What's Your Point of View? Lessons from Novel-Reading

In the past couple of weeks, I've dived back into novel-reading, a favorite pastime I was neglecting in favor of some other spare-time pursuits: yoga, running, writing and Netflix-watching.

But, as workshop leaders reminded me recently at Breathe Writers Conference, the best writers spend as much time reading as they do writing. Reading strengthens the muscles of the imagination, teaches the brain about the flow of language, etc.

So I picked up a couple of novels at the conference, and I'm back in the game.

A word on perspective

Here's one thing I noticed yesterday and today while reading the novel "When Mountains Move," by Julie Cantrell: I feel close to the protagonist, Millie, because the novel's point of view is third person limited. 

If you need a refresher on what point of view is, here's a definition from fictionwriting.about.com:

  • Point of view: The perspective from which the author tells the story; the narrator's position in relation to the story. 

There are three possible points of view: First person (The narrator is the protagonist and speaks in "I" terms), second person ("you") and third person ("he/she/it/they"). 

The story can be told in first person singular or plural, that is "I" or "we."

Second-person narration is very rare, but not unheard of. If you'd like some examples, here's a roundup: Books about You - Novels Written in the Second-Person Narrative.

The story can be told from third person omniscient or third person limited perspective. That is, the narrator can be an all-knowing storyteller who shows you the thoughts and feelings of every character or several characters, or the narrator might only share the feelings of the protagonist.

In Cantrell's novel "Into the Free" and its sequel I was reading yesterday, "When Mountains Move," Millie Reynolds is the main character, and her story is told by a narrator who lets you see her thoughts and feelings but not those of the other characters.

It's a way to let the reader feel close to the protagonist without limiting him/her by first-person narration. First-person narration constrains the story in a couple of ways: 1. It offers a spoiler: The narrator ultimately survives the events of this book because s/he is writing about it later. 2. We only get to perceive the supporting characters from the eyes of the narrator, who can't know their hidden motivations. 

I should note that I have enjoyed novels that use first person and third person omniscient points of view. 

First person examples: 

  • Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" is narrated by the titular character, and it feels as if we're reading her memoir. None of it feels stale, though; it feels like we're in Jane's head, traveling through the events as she remembers them. And we trust that she remembers accurately.
  • Holden Caulfield also narrates his story in first-person, past tense in "The Catcher in the Rye." But he tells us straight off that he's an unreliable narrator: "I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. If I'm on the way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I'm going, I'm liable to say I'm going to the opera." So the novel is fraught with tension as we try to sort out fact from fiction.

Third person omniscient examples: 

Many 19th-century authors used an omniscient point of view, most notably:

  • Jane Austen's "Emma" and most of "Pride and Prejudice" and "Sense and Sensibility" are written using an omniscient narrator who gives glimpses of all the characters' thoughts and motivations, while spending the most time letting you into the inner lives of Emma, Elizabeth and Elinor.
  • Charles Dickens' "Nicholas Nickleby"

As the novel developed in the 20th and 21st centuries, the third person omniscient point of view became less common in favor of third person limited, which allows readers to enter into the feelings of the characters and helps move the climax of the novel forward.

What's your favorite point of view?

As I mentioned, second person narration is pretty rare. Can you think of any novels, besides the ones mentioned in the blog post I linked to, that use second-person narration?

Do you have any favorite contemporary novels that use an omniscient narrator?

I'd love to hear from you. Leave me a comment here or over at my Facebook Community page.

Read more posts in the Storytelling Sunday series here.

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