Beyond the Pronouns: Point of View in Prose

By Molly McNally  

image 2Before the setting, before the characters, before rising action and conflict and resolution, a writer is faced with the question: from what point of view should the story be told? A writer can use the first person (the “I” who speaks), second person (the “you” who the piece addresses), or third person (the “him/her/they”). They can narrate through an omniscient voice that can see everything existing in the world of the story, a limited voice that is contained to the mind of one or a few characters, or an objective voice that never delves into the interiority of characters, but only describes actions and objects. Point of view, however, can affect more than just pronouns. A biography written in second person would make the reader, rather than the historical figure, the subject of the piece. A memoir written in third person would detach the reader from the personal aspect of the writing. How much distance does the reader need from the piece – should they be in the thick of the action or an observer? Point of view may seem like a simple enough choice, but there are so many nuances to that choice, which can change its very meaning.

Point of view has followed trends throughout the history of prose, deriving from issues of societal class and the availability of education—factors that changed who did both the reading and the writing. Ancient Greek works focus around gods and their kin; Shakespeare wrote mainly of kings and rulers; 18th and 19th century pieces detail the social elite; and finally, in the 20th century, the working class begins to become protagonists. With the loftiness of subjects, writing generally took on a lofty point of view, removed from the characters. As a result, first person point of view is a relatively modern mode of writing. First person presents a closeness to a character that other points of view cannot achieve: the reader literally sees the entire story through a character’s perspective. Every choice becomes a characterization – what they choose to see, what they choose to judge, to comment, to describe. Everything becomes dipped in some kind of bias, the foundation of which the reader discovers as they become more accustomed to the character through which they are seeing the world of the story. But even within first person, there are still choices of distance. The first person narrator can be an observational character, removed from the main plot, or the narrator can be the main character right in the middle of the action. We see more of an observational narrator in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby through Nick Carraway, who provides the reader with an outside observation of Gatsby’s plight that Gatsby himself could never provide because Gatsby could not see his own weaknesses. A lot of current, particularly Young Adult novels, are written in a directly involved first person, the main character. A popular example, The Hunger Games, is told from protagonist Katniss’s point of view, allowing the reader to be directly involved in the terrifying events of the Hunger Games. In this case, an outside first person narrator would provide a duller sense of the suspense and action felt throughout the book, and probably would not be as effective.

Second person, or the “you” point of view, provides a perspective that is not as common as the first or third person. Second person appeared regularly in the epistolary form, which is also where older examples of first person stem. Particularly in books written in the 18th century and earlier, the epistolary form was a popular way to gather multiple points of view and provide a vehicle for the writing to flow through: people telling stories to one another through letters, as they might orally. The “you” is an actual character in the piece, not the reader herself. In contemporary fiction, the “you” in second person is not a specific person or character, but a more general idea of a person, often the reader. The reader has an opportunity to become involved in the text in a way they cannot in first or third person because the text is addressed directly to them, similar to the way do-it-yourself manuals provide a set of instructions for the reader to follow. In prose, the directions are just more narrative, like the opening line of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.” Second person can tend to fall into repetitive sentences, or become confusing when other characters besides the “you” are involved, so it is a point of view that is difficult to sustain.

Finally, the most prominent mode of point of view is third person – “he/she/they.” Within third person is a world of opportunities, falling primarily under omniscient and limited. Omniscient is an all-knowing narrator who knows more than the characters do, such as the future or simultaneous events in another setting. Furthermore, an omniscient narrator can see into the hearts and minds of all characters, and in this sense, is often called the “God” narrator. A limited point of view narration stays within a limited number of characters, or single character. The questions then become how much can the omniscient narrator see, and how limited is the limited narrator? Either can have a staggering effect on the piece. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude employs an omniscient narrator that moves between all the characters and their histories, and occasionally reveals the future before it comes to pass, as exemplified in the novel’s opening line, “Many years later as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” The reader gets a dramatic taste of the future of the book to urge them to read on, but how much can the narration reveal before it is too much? That brief reveal for Marquez creates an immense amount of drama in one sentence, which would not be possible if the story were simply to begin in the limited point of view of Colonel Aureliano Buendia as a child discovering ice with his father. Ian McEwan’s Atonement is told through a limited point of view, but the point of view shifts between each character, so the reader sees the same events through different eyes, creating tension when Briony misreads the romantic interaction between her sister, Cecilia, and the housekeeper’s son, Robby, as an attack rather than mutual attraction. If the story were limited to just Cecilia or Briony, the reader would only see one perspective of the situation, thereby extinguishing the tension between what Briony thought she saw and what Cecilia actually experienced. Also within third person falls objective point of view, where the narrator does not know any of the internal feelings of the characters. Objective point of view is more commonly seen in older work, before the 19th century, which relates again to the progression of personalization of prose throughout history. As prose became more about individuals, individuals and their emotions became more involved in the piece.

Point of view lies at the very core of a story. A different mode of point of view can add bias, add characterization, limit histories, pull tension, and change what events take place in the story at all. There are so many more aspects to the choice of point of view beyond what pronouns the piece is going to primarily use. Before starting on the next piece, a writer should explore the many possibilities of point of view, and what new layers that choice can add to their story.

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