Literary Points of View—Part 1

pov4A point of view (POV) is a manner of consideration or appraisal, a standpoint. It’s an opinion, attitude, or judgment. It’s the mental position from which ideas, people, or other physical things are viewed. It’s the spatial or ideational property of the position from which something is observed.

In literature, a point of view is the mental position or attitude that a narrator takes about the story he’s telling. The tale being narrated can be fictional or nonfictional, but most often POV is a dominant factor in fictional novels, short stories, or other fictional tales.

Of course, a narrator is the creation of a story’s author; everything in a story is. But the narrator is the one whose POV you read about, not the author.

An author assigns his narrator the task of describing what goes on; he speaks through his narrator, but he doesn’t necessarily share the narrator’s opinions about characters or about what happens in the story; and the narrator doesn’t necessarily know everything about the world of the story that the author knows, which of course is everything.

A narrator lets you know his POV by the the way he speaks or thinks or acts, by the manner in which he perceives and describes events and characters, and by other literary techniques.

Does the narrator’s point of view make a difference? Imagine what Moby Dick would be like if Herman Melville had chosen Captain Ahab to narrate the story instead of Ishmael.

Or imagine what kind of a book Catcher in the Rye would be like if J. D. Salinger had written in a narrator who knows what’s really happening instead of Holden Caulfield, a liar who blows everything out of proportion trying to prove to you and himself that the world is against him.

According to literary theory, POV is one of the most important ways in which narrators can differ from one another. Their points of view depend mainly on the kinds and extent of things they can know about the events and characters in the story, on their attitude toward characters and events,  and on who they are and what they are made of.

According to traditional literary theory, basically there are only three different kinds of narrators that it’s possible for a writer to pick for a story. Usually an author chooses only one of the three possible kinds of narrators to tell a story, but sometimes an author will switch narrators one or more times while the story is being told.

According to theory, the three basic kinds of POV a narrator can have are:

  • First person POV. The narrator is a character in the story, usually the protagonist around whom the story revolves. He or she tells the story by referring to himself as I, we, or us.
  • Second person POV. The narrator speaks as though the reader is one of the characters in the story. He refers to the character as you, which causes the reader to identify with the character. This intensifies the reader’s reaction to the story by making the reader feel as though he or she is part of the action taking place.
  • Third-person POV. The third-person POV is defined by a mixture of two literary elements: narrator knowledge and narrator subjectivity. The combination of how much knowlege and subjectivity a narrator’s has defines his POV:

Narrator knowledge. At one knowledge extreme, the narrator is omniscient; he knows everything about the world in which a story takes place—events, characters, locations, etc.—but doesn’t necessarily tell the reader all he knows.

At the other knowledge extreme, the narrator’s knowledge  is limited; he knows everything there is to know, but he only knows it about a single character in the story.

For any particular story, the author sets the narrator’s POV at a specific point that ranges between these two knowledge extremes.

Narrator subjectivity. At one subjectivity extreme, a totally subjective narrator tells a story exclusively from the perspective of what the characters know, do, feel or think, and does not describe any other view of the story’s external world, including his own.

At the other subjectivity extreme, a totally objective narrator does not describe any of the thoughts, feelings, or inner workings of characters’ minds, but only relates what goes on around them.

For any particular story, the author sets the narrator’s POV at a specific point that ranges between these two subjectivity/objectivity extremes.

This is a basic list of the different kinds of POV an author can choose for a story. It’s greatly oversimplified, but it helps set the stage for what I’m going to tell you in future postings.

In the postings that follow, I’m going to briefly describe an alternative, less-traditional and more modern list of different possible narrative points of view, one that is far more insightful and comprehensive than the three traditional POVs cited above. There are similarities between the two kinds of lists, but the POV list I will discuss in future postings presents a different and more comprehensive way of looking at POV—a new POV about the literary POVs.

The new list I’ll be discussing is an innovative, ground-breaking contribution to literary theory that was developed in the 1960s by James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny, two eminent and accomplished literary scholars and teachers. They published their ideas in a well-known, still-in-print 1966 book titled Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stories. That’s a picture of the book’s cover in the photo at the top of this posting.

If you’re interested in POV, their book is a should-read and easy-read. It lists and explains each of the ten—and only ten—POVs that it’s possible for a story to have; and it prints short stories that illustrate each one.

What’s Next?–Part 2

In Part 2, I’ll explore the first two of the literary points of view, interior monologue and dramatic monologue.

Visit Part 2 of this posting now: click here.

The Muse Of Literature

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