The Writer & POV

Point of View — Who’s Voice is it Anyway?

*Think of your reader first.*
*Think of what she will feel after reading your work.*
*Think about the relationship between this reader and the person telling your story.*
*What kind of relationship is it?*
*And most importantly — why?*


For me writing fiction is about making choices and the biggest choice you can make is voice; and, by voice I mean POV (point of view).
Wayne C. Booth, a literary theorist, writes that “in dealing with point-of-view the novelist must always deal with the individual work.” In other words, POV is not a cookie-cutter solution, it is unique to each and every piece of prose writers set down on the page.
Questions to ask: which particular character; what level of preciseness and reliability; the privilege level of the character (access) and the freedom this particular character has to speak.
The idea should not be to choose a POV/narrator by default — “oh, I always write in third person.” Rather, it is to be aware of the differences the choice calibration will have on the reader’s experience, because that is what’s most important. So it is very, very important that you give some thought to the effect you want to leave the reader with.
The writer’s discernment gives him or her the power over readers. Choose wisely.
First — as protagonist, as a witness, as a reteller. One of the most famous “Call me Ishmael…” from Moby-Dick, whereby the reader is told a story that happened by a person who remains nameless, since Ishmael is not the narrator’s real name, and therefore could be hiding something…or attempting to sway the story?
Third — omniscient, objective or limited in some way (Henry James has an interesting narrator/POV in The Princess Cassamassima — the focal POV whereby the narrator is the third person observing a two-character conversation or interaction; think about the possibilities).
The rarely used, but not completely abandoned Second — a rather unspecified beast, who seems to be speaking to a former self, a divided consciousness perhaps. In my unpublished novel Thawing Grace or One Thousand Red Hands the story is partly narrated in second person by a dead girl, the girl commenting in a way on her “live” self. The Irish-American novelist Edna O’Brien wrote A Pagan Place entirely in second person. “One day your father had a pitch forth raised to your mother and said I’ll spilt the head of you open and your mother said AndWhen you’ve done it there will be a place for you. And you were sure that he would and you and your sister Emma were onlookers…” Brilliant. Don’t forsake second person and don’t disparage it to others. Keep it in your arsenal and there will be a time when it applies and it flies.
When decided upon voice or POV, consider: the many ways it can be told (speaking the story aloud, a letter, reliving a memory); be cognizant about the distance between the *telling* and the *experiencing* narrator — how much time has lapsed, what emotions are still involved, how impacted was this person? And ultimately, you want to consider by what degree your narrator can be *trusted* One of the greatest narrators in literature, John Dowell, in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier is completely unreliable, because he’s ignorant. (There’s a whole school of thought on high and low tragic or comedic heroes of prose that helps writers calibrate the impact their prose will have on their readers).
When your character/narrator knows all, the choice then is to consider that you are allowing the character to be the controller of everything, to be the authority of all. However, you could consider having your third person narrator a tad limited to what is seen and heard, as perhaps a reader observing would, allowing the story to unfold by itself more organically. And always remember, a third person narrator can be an invented character too, with its own perspective. Even the omniscient have feelings.
And consider these attributes for your narrator, which is often the protagonist, but not always:
1. the narrator should have a desire (always)
2. the narrator should have a significant history with the desire and the situation at hand
3. the narrator should have a language her own involving diction, syntax and figurative language. Essentially, the character/narrator needs to speak in such a way to reflect the desire and the significant attachment or history.

— class notes from Wayne C. Booth, Jack Hodgins and Douglas Glover