So much has been written across all mediums about point of view in storytelling that the aggregate should be classified as a type of pollution. And all the more so because such conversations almost always reference a system of categorization rather than the act of creation. To paraphrase Hills: while it’s always useful to have something to say to an academic, getting lost in critical blather is pointless.
To begin, any story you tell will have at least one point of view. It doesn’t matter which medium you’re working in or what your objective is. You can try to entirely scrub point of view from a story as an exercise and it will still be there. Why? Because anybody who experiences your story knows that it didn’t come from their own head, which means it came from somebody else’s head, which means it has a point of view.
Point of view is inherent in storytelling. The question, then, is how you most effectively control and make use of this always-on, omnipresent aspect of fiction. Fortunately, just as audiences are open and willing to suspend disbelief in order to participate emotionally in the fiction you create, they are generally open and willing to adopt whatever point of view you want to use. If a particular point of view makes your work better or more convincing, that’s not only the point of view you should use but the point of view your audience will want you to use.
Following up on the previous section, Hills connects the abstract notion of choice with the concrete question of point of view:
The choice of the point of view to be used in a story may be pre-made, more or less unconsciously, by the author, as being basic to his whole conception of it. Otherwise, though, choices about point of view will undoubtedly be the most important decisions about technique that he has to make.
Think of all the literary reviews, criticisms and analyses you’ve read in your life, and how rare it is for someone to question the point of view chosen by an author. That’s not only an indicator of how willing audiences are to go along with the author’s choice, but of how intrinsic point of view is to any work. It’s relatively easy to imagine a scene being set in another location, or a whole story being transported to a different time, but point of view is so central to a story it’s hard to separate the two.
In my own experience point of view is determined, as Hills suggests, much more often by the “whole conception” of a story I want to tell than by deliberate choice. I usually know going in what the point of view will be because some aspect of the story is that point of view. Still, there’s nothing wrong with double-checking gut instinct with a bit of tire kicking. Writers get no points off for questioning there intuition, and may save themselves a ton of misery in the process.
As a practical matter, point of view in fiction is particularly tricky because of the potential for ambiguity. Clarifying who or what the author (you) is or isn’t is a big part of establishing point of view, as is making sure the reader has faith in the credibility of that perspective. (It’s very difficult to write a compelling work from the point of view of an unreliable narrator precisely because readers don’t know what to believe.) In a work of fiction the author (you) can write a story from the point of view of a fictional author (Dr. Watson) who’s writing about a third character (Sherlock Holmes) who has views and opinions about still more characters (Professor Moriarty, Mrs. Hudson) — all of whom the audience knows were written by you. And that’s a simple example.
Fiction makes up for this complexity by providing access to the inner thoughts of characters that other mediums can only envy. Yes, characters in theater can speak directly to the audience, but there’s a self-consciousness to the act. In film voice-over narration can provide insight, but it’s difficult to bridge the gap between the power of the camera’s eye and an individual character’s ethereal voice. Fiction has none of these restrictions, and as such can take the reader in and out of a single mind — or even multiple minds — with virtual impunity, all while deepening the experience and maintaining the reader’s trust.
Hills presents the four points of view commonly adopted in fiction, the first two of which are predominant. While there are an infinite number of shadings an author can adopt, consciously or by instinct, and point of view rules can be broken at any time with sufficient justification, it’s worth reiterating that there’s nothing to be gained from appealing to taxonomies. There may be a hundred names for first-person point of view or any of its variants, but in practice — in actual works of fiction — those differences are determined not by analysis but by authorial need.
If you want to study point of view do so not in the abstract, but in reference to specific works. Look not to the name of the thing, but to how it functions and the effects it achieves. It doesn’t matter what you call a particular point of view, it matters what it does.
Next up: Limitations and Advantages in Point of View.
— Mark Barrett