The View from Here: One Writer’s Thoughts on Viewpoint

Any in-depth discussion of viewpoint or point of view (POV) is a complex undertaking because viewpoint is perhaps the most intricate element of fiction. Because in this blog, I aim for simplicity, I will cover a few basics, and, with the examples interspersed, encourage you to register and reflect upon your impressions.

For the moment lets consider point of view as the person and perspective used to narrate the story. More simply yet profoundly put by author and teacher Janet Burroway, viewpoint is the vantage point from which a story is told, and “…it is finally the relationship among writer, characters, and reader…”

You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. From ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain:

How lucky were they? A heat wave in the middle of the school holidays, exactly where it belonged. Every morning the sun was up long before they were, making a mockery of the flimsy summer curtains that hung limply at their bedroom windows, a sun already hot and sticky with promise before Olivia even opened her eyes. Olivia, as reliable as a rooster, always the first to wake, so that no one in the house had bothered with an alarm clock since she was born three years ago.From CASE HISTORIES by Kate Atkinson

In creative writing 101 the possible viewpoints are categorized as first person (I; this narrator may be central or she may be peripheral), second person (you, not commonly used), close or limited third person (she/he; the viewpoint belongs to a central character), and the third person omniscient (authorial voice or persona created by the author to allow an overarching viewpoint encompassing convincing shifts of viewpoint between multiple characters). They each have their strengths and their limitations.  Let’s take a few moments to consider them one by one. 

1st person: 

My great-grandmother Morrison fixed a book rest to her spinning wheel so that she could read while she was spinning, or so the story goes. And one Saturday evening she became so absorbed in her book that when she looked up, she found that it was half past midnight and she had spun for half an hour on the Sabbath day. Back then, that counted as a major sin.From CROW LAKE by Mary Lawson

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.From TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee

2nd person:

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might become clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder.From BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY by Jay McInerney

Close 3rd person:

The girl gripped the steering wheel with both hands. Her fingers were pale where knuckles stretched skin, her arms were thin as sticks. Bones–not flesh–defined her body. Toes on toes, her bare feet pressed the accelerator flush against the Honda’s floorboard. Her head scarcely topped the dashboard, but she saw the narrow horizon of blacktop change suddenly to desert and barbed wire. From A DESPERATE SILENCE by Sarah Lovett

Omniscient/authorial 3rd person:

TREATS OF THE PLACE WHERE OLIVER TWIST WAS BORN; AND OF THE CIRCUMSTANCE ATTENDING HIS BIRTH. Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse, and in this workhouse was born: on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events: the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.From OLIVER TWIST by Charles Dickens

The choice of person—who speaks—will be your primary viewpoint or POV decision. There will be other choices having to do with distance or intimacy of tone, degree of omniscience (in 3rd omniscient), form (written story, reportage, confessional, etc.), and reliability of narrator.  But the most important consideration for now with viewpoint is that, within the first words, paragraphs, pages of your story, you are making a contract with the reader and you risk losing your reader if you decide to break that contract later in the narrative.

One final point about POV or viewpoint when using a peripheral narrator, a character telling someone else’s story—the character perceiving the story should be the character most effected by the story. (Think Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby: he tells the story of Jay Gatsby but at the end it is Nick who is alive and profoundly changed by what he has witnessed and relayed to us, the readers.)

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”From THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald

A few words about “voice”: your voice as a writer is distinctly recognizable, a combination of tone and style that let’s readers know you are you. Keep writing and don’t worry about finding your voice because it’s already yours. To quote Janet Burroway once more, “Worry about saying things as clearly, precisely, and vividly as you can. Make your language as rich, flexible, and varied as you can make it. In other words, seek to voice, and your voice will follow.”

Consider more viewpoint selections below, and as you read–from the first word onward–register everything you can about the viewpoint the author has chosen:

Savitsky, the commander of the Sixth Division, rose when he saw me, and I was taken aback by the beauty of his gigantic body. He rose—his breeches purple, his crimson cap cocked to the side, his medals pinned to his chest—splitting the hut in two like a banner splitting the sky. He smelled of perfume and the nauseating coolness of soap. His long legs looked like two girls wedged to their shoulders in riding boots. From “My First Goose”, THE RED CALVALRY STORIES by Isaac Babel

Sister John of the Cross pushed her blanket aside, dropped to her knees on the floor of her cell, and offered the day to God.Every moment a beginning, every moment an end.The silence of the monastery coaxed her out of herself, calling her to search for something unfelt, unknown, and unimagined. Her spirit responded to this call with an algorithm of longing. Every moment of being contained an indivisible—and invisible—denominator.She lit a candle and faced the plain wooden cross on the wall. It had no corpus because, in spirit, she belonged there, taking Christ’s place and helping relieve his burden.Suffering borne by two is nearly joy. From LYING AWAKE by Mark Salzman

Manuel and his wife were poor, and when they first looked for an apartment in Paris, they found only two dark rooms below the street level, giving on to a small stifling courtyard. Manuel was sad. He was an artist, and there was no light in which he could work. His wife did not care. She would go off each day to do her trapeze act for the circus. From LITTLE BIRDS by Anais Nin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *