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By Ruth Nestvold, member and author of "Latency Time" (Asimov's Science Fiction, July, 2001)

Point of view, viewpoint, first person, third person: a story can't be written without "using" point of view. And the better we know the ways in which it can be used, the better use we will make of it.

The two main points of view are those of third-person narration, in which the narrator stands outside the story itself, and first-person narration, in which the narrator participates in the story. The first type always uses third-person pronouns ("he," "she," "they"), while the latter narrator also uses the first-person ("I").

These are not the only distinctions, however. Besides exotic types like second person narration (the standard form for text adventures), first and third person can be used in many different variations.

Third person

The omniscient third-person narrator may choose to guide the reader's understanding of characters and the significance of their story. This type of narrator may be intrusive (commenting and evaluating, as in the novels of Austen, Dickens, and Tolstoy), or unintrusive (describing without much commentary, as in Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Hemingway's short stories). Another possibility is third-person limited (and with it, successive third person limited), probably the most frequently used point of view in contemporary fiction. Here the narrative voice limits itself to describing in the third-person only what is experienced by one character, or a series of characters in succession (stream-of-consciousness narration fits into this category).

The character who fills the role of filtering the events of the story to the reader is sometimes called a "focalizer"--he or she provides the focus for the story. This kind of narration is also referred to as selective omniscience and multiple selective omniscience - the story is told as if it is coming directly from the minds of the characters, but the narrative voice has access to some of those minds and is thus "selectively omniscient."

First person

The first-person narrator is generally a character within the story and therefore limited in understanding. He or she might be an observer who happens to see the events of the story or play a minor role in the action ("I" as witness as in Melville's Moby-Dick [1851]), or might be the main character ("I" as protagonist as in J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye [1951]).

This is the most common way of looking at point of view--but it isn't the only way. The narratologist Wayne C. Booth, for example, (The Rhetoric of Fiction [1961]) uses as his main distinction whether a narrator is dramatized or impersonal. According to this scheme, the intrusive, authorial narrator telling a story in the third person is in the same category as the first person narrator because both are dramatized. The emphasis here is on the way the narrator appears to the reader, the effect the narrative voice has on the reading experience.

You, "the author," and authorial voice

Your characters are not the only ones that end up having a voice in your fiction. Surveys of readers have shown that the impression they have of the "author," the teller of the tale, also influences their experience of the story. For this reason, a distinction is sometimes made also between the narrator, the author, and the implied author; the implied author is a presence inferred by the reader as the guiding personality behind the work, not necessarily synonymous with the actual author, who may have written other books with a different "voice," thus creating different implied authors.

Voice refers to the controlling presence or "authorial voice" behind the characters, narrators, and personae of literature. It is also described as the implied author. The particular qualities of the author's voice are manifested by her or his method of expression (an ironic narrator, a lyric persona), specific language, and so forth.

There are a few other interesting terms to know when considering the many possibilities of point of view beyond first person and third person limited:

  • The self-conscious narrative, which draws attention to its own fictional nature
  • The self-reflexive narrative, which describes an act of fictional composition within its story (like a play-within-a-play)
  • The fallible or unreliable narrator, as in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw (1898)
  • Editorial omniscience--Narrative dominated by authorial voice, speaking as "I" or "we"; the tendency is away from scene and towards summary narrative. (Henry Fielding's Tom Jones).
  • Neutral omniscience--No direct comments by the author, but the scene is rendered as the author sees it and not as any individual character sees it.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself when considering how to use point of view:

  • In your story, who will be communicating with the reader? ("author" using third or first person, character in first, or ostensibly no one)
  • Do you want to write in your character's voice, your "own" voice, or use a relatively "objective" voice?
  • From what position or angle regarding the story will he or she tell it? Where will the "camera" be? (above, periphery, center, front, or shifting)
  • What channels of information will the narrator use to convey the story to the reader? (author's words, thoughts, perceptions, feelings; character's words and actions; or character's thoughts, perceptions and feelings)
  • What distance does he or she place the reader from the story?
  • How much of the story will be "telling" and how much "showing"?