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- First Person…A character tells their own story – they are the narrator. It is distinguished at all times by the use of the pronoun ‘I’ and the narrator must be in every scene.
- Second Person…the writer addresses a third person at all times, using the pronoun ‘you’. Not a popular choice, but works well in short stories, as in the anthology You, Me and a Bit of We (in which on of my own stories appears)
- 3rd person Limited…sometimes called the 3rd person subjective, we only see inside one character’s head. The narrator seems to sit on his shoulder, but it’s fairly clear that the character and the narrator are not absolutely the same. It’s a straightforward POV, but because we are only inside on character’s head at a time we are definitely not allowed to wander into others, or view scenes the narrator is not in.
- 3rd person Deep While using the 3rd Person Limited, above, the writers dips deeply into a single person’s head, until we read what David Lodge describes as Free Indirect Discourse, which is a bit of a mouthful, so I usually refer to this as filterless monologue The convention that the reader is witnessing the narrator’s thoughts gives the narrative a rich, inner feeling of attachment to the narrator. There are no secrets, everything is exposed. In extreme cases, this might be said to be stream of consciousness, a literary POV best served in fairly small doses.Filterless monologue is hard to maintain, but that’s less of a worry because you don’t have to maintain it – you can move in and out of this deeper perspective, because the two 3rd Person POV’s are so close in construction that it is possible to allow a single piece of work to move between them at will, without having technically gone outside the 3rd Person POV…i.e. use of the pronoun ‘he/she’.
- Omniscient….At one end of the range is the god-like perspective, where almost no character is examined closely and there is no ‘dropping down’ into anyone’s consciousness. This is also known as ‘legitimate authorial standpoint’ and probably the most tricky POV for the 21stC writer. The ‘hovering above the characters’ aspect can feel cold and unaffecting, but allows an ironic overview which achieves a detached, humorous tone. At the other end of the omniscient range is the constant fluctuation between intimate viewpoints, even within the same sentence. Navokovich called this latter approach propelling the reader into a new angle. E.M. Foster called it ‘bouncing’. Excellent for stories in which a richer effect would be created by knowing what several characters think, this gives a ‘lifted’ tone to work. Because the Omniscient offers a complete range of vision over the narration, the narrator must know everything. You have all the power; you can shift in time and space at whim from character to character, inside thoughts, feelings and motives. It’s your choice as writer what glimpses the the reader will have into any character’s head. All this is devilishly difficult to achieve well – most of the examples of omniscient I see as a tutor are errors of judgement on the writer’s part; they’ve moved outside their chosen POV without realizing it. Julia Bell warns that you should avoid ‘headhopping’…An uncontrolled third-person point of view is something I encounter all the time in creative writing workshops, sometimes accompanied by a grumpy writer…every character in the room gets a POV – even the dog. This is just bad writing…
- 3rd Person Wide-ranging. One way of achieving the effect of an omniscient viewpoint is to approach it casually. By taking a step away from the intimacy of the limited and deep 3rd Person, described above but staying mostly with one character, you’ll gain a more flexible canvas to work on. In this format, a single character is often still the central point of the narration, but the author can tell us what goes on outside their range of vision, even moving into scenes they don’t inhabit. This is used a lot in books where a narrator tells almost all the story themselves, except for some limited scenes – J K Rowling uses it all the time in the Harry Potter books; few readers notice there are scenes that are not in Harry’s 3rd Person POV. This ‘take’ on the Omniscient allows you to further experiment with style and can be a lot of fun as you move back from being right inside a single head, but it needs professional handling or it can lose its ‘thread’ and become muddled – the writer must be absolutely sure they understand, and are in control, of their perspectives, especially knowing how to tackle ‘chill’ of the Omniscient, because once you move away from that central narrator, you’re not offering the reader the one thing they’re craving; that deep intimacy with a single character they identify with.
- Plural Viewpoints…the ‘we’ form (2nd person plural) and the ‘they’ form (3rd person plural) are not often used in fiction. For a start they are fiendishly difficult to maintain successfully. But Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is written from the perspective of a group of boys who grow up fascinated by the Lisbon family and their five daughters, we do not get the sense of one person narrating on behalf of a group. Instead, a strong collective voice comes through; it could be any one of the boys, or they could even be taking it in turns to narrate…We climbed up to the tree house the way we always had, stepping in the knothole, then on the nailed board, then on two bent nails, before grasping the frayed rope and pulling ourselves through the trapdoor…The oblong window we’d cut with a handsaw years ago still looked onto the front of the Lisbon house. Next to it were five spotted photographs of the Lisbon girls, pinned with rusty tacks…
- Multi-viewpoint…This is a popular format, where all the changes of viewpoint are at specific moments in the text; usually the changeover of scene, chapter, etc. Perspectives can also be alternated with other points of view.This is not an Omniscient POV; most multi-viewpoint books don’t touch the Omniscient, they simply move through different viewpoints. Margaret Atwood uses this technique in The Edible Woman. To reflect her protagonist’s growing sense of detachment, Atwood starts the novel in first person, switches to third part way through, and changes back to first for the last section of the book. ; i.e. write your chosen piece mostly in a wide-ranging 3rd person, becoming authorial on necessary occasions.
- What do you want the reader to know, and therefore, who is the best character to reveal these things…or not?
- Whose voice would tell the story in the most gripping manner?
- Which voice gives us the crucial information we need to understand what is happening?
- Do you want only one character to control our understanding of events, or would it be preferable to have an omniscient narrator furnishing facts and insights that the characters themselves do not have?
- Do you need a second perspective to allow the reader to see things a single POV will not cover?