point of
Third-person limited point of view
[also called third-person limited conscience, third-person
central intelligence, third-person central consciousness,
or select omniscient narrator (limited omniscient)] works
from inside a single character. The reader sees what the
character sees; feels what the character feels; hears, tastes, and
smells what the character hears, tastes, and smells. The character
acts as a filter to the events taking place in and around her
environment. This character is often the focal point of the story
and as such is called the focalizer.
Example: The dining hall buzzed
with conversation. Laura took her tray and made her way to an
empty table midway between the back windows overlooking the
dumpster and the doors leading back to the facilities main
hallway, which led to the T.V. room, library, classrooms, and her
cell. It wasn’t like there was much, if anything, to watch. She’d
already read half a dozen books in the last three weeks, and who
knew how long the juvenile judicial system, social workers,
shrinks, and what all planned to keep her in her present version
of home; but one thing was certain, she was ready to leave.
Perhaps Vicksburg hadn’t been that bad. Perhaps she should have
just stayed put, tried to fit in. An impossibility, that much she
was certain of. But why come back here? Why when everything and
everyone that she had known and loved was gone? She knew that
answer, too. It was home, at least sort of.
This viewpoint abounds in thousands
of stories and novels in modern literature. For example, J.R.R.
Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel,
Sarah Orne Jewett’s "A White Heron," Franz Kafka’s "The
Metamorphosis," Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series,
Susan Glaspell’s "A Jury of Her Peers," William Faulkner’s "Barn
Burning," and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr.
Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
A number of advantages exist when
using third-person limited point of view. It tends to be quite
realistic, even when the subject matter or plot is not, such as in
The Hobbit and other works found in the science
fiction/fantasy genre. Easily, it is a key ingredient in unifying an
entire story, or novel. However, this viewpoint also has some
limitations: the reader only knows what the character knows, nothing
more, and sometimes even less, depending on the reliability of the
character as narrator.
Today, especially in larger works of
fiction like the novel, the third-person point of view is often a
limited shifting point of view or third-person successive
or multiple point of view. Like the third-person limited, this
point of view focuses on one character at a time. But the focus
might be for a section, chapter, or even a single scene, rather than
for the entire length of the novel. For instance in my Star Trek:
The Next Generation uber novel, The Inspection, Chapter
1, is told from the point of view of Admiral Chinua Ngombo, and
Chapters 2 and 3 are filtered through Dr. Beverley Crusher’s point
of view. I used the same technique in writing Inspection’s
prequel, The Ambassador.
The third-person limited shifting
can be a powerful structural tool in bringing together a narrative,
especially one that covers a large expanse of time or space. It is
often used for multigenerational novels like Kim Stanley Robinson’s
and Ben Bova’s Mars series, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, or
James Michener’s Chesapeake, Centennial, Texas, and Alaska.
It can anchor a novel involving numerous characters or plot lines,
as in Fanny Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes or William Safire’s
Lincoln. It allows the reader to explore the characters and
multiple events more fully. Multiple characters present multiple
perspectives and allow the reader to go where the main character
cannot. As with the third-person limited, there is an omniscient
quality here. Switching viewpoint can also heighten suspense and
increase pace. However, writers, especially novices, must take care
when using this point of view.
Generally, multiple viewpoints
should not be mixed in the same scene. This is called head-hopping.
While someone new to writing may not see why this would be a
problem, this error actually reduces the cohesion of the story’s
overall structure. This can cause confusion for the reader, such as:
Who said that? Who believes that? Who did that? Where are we now?
Readers don’t want to have to reread due to the author’s
carelessness. Also, while it is fun to piece together bits of
conversation, puzzling clues, pieces of action, or maybe even
settings, it is not fun to spend needless energy wondering about
plot flow, who is actually on stage, or which character is doing
what. Sure, mystery makes reading fun, but total confusion due to
poor craftsmanship is not acceptable.
That is why writing instructors are
clear on this point:
From Daniel Steven, "Session 2:
POV RULE NO. 1: Never change
either narrative voice or viewpoint character within a scene. All
changes should be made when beginning a new scene or
POV RULE NO. 2: Never break
POV Rule No. 1.
Very early in a story, the writer
signals to the reader what the point of view will be. Once given,
this signal constitutes a sort of contract between author and
reader. Readers orient themselves using the point of view. They
float along on a stream of verbal signals issuing from a single
consciousness, a coherent persona. If the writer violates the
contract, the reader wakes up. The spell is broken. The dream is
Example of a shift in POV from Neil
Caudle, "Point of View and Voice":
Brenda crossed the stage and turned to face the audience.
They were shadowy and silent, beyond the footlights. The
microphone was too high. She tried to lower it, twisting the
cold, metal bands of the gooseneck in her fingers, but her elbow
jarred the stack of pages she'd laid on the podium. Her notes
fluttered off like wild leaves on the stage. But nobody laughed.
Most of the crowd felt embarrassment for her. Brenda didn't know
what to do. Should she chase after the pages? Could she speak
without notes?Where is the shift in point of view?
The shift occurs with "most of the crowd felt embarrassment for
her." And some of us may feel the shift as early as "nobody
laughed." The shift causes such a disruption that the writer needs
a clumsy, mechanical transition ("Brenda didn’t know what to do")
to get us back to Brenda’s head. Readers may not consciously
detect this kind of shift as they would, say, a misspelled word.
But they will stub a toe on it, feel the spell break. The writer’s
And from Nan Jacobs, "Fiction Workshop #4 Point of View: Rules of
One POV per scene. Story tension is greater when the reader
doesn't know the non-POV character's internal reaction to the
events right away. Sometimes the at-stakes balance shifts in a
scene, therefore a POV switch might enhance the scene. Some "POV
purists" would rather see one POV per chapter.
However, rules can be broken.
Nora Roberts and Judith McNaught, best-selling romance writers,
head-hop all the time.
Rebecca Vinyard, "Point of View: Is
Playing by the Rules for You?" has this to say:
If you aren't a Nora Roberts or a
Judith McNaught, this can make your readers dizzy and confused.
Lord help you if your reader is a writer, because some I've known
(okay, including me) will throw the book across the room if the
POV changes five times in a single paragraph. It's
frustrating...argh! Who's thinking what? This is why beginning
authors are advised to stick with one POV per scene. Think of it
as a consideration for your manuscript's safety.
What do Nora and Judith know that
we don't know? Transitions. These ladies are very, very, good at
making smooth changes from one character's POV to the next.
Cece was sick of watching Brad
comb his rich russet hair. Brad wished Cece would quit staring at
As you can see, the first sentence
is in Cece's POV...it tells us how she feels...sick of Brad! The
second sentence, which should be a new paragraph actually, and
we're in Brad's head now. The POV switch is clear, because I told
you, ‘Brad wished.'
It's as simple as that to change POV; you must make
it clear which character is 'speaking.' I strongly recommend to
limit your POV switches. Changing within the same sentence or
paragraph is VERY confusing. By keeping POV switches from
paragraph to paragraph, your transitions are helped
From a personal standpoint, I try to stay in one POV
per scene. Most of the time, but not always. To me, a love scene
without both POVs packs less emotional punch. Or perhaps, I might
need to shift the tension over to another character within a scene
for plot purposes.
If it is a love scene, I tend to shift
back and forth between the characters, from paragraph to
paragraph. Otherwise, if I make a shift within a scene, I try to
only do it once. Remember, staying with one POV can increase
tension and conflict because of the element of mystery. POV can be
a writer's best friend that way...and in other ways too.
Writers can use a
number of techniques to change point of view:
Physical action can also complete a
transition. Here Simon displays how the sensation of touch can cause
- The easiest is to use chapter
- Within a chapter: space
breaks--with or without lines, a series of dashes or hyphens or
pound symbols--will also work.
- Change time or place, in effect
creating a new scene. If this occurs during a chapter with
multiple scenes, to prevent confusion with the readers, many
writers, especially commercial writers, use space breaks.
- Create a
transition using the non-character narrator or a descriptive
bridge. Here is one provided by Rachel Simon ("The Writer's
Writing Guide: Point of View"):
Leslie dragged her shopping
cart across the vacant lot toward her apartment, head bent
against the wind…Wind whipped broken glass into billowing
pirouettes before her; a shard slashed her cheek…. "You need
help?" she heard, and looked down. It was that kid, that Danny
Dawkins who sits in the wheelchair outside the Shop and Bag
and does yoyo tricks, then begs folks to toss coins into his
knitted cap…. "No. Go away," Leslie said, wiping her cheek so
he wouldn't see her bleed. Just then the wind got louder. Both
of them looked up as a gust blasted across the lot like a
train bearing down on them… the shopping cart seemed to get
sucked right out of Leslie's hands and twirl itself into the
fracas. "Hey!" Leslie called, and snatched forward. Danny
grabbed for it too, but in so doing let go of his wheelchair
handles, and then in the next gust his contraption, his very
own set of customized circular legs, went ass over kettle, and
he heard a clatter in his ears, felt a crunch of his
shoulders, and then he was face down in the ice, inhaling
yesterday's orange juice spill. "Help me," he muttered,
needing her now, hoping to hell that she'd seen, that she
The transition occurs at the
point where the wind gusts and pulls the shopping basket from
Leslie’s hands. This is the non-character narrator. After this,
the point of view switches to Danny. This subtleness doesn’t
jolt the reader.
The non-character narrator
oversees all this, taking us in and out of Leslie's head, then
merely observing during the transition, and then taking us into
Danny's head. If we wanted, we could even have had the
non-character narrator comment on the action during the
transition, give us some quick exposition, or provide some
objective perspective on the whole scene. Either way, it can
oversee all the points of view, and be our passport from one to
Mary is wailing so loud outside,
Billy can't concentrate on his guitar solo, even though he’s in
the basement. Damnit, why did Mom have to leave that brat with
him? He slams out of the house, almost tripping over Mary's stupid
Raggedy Ann on his way to her crumpled tricycle and howling mass
of tears. When he reaches her at the end of the drive, he grabs
her hurt arm. "What happened?" he demands, running his fingers
along the nub of Mary's elbow. "I thought you were going to be
quiet for me." He glowers at her and she lowers her eyes, turning
her face away. His fingers feel smooth as they rub her boo-boo, so
smooth they must be shiny, like raindrops. They feel good, like
she's got her arm in a sprinkler and he's cleaning away all the
All writers play god or goddess in
creating the worlds, characters, and events that shape their
stories. However, in allowing the reader to revel within the inner
souls of characters, their loves, thoughts, demons, dreams, and
memories, no bard is as powerful as the one who uses the
omniscient viewpoint. Here the narrator knows every thought and
dream filling the minds of the characters, everything that has
happened in the past, is happening now, and will happen.
Rikki Ducornet uses the omniscient
viewpoint magnificently in her novel, The Stain. Writers
like Raymond Obstfeld in Masked Dog and The Remington
Factor, and Stephen King in The Stand and
Firestarter, use the technique as a way to build suspense.
The omniscient view can create comic distance as in James
Thurber’s "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; or it can help cover
spans in time, space, or many characters without writing thousands
of pages to do it as in E.L. Doctrow’s Ragtime. (Card, 160)
Here is an example from Anne
Siddon’s novel, Heartbreak Hotel. As you read, take note of
the narrator’s knowledge of the town. You will see that she knows
things the characters would not.
There had never been another
birth announcement after Maggie's to come from the tall old
house with the stone gateposts on Coleman Street. It was as
though Maggie was stamped Sufficient at her birth, and any other
child would have been extraneous, an afterthought.... In the
cities of the South-- in Atlanta and Birmingham and Charlotte
and Mobile and Charleston-- there were perhaps a hundred Maggies
flowering in any given year, girls planted, tended, and grown
like prize roses, to be cut and massed and shown at debutante
balls and cotillions in their eighteenth.
While the omniscient is the most
flexible of all the viewpoints, it is also the one that can most
easily destroy the illusion of reality. "No one can go from one
place to another, [or] read people's minds whenever the story
demands it." (The Narrator, "The Omniscient Narrator
Features"). This is also the most obtrusive and the least
suspenseful of all the viewpoints. If not handled well or
improperly crafted, it can be jerky. It can dilute tension,
confuse the reader as to who is thinking and doing what, and it
can interfere with the emotional commitment of the narrator and
Therefore, as with the multiple
third-person point of view, writers using the omniscient point of
view must use care. The concerns, rules, and techniques for
handling multiple perspectives are also true when working with the
Novelist Radclyffe’s opening
paragraphs in Innocent Hearts is a wonderful handling.
Notice how she uses transitions to maintain the flow and to avoid
jarring or confusing the reader.
Martin Beecher halted the wagon
on a knoll overlooking a sprawling town that lay nestled in a
valley hewn from the eastern reaches of the Rockies. He sat
forward eagerly, anxious for his first glimpse of their new
"There it is, Martha. Come look,
Kate. We've finally arrived!" he exclaimed, reaching for his
wife's hand. She sat beside him on the rough wagon bench, stiff
from the lingering chill of the late spring nights, bundled to
the nose in a heavy blanket.
Martha Beecher surveyed the
scene before her and tried to quell the quick surge of dread.
There were perhaps a dozen buildings in all on either side of a
rutted dirt road that was clearly 'Main Street.' She shielded
her eyes, squinting in the early morning sun to make out other
houses scattered along the outskirts of the town and further
into the foothills wherever homesteaders had settled.
A young woman pushed between
them from the rear of the covered wagon, one gloved hand on each
of their shoulders. Despite the chill she was bareheaded and her
glossy hair shone darkly in the bright sunlight. "Is that it?"
she asked, her voice alight with an echo of her father's
enthusiasm. "Are we here?"
"At last, darling Kate," Martin
answered cheerfully. "New Hope, Montana."
"I am so glad! I can't wait to
meet the Schroeders! Do you know which is their
…Kate did not see the stark
simplicity of the town and the wild countryside as something to
fear, as her mother did. Like her father, she saw a chance that
her life might be more than she had been raised to believe it
…She gripped her father's
shoulder harder, asking, "And the newspaper office, where you'll
be working? That's here, too?"
"One of the very first in the
territory," Martin pronounced proudly, throwing his arms around
his wife. "Just think of it!"
His excitement was so boundless,
and so simple, that Martha's heart lifted at the sight of his
pleasure. She returned his hug and said softly with more
conviction than she felt, "It will be wonderful, darling. I'm
sure of it."
This works well because of the way
it flows. It allows us, the reader, the chance to glimpse into the
minds and emotions, hopes and fears, of the Beecher family as they
look down at the town that will become their home. Beautifully
crafted and beautifully done.
So what is the difference
between the shifting third-person limited and third-person
omniscient? According to Valerie Miner in "Casting Shadows,
Hearing Voices: The Basics of Point of View":
[In the third-person limited
point of view] …less (knowledge on the part of the
fallible narrator) can lead to more (reader empathy with
the struggling point-of-view character)....The omniscient
speaker often knows more (about tomorrow, for instance, or about
the motives of minor characters) than can be expressed in the
third-person limited point of view. The omniscient point of view
can distance the readers from the protagonist and may even
establish a sense that the narrator and the reader are in league
together—beyond the ken of the main character." (Checkoway, 102)
Viewpoint is the structural heart
of fiction. It is the lens through which the reader views the plot
and relates to the character. Not all viewpoints are suited to
every story. Viewpoints must be chosen wisely and with care. Next
month I hope to look at how writers can decide which viewpoint is
best for a given story.
Until then may the Muses be with
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
Julie, ed. Creating Fiction: Instructions and Insights from the
Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs. Cincinnati: Story
Press, 1999. Pages 95-124.
Davis, J. Madison. Novelist’s Essential Guide to
Creating Plot. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2000. Pages
Rikki. The Stain. Normal, Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press,
Ursula K. Steering the Craft. Portland, Oregon: The Eighth
Mountain Press, 1998.
McMahan, Elizabeth and et. al, eds. "Writing about Point of
View." Literature and the Writing Process, Fifth Edition.
(Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1996),
Josip. Fiction Writer’s Workshop. Cincinnati: Story Press,
1995. Pages 99-126.
-----. Writing Fiction: Step By Step. Cincinnati:
Story Press, 1998. Pages 72-91.
Obstfeld, Raymond. Novelist’s
Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes. Cincinnati: Writer’s
Digest Books, 2000. Pages 38-50.
Szeman, Sherri. "Who’s Afraid of Point of
View." The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, edited by
Meg Leder, Jack Heffron, and et. al. (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest
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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