In this lesson, we will explore Point of View (PoV) in your work and how you can leverage PoV shifts to discover details about your characters and settings. (The above recording is not crisp, 1959, and I apologize for that, but it’s such a treat to hear Flannery O’Connor read her work in that southern accent. The story and a link are in full below, so don’t feel you have to listen to the entire recording.)
First, let’s quickly review PoV. Then, we’ll dig into a few excellent PoV studies before exploring our own!
Point of View
You already understand point of view, but for identification purposes, we’ll just list the definition here: Point of view refers to the perspective the author uses to tell the story. Though authors may switch and combine points of view, in traditional fiction there exists three points of view:
- Authorial Distance (Psychic Distance): “Fictional point of view always involves the distance, close or far, of the perceiver from the thing perceived. Authorial distance, sometimes called psychic distance, is the degree to which we as readers feel on the one hand intimacy and identification with, or on the other hand detachment and alienation from, the characters” (Writing Fiction).
- Third Person: “In third person, the author tells the story. But the author decides if the events will be objectively given, or if she can go into the mind of every character; to what degree she can interpret that character; to what degree she can know the past and the future; and how many authorial judgments will be allowed. For example, Chekhov uses Third person limited omniscient in his story, “Vanka.” Chekhov tells us when Vanka is thinking, but he doesn’t go into detail about what Vanka is thinking about. Chekhov lets the action show what Vanka is thinking about. If Chekhov had written the story in third person omniscient, then we would know everything that was on Vanka’s mind, and we would be given a great deal of interpretation about why Vanka acts the way he acts. If Chekhov had chosen to write “Vanka” in Third person objective, we would only get those details that could be outwardly observed. Vanka would not pause to think twice about how he should begin his letter to his grandfather. We might see him lift his pen, and then start writing again, but nothing more” (Purdue Online Writing Lab).
- Second Person: “Second person is unusual in fiction and is more common in poetry. In second person, the character is not referred to as he or she, or by name, but rather as ‘you.’ If Chekhov had written ‘Vanka’ in second person, it would begin like this: “You, a boy of nine, who had been for three months apprenticed to Alyahin the shoemaker, were sitting up on Christmas Eve” (Purdue Online Writing Lab).
- First Person: “Authors use first person when a narrator who is also a character in the story speaks. Baldwin’s story, ‘Sonny’s Blues,’ is written in first person, and begins: ‘I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work.’ The narrator who speaks is Sonny’s older brother, and he is also the main character in the story” (Purdue Online Writing Lab).
Reading for PoV
A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Excerpts)
by Flannery O’Connor
♦ While reading the narrative, notice how “pulled out” or distant the voice is. The third person PoV creates a psychic distance that reminds us, the entire way through the short story, that we are reading another person’s story. It gives the narrative a fable-like aesthetic.
The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. “Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. “Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.”
Bailey didn’t look up from his reading so she wheeled around then and faced the children’s mother, a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit’s ears. She was sitting on the sofa, feeding the baby his apricots out of a jar. “The children have been to Florida before,” the old lady said. “You all ought to take them somewhere else for a change so they would see different parts of the world and be broad. They never have been to east Tennessee.”
The children’s mother didn’t seem to hear her but the eight-year-old boy, John Wesley, a stocky child with glasses, said, “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” He and the little girl, June Star, were reading the funny papers on the floor.
“She wouldn’t stay at home to be queen for a day,” June Star said without raising her yellow head.
“Yes and what would you do if this fellow, The Misfit, caught you?” the grandmother asked.
“I’d smack his face,” John Wesley said.
“She wouldn’t stay at home for a million bucks,” June Star said. “Afraid she’d miss something. She has to go everywhere we go.”
“All right, Miss,” the grandmother said. “Just remember that the next time you want me to curl your hair.”
June Star said her hair was naturally curly….READ THE FULL STORY
The Road (Excerpts)
by Cormac McCarthy
♦ In the following excerpt, notice how the novel opens with some psychic distance, third person subjective, but we still feel close to this man. The aesthetic is similar to O’Connor’s. The third person offers a sort of fairy tail-ish, fable-like feel.
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark….
♦ Later in the novel, McCarthy moves from third person to a very close in second person, the man speaking to himself, within the same paragraph.
They lay listening. Can you do it? When the time comes? When the time comes there will be no time. Now is the time. Curse God and die. What if it doesnt fire? It has to fire. What if it doesnt fire? Could you crush that beloved skull with a rock? Is there such a being within you of which you know nothing? Can there be? Hold him in your arms. Just so. The soul is quick. Pull him toward you. Kiss him. Quickly….
♦ The man asks himself if he is capable of shooting his son, mercifully, rather than leaving his son to a more horrid and cannibalistic death. Notice how the PoV shift ratchets up the tension and emotional complicity for the reader. As the father considers whether or not he can do this horrible thing to save his boy from a more horrible thing, the reader must consider this along with the father. McCarthy is well-known for his ability to look unflinchingly into the abyss and take his readers with him. PoV has a great deal to do with McCarthy’s technique and mastery in this Pulitzer-winning novel.
by Alice Munro
♦ Munro begins “Runaway” in third person subjective. We feel as though we are sitting on Carla’s shoulder as she observes the world around her.
Carla heard the car coming before it topped the little rise in the road that around here they called a hill. It’s her, she thought. Mrs. Jamieson— Sylvia— home from her holiday in Greece. From the barn door— but far enough inside that she could not readily be seen— she watched the road Mrs. Jamieson would have to drive by on, her place being half a mile farther along the road than Clark and Carla’s. If it was somebody getting ready to turn in at their gate it would be slowing down by now. But still Carla hoped. Let it not be her. It was. Mrs. Jamieson turned her head once, quickly— she had all she could do maneuvering her car through the ruts and puddles the rain had made in the gravel— but she didn’t lift a hand off the wheel to wave, she didn’t spot Carla. Carla got a
glimpse of a tanned arm bare to the shoulder, hair bleached a lighter color than it had been before, more white now than silver-blond, and an expression that was determined and exasperated and amused at her own exasperation— just the way Mrs. Jamieson would look negotiating such a road. When she turned her head there was something like a bright flash— of inquiry, of hopefulness— that made Carla shrink back. So. Maybe Clark didn’t know yet. If he was sitting at the computer he would have his back to the window and the road. But Mrs. Jamieson might have to make another trip. Driving home from the airport, she might not have stopped for groceries— not until she’d been home and figured out what she needed. Clark might see her then. And after dark, the lights of her house would show. But this was July, and it didn’t get dark till late. She might be so tired that she wouldn’t bother with the lights, she might go to bed early. On the other hand, she might telephone. Any time now….
♦ Later Munro uses a section break and pulls out to a more objective third person then quickly to second person then back to third person, again, all within the same paragraph. It’s a general guidelines to be careful of panning out the PoV, once a closer in PoV is established; however, this can be done well with section breaks, as if the narrative is reintroducing itself and asking the reader to take a break, consider all the prior information, and re-approach the story at a new angle. This can be effective in building reader understanding when a narrative has a complicated structure and character list.
This was the summer of rain and more rain. You heard it first thing in the morning, loud on the roof of the mobile home. The trails were deep in mud, the long grass soaking, leaves overhead sending down random showers even in those moments when there was no actual downpour from the sky and the clouds looked like clearing. Carla wore a high, wide-brimmed old Australian felt hat every time she went outside, and tucked her long thick braid down her shirt….
by Raymond Carver
♦ In “Cathedral,” Carver uses first person and makes the narrator a “reporter.” Notice how the narrative immediately draws us in, the voice is informal, conversational, as if a buddy telling us a story over beers.
This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night. His wife had died. So he was visiting the dead wife’s relatives in Connecticut. He called my wife from his in-laws’. Arrangements were made. He would come by train, a five-hour trip, and my wife would meet him at the station. She hadn’t seen him since she worked for him one summer in Seattle ten years ago. But she and the blind man had kept in touch. They made tapes and mailed them back and forth. I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit. He was no one I knew. And his being blind bothered me. My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeing-eye dogs. A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to…
♦ Later in the narrative, Carver uses first person to move from “reporter” mode to sharing personal views on his wife’s poetry.
When we first started going out together, she showed me the poem. In the poem, she recalled his fingers and the way they had moved around over her face. In the poem, she talked about what she had felt at the time, about what went through her mind when the blind man touched her nose and lips. I can remember I didn’t think much of the poem. Of course, I didn’t tell her that. Maybe I just don’t understand poetry. I admit it’s not the first thing I reach for when I pick up something to read….
Writing to Explore PoV
This week, we are going to explore first, second and third person PoV in your writing. For this exercise, you are welcome to use an excerpt of work already written, 1000 words or less, or create a new work. Please follow these steps:
- Choose or write a first person scene or short short work, under 1,000 words.
- Rewrite the draft so that all the first person personal pronouns are removed, but keep the original intention and text. Example: If you were to rewrite the “Cathedral” scene, it would look something like the below example. Notice how the use of the pronoun “her” without it’s antecedent or first person qualifier, changes the tone and tension in the passage. By removing the first person pronouns, “I, me, we, etc.” the reader has an opportunity to feel even closer to the narrator. When the narrator keeps reminding the reader that he is telling a story and repeatedly uses the “I, me, etc.” it reminds the reader that a story is being TOLD, and it can feel less experiential:
EX: This blind man, one of her old friends, he was on his way to spend the night. His wife had died. So he was visiting the dead wife’s relatives in Connecticut. He called from his in-laws’. Arrangements were made. He would come by train, a five-hour trip, and she would meet him at the station. She hadn’t seen him since she worked for him one summer in Seattle ten years ago. But she and the blind man had kept in touch. They made tapes and mailed them back and forth. He was a stranger. And his being blind was bothersome. The idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeing-eye dogs. A blind man in the house was not something to look forward to…
- Now add at least one occurrence of second person to your revised work. For example:
EX: This blind man, one of her old friends, he was on his way to spend the night. His wife had died. So he was visiting the dead wife’s relatives in Connecticut. He called from his in-laws’. Arrangements were made. He would come by train, a five-hour trip, and she would meet him at the station. She hadn’t seen him since she worked for him one summer in Seattle ten years ago. But she and the blind man had kept in touch. They made tapes and mailed them back and forth. He was a stranger. And his being blind was bothersome. The idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeing-eye dogs. A blind man in the house was not something to look forward to. What are you going to do with a blind man in the house?…
Keep in mind that these PoV shifts and exercise won’t necessarily be the end revision you want for your narrative and that is okay. Our purpose in this exercise is to allow your voice to flow through different PoVs, experience the shifts, and gain a clearer understanding of what PoV and shift feels most organic to you and your chosen story.
Using PoV shifts to explore alternate versions of your narratives is an excellent way to unveil the story’s best PoV as well as to dig deeper and sometimes find details you would not have otherwise discovered. It’s like changing the way we view the world. Our perceptions of the world are different when we’re flying in a jet than when we are standing in the middle of New York City. In this PoV shift we can find both differences and similarities in our perceptions—i.e., the world from the sky is big—many buildings and cars and people—and yet it can appear small, too. We can see all of Lower Manhattan from a single jet window.
For instance, if we were standing on Wall Street, we might write a first person story about a broker freshly fired and how he decides he must visit Ground Zero that morning. He’s not visited yet. How could he not visit when he worked so closely to it every day? Perhaps, his firing was a sort of social karma?
In the jet, we might write a third person story about Ground Zero and the many small and faceless people visiting the memorial and how the people moving toward and away resemble flocks of birds, etc. We might imagine how their stories are similar and different.
We could end up with the fired broker in both PoV versions, but in the first person story, we realize that the broker has no car and rides the train everywhere and two months ago was mugged late at night after drinking too much and trying to get home. The thieves were young and white, a couple high on heroine, likely. Their arms. They didn’t even try and cover the tracks.
We don’t discover the mugging in the third person version, but we do discover that the fired broker is of Iranian descent and is perturbed with the way a white family is staring at him as they all stand at the memorial.
Forcing a new PoV can help further tease out details we might never have otherwise known about our characters. Sure, we might have discovered all of this information in both PoVs; however, the alternative perception can make it easier to find details because we are forced to consider a character in which we are immersed from a different angle. The PoV shift can bring a level of objectivity to our explorations. In terms of crafting techniques and tools, shifting PoV and writing different versions of important sections in narratives is one of the quickest and best ways to really understand our voices, characters and stories. If you are ever stuck on a character or a scene, try writing it in another PoV.
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