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Narrative Perspectives: Types of Point of View

L. Sarhan has a B.A. in English and Creative Writing. She currently working on an M.A. in English and Creative Writing.

Choosing the right point of view is an important storytelling element feature and has a great impact on how a story is told. Point of view is the perspective a writer uses to show the narrator’s authority and allows the reader to experience the inner thoughts of a character directly or indirectly from an objective observer perspective. Depending on the point of view an author chooses to use can determine how the reader understands and participates in the story.

First-Person Narration

First-person point of view uses the pronouns I, me, my, myself, we, us, our, ourselves. It provides a subjective perspective of the story and the impact it has on the character or characters involved.

Advantages: The reader can immediately connect with the character or narrator telling the story.

Disadvantages: The writer is limited to telling the story from only one perspective and the reader is limited to understanding the story from one standpoint.

First-Person Central

First-person central is told from the perspective of a specific character. The most common first-person central point of view is written from the perspective of the protagonist allowing the reader to experience the thoughts, emotions, and viewpoints of the character the story is about. It brings the reader closer to the main character and more sympathetic to the protagonist’s struggles.

Example

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood is based on historic events in 1843 where a manservant was hung for the murder of his employers and Grace Marks was imprisoned as an accessory. The story is told by Grace to a physician trying to vindicate her.

“It’s 1851. I’ll be twenty-four years old next birthday. I have been shut up in here since the age of sixteen. I am a model prisoner, and give no trouble. That’s what the Governor’s wife says, I have overheard her saying it. I’m skilled at overhearing. If I am good enough and quiet enough, perhaps after all they will let me go; but it’s not easy being quiet and good…” (5)

First-Person Peripheral

First-person peripheral is when the story is told from the perspective of one of the major or minor characters as they recall the events that happened to the protagonist. This would also be a subjective point of view because the narrator would not certain things about the protagonist, such as what the protagonist is thinking unless the protagonist shares his or her thoughts through dialogue. In other words, the narrator would only be able to assume the inner thoughts and feelings of the protagonist based on the narrator’s observations and opinions.

Example

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald depicts narrator Nick Carraway's interactions with mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby and Gatsby's obsession to reunite with his former lover, Daisy Buchanan. Choosing to use first-person peripheral may be because the events of the story are more significant to Nick or that he has a secret or something he wants to hide about the other characters in the story from the reader. First-person peripheral is also a good choice given that the main character dies during the story, thus if it was told from Gatsby’s perspective the story would have come to an abrupt end.

“When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction – Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.” (2)

First-Person Plural

First-person plural is when the narration point of view is written from the perspective of a group of people, such as those with a shared experience. The pronouns used include we, us, our, and ourselves.

Advantages: Using a first-person plural narrative can be useful in sharing the experience of a group of people. This is commonly found in literature that showcases atrocities against certain classes or demographics in society. When used, the story is more plot-driven.

Disadvantages: First-person plural is rarely used because it is sometimes difficult to maintain as it narrates from a collective consciousness compared to a single character. Readers may find it difficult to connect with a specific character.

Example

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka is a story about Japanese picture brides. The author chose to use first-person plural to tell the story of a group of women. If Otsuka told the story from a first-person central, first person peripheral, or third-person perspective, it would lose the sense of collectiveness.

“Some of us on the boat were from Kyoto, and were delicate and fair, and had lived our entire lives in darkened rooms at the back of the house. Some of us were from Nara, and prayed to our ancestors three times a day, and swore we could still hear the temple bells ringing. Some of us were farmers' daughters from Yamaguchi with thick wrists and broad shoulders who had never gone to bed after nine. Some of us were from a small mountain hamlet in Yamanashi and had only recently seen our first train. Some of us were from Tokyo, and had seen everything, and spoke beautiful Japanese, and did not mix much with any of the others. Many more of us were from Kagoshima and spoke in a thick southern dialect that those of us from Tokyo pretended we could not understand. Some of us were from Hokkaido, where it was snowy and cold, and would dream of that white landscape for years. Some of us were from Hiroshima, which would later explode, and were lucky to be on the boat at all though of course we did not then know it. The youngest of us was twelve, and from the eastern shore of Lake Biwa, and had not yet begun to bleed.” (7-8)

Second-Person Narration

The use of second-person point of view is a unique narration style that is not often used by writers because it is difficult to maintain without becoming redundant. However, it is not without its advantages. Second-person point of view uses personal pronouns, such as you, your, yours. It allows readers to become a part of the story through the view of the narrator. This gives readers a special vantage point as they feel much closer to the protagonist than using first or second-person point-of-view narration styles.

Advantages: The reader feels actively a part of the story being told.

Disadvantages: It is often difficult to maintain consistency in the narration and the reader may be resistant to accepting this forced role.

Example:

Grace Period by Will Baker is a flash fiction piece where a character is caught in a confusing apocalyptic moment. It is written in a way that makes it seem like the narrator is telling the reader’s reactions and thoughts at this moment in time.

“You shut off the electric hedge trimmers, thinking maybe vibration is affecting your inner ear. Then you are aware that the dog is whining from under the porch. On the other hand you don't hear a single bird song. A semi shifts down with a long backrap of exhaust on the state highway a quarter mile away. A few inches above one horizon an invisible jet is drawing a thin white line across the sky.” (Baker)

Third-Person Narration

Third-person point of view is a narration style that writers use to write about the characters within a story but not an active part of the story. This point of view will use the characters’ names and pronouns, such as he, she, and they.

Third-Person Objective

The purpose of the narrator is to tell a story from an unbiased, seemingly neutral point of view about the characters and events. The narrator is not privy to what any of the characters are thinking or how they are feeling and does not favor one character over another. In some cases, the narrator not does the narrator try to interpret or pass judgment on the characters’ actions or events within the story. Some people have compared third-person objective to being “a fly on the wall” or simply observing what the characters do and how the story unfolds.

By not knowing the characters’ intentions, third-person objective is often used with stories that are more plot-driven as the writer focuses more on the action within the story than the characters themselves.

Advantages: This narration style works well with suspense, mystery, and thriller novels as sometimes concealing certain aspects, such as thoughts and feelings, about a character helps to create a more interesting plot.

Disadvantages: For some readers, it is difficult to make strong connections to the characters. Therefore, if your story is more character-driven, third-person objective may not be the narration style to use.

Example

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson is told by using a third-person objective narration style. The narrator is not a part of the story but simply recounts the way the characters reacted during the annual lottery town tradition.

“Soon the men began to gather, surveying their own children, speaking of planting and rain, tractors and taxes. They stood together, away from the pile of stones in the corner, and their jokes were quiet and they smiled rather than laughed. The women, wearing faded house dresses and sweaters, came shortly after their menfolk. They greeted one another and exchanged bits of gossip as they went to join their husbands. Soon the women, standing by their husbands, began to call to their children, and the children came reluctantly, having to be called four or five times.” (Jackson)

Third-Person Omniscient

The narrator in the third-person omniscient point of view is all-knowing. This narration knows the thoughts and feelings of a few, many, or all the characters within a story. This narration point of view is also the most flexible point of view for writers. There are two main types of third-person omniscient: objective and subjective. Objective third-person omniscient is when the narrator knows the thoughts and actions of multiple characters but tells the story from an outside, or objective perspective. Subjective third-person omniscient is when the characters become the narrator.

Limited third-person omniscient, also known as close third narration, is a type of subjective third-person narration. It is when the narrator switches between different characters, but will stay with one until the end of a chapter or scene. This often leads to “head-hopping”. Head-hopping is when the writer shows what each character is thinking or feeling directly and hops from one point of view to the next.

Advantages: An advantage to third-person omniscient is being able to explore the relationship between characters in depth by understanding the perspective of multiple character perspectives. This allows the narrator to address underlying issues the characters may not address themselves. This also allows the reader to be exposed to all sides of a situation.

Disadvantages: A disadvantage to third-person omniscient is that it may be difficult for some readers to connect specifically to one character. A common mistake writers make when using third-person omniscient is “head-hopping”. While understanding the point of view of a few or all characters can work, it is more effective to do so with the narrator’s words instead of always through the character’s words.

Example

In Beloved by Toni Morrison, the author uses third-person omniscient to expose the trauma slavery has on all the characters. The narrator knows how the events of the story impact each character and show the psychological toll of the characters without head-hopping.

“Worse than that---far worse--- was what Baby Suggs died of, what Ella knew, what Stamp saw and what made Paul D tremble. That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn‘t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn‘t think it up." (251)


Third-Person Limited

Third-person limited narration is when the narrator only knows the thoughts and perspectives of a single character throughout the story. There is no head-hopping or switching character perspectives as seen in third-person omniscient or limited third-person omniscient. Often times third-person limited narration is from the protagonist’s point of view or someone close to the central character.

Advantages: The readers get to tag along with the central character and experience the story as the character does, thus making the character more relatable. An advantage to writers to write in third-person limited is they can focus more on character development. This is especially advantageous for character-driven stories. By limiting the perspective to one character, the author can hide information that builds tension and page-turning intrigue.

Disadvantages: Because the reader experiences the story as the central character does, if something happens outside the central character’s view, the reader doesn’t know about it. The narration of third-person limited is rarely objective, therefore it can lead to biases and misinterpretation of an author’s intentions.

Example

J.K. Rowling uses third-person limited in the Harry Potter series. In the example below, the narrator in The Sorcerer’s Stone shows only Harry Potter’s perspective. Harry doesn’t know what time it is and if the Dursley’s are asleep yet, thus neither does the reader.

“Harry lay in his dark cupboard much later, wishing he had a watch. He didn’t know what time it was and he couldn’t be sure the Dursley’s were asleep yet. Until they were, he couldn’t risk sneaking into the kitchen for food.” (29)

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. Alias Grace. Anchor. 1997.

Baker, William. "Grace Period." Flash fiction: very short stories. New York: Norton, 1992.

Fitzgerald, F S. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995.

Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” The Lottery and Other Stories. New York: Farrar, 1991.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Plume-Penguin, 1988.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Kindle Edition. Pottermore Publishing, 2015.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Linda Sarhan

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