Article of the Month
A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE ON POINT OF VIEW
In some form, point of view has always been present in most kinds of fiction, at least in the Western tradition. (I'm not widely enough read in other traditions, alas, to generalize about them.) I suspect POV is something of a cognitive necessity because of what we fiction writers are asking readers to do—to pretend; to forget that this story is not true; to overcome the boundary of self to become, if only momentarily, another person in another world. There's a natural skepticism that resists surrendering to fiction, a form of self-defense that has been with us since humans first started lying to each other. But storytellers learned early to overcome this skepticism by seducing the imagination through POV.
The earliest storytellers were bards who sang or recited the old legends and myths of their culture, and they were much more in tune with their audiences than any of us are. They had to be—their audiences were right there, ready to throw tomatoes at them if they made a character boring and didactic, or told an exciting battle scene from too distant a perspective.
In those days, POV meant "spending time” with a character more than "getting into his head." This was an easy choice, since the early stories were full of action and violence and supernatural activities, and too much introspection might lose the listener. These great early stories, as far as we know, usually followed the heroic characters who were doing most of the action; that is, it showed the plot through the point of view of the "protagonist" or "prime actor", and that's still a conventional POV approach today.
The Odyssey, for example, is told primarily from the third-person POV of Odysseus (the title makes it clear that it is his story), with long stretches in first person while he tells his tale of woe to an audience. Scenes out of Odysseus's presence are generally narrated omnisciently (from above), so necessary action such as his son's search for news about him can be shown without detracting from the intense focus on the main character.
Even so early, we have the three most common POV types: Single-third person, first person, and omniscient. In the Western tradition, the first great novelistic endeavor—or at least the first still available to us—was Homer's work The Iliad and The Odyssey (eighth century BC). (These are in verse, not prose, but otherwise might as well be novels—with central protagonist,compressed time frame, and cohesive major plot line.) The dual epic about the Trojan War and its aftermath was so important that centuries later the puritanical Plato used Homer as the prime example of the addictive evil of fiction—the bard spread a "mental poison," using drama to insert the reader into history's "murder, incest, cruelty, treachery,
uncontrolled passions, weakness, cowardice, and malice."
Two millennia later, Keats read a translation of Homer and, consumed with joy, dashed off in a couple hours what is perhaps England's greatest sonnet: "On
First Looking Into Chapman's Homer." And Homer is a hit even now; a new
translation of The Odyssey recently hit the best-seller list. (Whether there actually was a bard Homer, whether he wrote both or either epic, are still hot debate topics among classicists, but we don't have to worry about that, do we? Let them rip each other to shreds over it... classicists are so bloody-minded!)
Why did Homer's epic last when so many other stories from that period were lost forever? First, it's because he chose his material well: The Trojan War was such a seminal event in Hellenic history that its fascination survived during the mini-Dark Ages that followed the war. So when Homer arrived in time to write it down, the legends had only gathered power through centuries of bardic recitation.
Homer's version also incurred Plato's censure and survived the next three millennia because he made it personal. The Iliad is not just a chronicle of the culminating events of that war; it's the story of two rival warriors, Hector and Achilles, who stake their lives and their honor on a last gamble for victory. The Odyssey is not just a chronicle of the consequences of that war; it's the deeply emotional journey of
Odysseus, a man weary of war who can't find his way back home.
Homer knew what we all need to remember—that readers experience story best when they identify with one or two central characters. That doesn't mean limiting the story to those characters; The Iliad is rife with other great warriors (Odysseus is a secondary character, in fact, in that earlier story), and gods make frequent visitations whenever the action starts to flag. The Odyssey sometimes deserts Odysseus to revisit his old Iliad buddies (and Helen of Troy has a great cameo where she proclaims that she just doesn't know what came over her when she started the war!) or to track his teenaged son Telemachus on a voyage of discovery. But Homer's listeners knew that Achilles was their Iliad guy (even if us modern types prefer the tragic Hector) and that The Odyssey was, obviously, Odysseus's story.
Homer didn't give over control of his narrative entirely to his central character Odysseus. Instead he (or the bards before him) created the omniscient narrator, who knows everything in the story and tells the events he deems worthy with his own particular "spin." Why?
Partly, no doubt, because omniscient is an efficient way of corralling a large group of characters (including Zeus and Athena) and several settings (including Mt. Olympus and Hades).
But also perhaps the omniscient narrator was a subtle way of
reminding the audience the importance of keeping bards fed and housed.
Homer cleverly inserts some "bardic moments" by transforming Odysseus
into a storyteller for long stretches of The Odyssey. He even has
Odysseus whine a bit about how difficult it is to tell a story well, just
in case the ladies think only warriors have to fight battles. This
technique of a narrator proclaiming his own story to a crowd is obviously
derived from the oral tradition, but still very common today, especially
in first-person narrations.
That's what came after Homer, the rise of the theatrically performed play. The extant literature of the fifth century BC era in Greece is dominated by the great classical playwrights: Sophocles, Euripedes, Aristophanes, and Aeschylus. These guys retained the focus on a central character that had become an important feature of Greek literature. In fact, Aristotle, in his great work On Tragedy, said that a plot should follow one man on his journey from fortune to misfortune or vice versa, such as Odysseus's journey from exile to home. Aristotle's contemporary example was
Sophocles's play Oedipus the King, which chronicles a long day during which the curious Oedipus seeks out the truth about himself and finds it destroys his life.
Notice how performance changed radically in a few hundred years: The Homeric-style bard recited the entire story of Odysseus, narrating not just the dialogue but the action of the story. Though Homer wrote in verse, he was writing fiction narrative much as we now write a novel. But by the time of Sophocles, the recitation of bards had become dramatic performances, the narrative having fallen away and the actors (usually a maximum of three of them, plus a chorus, which sometimes played actual group roles in the story) instead acting out the action and addressing each other in dialogue. By the fifth century BC, both major forms of fictional entertainment were established—the Homer-like narrative, which takes in both epic poetry (like that of Virgil and Milton) and much later the novel and short story; and the performed drama, which took form in theater plays (like those of Shakespeare) that would give rise to, in our own time, film and television.
PERFORMANCE AND POV
It might seem odd to speak of a performed play as having POV. After all, in a drama, the action is shown in actor movement and dialogue, without the "introspection" that we usually think of as a hallmark of POV. But as Aristotle pointed out, Sophocles's play is the story of Oedipus, and we are confined primarily to his perspective of events—with a bit of "voice-over analysis" from the omniscient chorus. He is on stage almost the entire play, and we know no more than he does; we don't get a glimpse into the blind soothsayer Tiresias's mind to learn ahead of time what he's warning Oedipus about. We learn the truth only when Oedipus learns it. (In case you haven't read the play, Oedipus finds out that he killed his father and married his mother. And some people think the classics are stuffy and dull!)
So performances can have POV in the sense of tracking a character's journey and perspective. Shakespeare expanded this capability, using soliloquies where a character actually addressed the audience, speaking his thoughts aloud. ("To be or not to be," etc.)
Shakespeare's characters also use "asides" to convey their internal thoughts—the actor playing Hamlet will turn away from the actor playing Evil Uncle Claudius to mutter to the audience, "A little more than kin, and less than kind." Milton and other epic poets used a similar technique of the characters speaking out their thoughts when they were alone in a scene (often at the end of a scene, when the other characters have departed).
But true POV "introspection" or "internalization" had to wait for the invention of the novel, which came (in England) in the latter part of the seventeenth century, with Aphra Behn, and then a half-century later with Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson.
The Novel and POV
A novel is a long fictional work of prose narrative. You can see "the novel" is defined in the negative of earlier literary forms: long, so it's not a short story; fictional, so it's not a biography or history; prose, so it's not in verse like a poem; and narrative, so it's not acted out like a play.
The most important precursor to the British novel was Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, which is something like today's short-story anthology. There is a "frame" story—a group of pilgrims on a pilgrimage to Canterbury—and within the frame, a bunch of stories they supposedly tell to entertain each other. This is still in verse, but not only are the collected stories clearly fictional, so is the frame story
about the pilgrimage. The Canterbury Tales lacks the coherence of plot required in a novel, but makes good use of narrators, each with an attitude of some kind (antisemitism, bawdiness) which affects the narration of the stories—just as POV does in actual novels.
It was another three hundred years before the novel developed in England (there was that little digression into Shakespearian drama first), but by the seventeenth century, the tale-telling narrator emerged in a new way. Many of the earliest novels (including those of Behn, Richardson, Defoe) were epistolary, that is, based around a series of fictional "epistles"—letters or journal entries. Readers at that time were used to reading actual letters and diaries, and so the epistolary format was familiar and natural.
Early novelists could also draw on the non-personal narrative format found in epic poems, so a novel like Behn's Love Letters of a Nobleman to His Sister had both a long exchange of letters between the nobleman and his wife's sister, and extended passages of narrative which related action not confined to that described in the letters. Already POV was used fluidly: The letters are in first-person POV, while the
narrative is in a third-person omniscient POV. Behn made good use of the contrast, letting her two lovers indict themselves as vain, shallow, and in love with love, in a satire of sexual politics that rings with authenticity even today.
What distinguishes the epistolary novel from more conventional first-person narration is the fictional notion that the narrative is aimed at a particular reader. The letters, supposedly, are meant to be read by their recipients, and the diary entries are presumably meant to be read over by the narrator/journal-writer and no
one else. So there's a specific purpose for the narrator in narrating these events—either to explain them to the letter recipient or to record them for her own later review. In standard first-person narration, there's seldom a clear purpose or a specific reader for the narrator's narration– for some reason, he's just telling his story out loud. (Read more about this in chapter four of my Power of POV book.)
In fact, some authors insisted their fiction was fact; Aphra Behn claimed to have witnessed many of the events of her story Oroonoko. This increased the credibility of the story among readers still suspicious of this new fiction format, by making the author/narrator seem more like a journalist—even if she was actually making it all up.
Just after the dawn of the novel came the Age of Enlightenment, a philosophical and political movement emphasizing individuality and rationality. As literacy became more widespread throughout Europe, readers became more comfortable with the fictional narrative form, and the device of letters and journals gave way to a more direct perspective, in many cases, an in-your-face first-person narration, especially in Britain.
Laurence Sterne was the master of that first-person style in his picaresque novels, his narrators speaking to the reader rather like a raconteur facing a theater audience, with sharp, humorous voices and an irreverent attitude. Even so early, first-person narration was characterized by attitude, by a certain persona-projection that was too outrageous to be that of the author.
Here's a selection from Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Look past the archaic sentence constructions and think about what sort of person this narrator is, one who modestly proclaims himself to be telling the whole sordid tale because he so hates to disappoint his readers and then boasts that soon his book will be as famous as Pilgrim's Progress (a previous bestseller), who then drops the classic name of Horace while admitting he can't quite remember what "Mr. Horace" was talking about:
I know there are readers in the world, as well as many other good people
in it, who are not readers at all,—who find themselves ill at ease,
unless they are let into the whole secret from first to last, of every
thing which concerns you. It is in pure compliance with this humour of
theirs, and from a backwardness in my nature to disappoint any one soul
living, that I have been so very particular already.
As my life and opinions are likely to make some noise in the
world, and, if I conjecture right, will take in all ranks, professions,
and denominations of men whatever,—be no less read than the Pilgrim's
Progress itself—and in the end, prove the very thing which Montaigne
dreaded his Essays should turn out, that is, a book for a
parlour-window;—I find it necessary to consult every one a little in his
turn; and therefore must beg pardon for going on a little farther in the
same way: For which cause, right glad I am, that I have begun the history
of myself in the way I have done; and that I am able to go on, tracing
every thing in it, as Horace says, ab Ovo.
Horace, I know, does not recommend this fashion altogether:
But that gentleman is speaking only of an epic poem or a tragedy;—(I
forget which) besides, if it was not so, I should beg Mr. Horace's
pardon;—for in writing what I have set about, I shall confine myself
neither to his rules, nor to any man's rules that ever lived. To such
however as do not choose to go so far back into these things, I can give
no better advice than that they skip over the remaining part of this
chapter; for I declare before-hand, 'tis wrote only for the curious and
This is a voice full of energy and wit—but it's not the author's voice.
Sterne was well aware that his "I" (Tristram Shandy) was a bit of a
blowhard, longwinded and conceited—that's what he wanted. He wanted a
true character narrating the book.
Eighteenth-century novels were often eponymous (titled for their narrator/characters)— Moll Flanders, Robinson Crusoe, Tristram Shandy—evidence of the new focus on the individual and the individual perspective. "I am Tristram Shandy, and this is my story, and I alone have the right to tell it!" the narrator is exclaiming, but of course, these authors were not their narrators at all, and part of the fun of such direct narration is imagining the naive new readers who thought Tristram Shandy really existed.
But the dominance of first person couldn't last. The first-person POV is perfect for picaresque comic novels, but not so effective for more serious works or those with a larger cast and scope. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Henry Fielding found that the omniscient narrator allowed the plot to roam around in time and space, unfettered by the physical existence of his major character, Tom Jones,
and created greater opportunities for a satirical view of his large cast.
While first-person narratives remained common in the nineteenth century (especially in the United States), a comprehensive third-person approach gradually became more popular. The early part of the century saw an explosion in the novel form, with the development of all sorts of genres—the Gothic, the romance, the mystery, the
adventure—which required multiple settings and larger casts of characters. Another development was the rise of the social novel, a story that attempted to give a comprehensive view of an entire culture or subculture, whether a small village (George Eliot) or an inner-city London neighborhood (Charles Dickens). No single perspective could convey the complicated mix of personality in a society, so the
first-person narration often gave way to one that allowed for multiple
viewpoints and settings.
In fact, some authors went to considerable trouble to have multiple viewpoint within the first-person narration. The plots of both Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein are framed in cumbersome narrative contraptions, where minor characters repeat the first-person accounts of major characters, thereby getting some of the distance offered by an omniscient narrator with the intimacy of a first-person narration.
Authors also became more clearly designers of the readers' experience, using ironic commentary to express a skeptical view of the values and motives of their own characters, as in the famous opening paragraph of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession
of a large fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the
feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a
neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the
surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some
one or other of their daughters.
This is a classic example of the omniscient narrator, the persona that is
not a character in the book but rather a godlike presence, often an
authorial presence. (Most omniscient narrators are not mere author
stand-ins, but quite a few seem to share their creators' values,
prejudices, and voice.)
So why did the intimate, outrageous first-person voices of the eighteenth century give way to the austere, ironic omniscient narrators of the nineteenth?
Perhaps the large number of readers actually believing Lemuel
Gulliver wrote down his own adventures alerted authors to the dangers of
being too anonymous. ("Yes, I know it says Gulliver's Travels, but I made
him up. I swear it! Look, see my name here on the cover?") And certainly
the greater scope and intent of the social novels, requiring a panoply of
character viewpoints, benefited from a controlling presence imposed from
Most authors were content to keep themselves in the background, emerging for the occasional wry comment like Austen's above, or a direct address to "Gentle Reader." Some would give the reader a heavy-handed preview of what was to come: "Little did she know that the future would bring sorrow where there had once been joy...." These author-intrusions were almost like instructions on how
to read the story. The reader was supposed to believe the omniscient
narrator, to trust that overhead godlike perspective. This served to
distance the reader from the characters, first because so little time was
spent in their minds, but also because the narrator's view on their
activities was usually so ironic.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the great Victorians—Charles
Dickens, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy—were creating what later became
known as the "realistic novel." These weren't necessarily all that
realistic (think of Dickens and his many coincidences). The authors did,
however, try to portray the world as they knew it at the dawn of the
Industrial Revolution: More complicated than ever before, but still
subject to what Victorians saw as the natural rule that humanity will
organize disorder into order, and that harmony is the primary goal of
society. Often the Victorian novel opens with some great injustice or
cataclysm—a murder, a dispossession, a betrayal—and the action of the
book is the movement from that chaos to a resumption of order through the
choices of the main characters. (You can probably tell that most popular
fiction even today, not to mention most films and TV shows, are
"realistic" in this specialized sense, where the world of the story is
interrupted by a profound change, and the characters are charged with
Understandably, most of these novels of chaos-to-control used
the "control-from-above" omniscient point of view (Dickens also employed
first person), but now with a deeper immersion into the minds of the
major characters. These books often had large casts, and several
characters got the "deep-immersion treatment." Sometimes entire scenes
would be told from the perspective of a single character, with only a bit
of explanatory material in omniscient (usually at the beginning and end
of the scene). While the benevolent dictatorship of the omniscient
narrative still controlled, the individual character's perspective was
beginning to acquire greater importance in framing the story events.
MEANWHILE, ACROSS THE POND …
First-person narration remained a force in U.S. literature well into the
nineteenth century. In fact, Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville were
experimenting with fascinating variations of first-person. Poe explored
the phenomenon of the unreliable narrator, where the reader was expected
to come to doubt what the first-person narrator said. And Melville was
working on telling an epic story through a single focused viewpoint
("Call me Ishmael" in Moby Dick).
As in England, omniscient also became a dominant voice in
American fiction. Popular American novels, like those written by Louisa
May Alcott, often made use of the omniscient technique of narrative
foreshadowing. Here’s a passage from The Obsession:
The carriage next to the one Rosamund [Tempest] selected held an equally
heavy load of misery. Could she have known that the other Mrs. Tempest
occupied the car directly in front of her own, it would have added a
little sting to Rosamund's suffering. She was spared that knowledge,
however, and thus it was that side by side, these two heavy-hearted women
were borne away into the night. But not to safety.
In this way, the author is training the reader in how to read a book, how
to interpret foreshadowing, how to respond to dramatic irony, how to
As readers became more experienced and the study of humanity
approached the era of Sigmund Freud and psychology, some authors started
tunneling into their characters, spending much more time in their
thoughts and feelings than omniscient would allow. Often they'd start a
scene in an omniscient mode, but then, as the scene progressed, slide
deeper into the character perspective. Henry James used a deeper, focused
POV to explore the psychological mysteries of his characters. Edith
Wharton, who wrote about how individuals interacted with each other and
with society, used the interior voice to contrast what a person thought
with what she did or said, as in this selection from House of Mirth where
Lily extricates herself from a dangerous and compromising position with a
The sharp release from her fears restored Lily to immediate lucidity. The
collapse of Trenor's will left her in control, and she heard herself, in
a voice that was her own yet outside herself, bidding him to ring for the
servant, bidding him to give the order for a hansom, directing him to put
her in it when it came. Whence the strength came to her, she knew not;
but an insistent voice warned her that she must leave the house openly,
and nerved her, in the hall before the hovering caretaker, to exchange
light words with Trenor, and charge him with the usual messages for Judy,
while all the while she shook with inward loathing.
By the end of the nineteenth century, most of the major POV approaches
were in place. But in the early twentieth century, there came three other
variations, all of which pretty much did away with the omniscient
narrator—stream of consciousness, deep-third-person POV, and multiple
Stream of Consciousness
The first and most radical, stream of consciousness, was a
product of the modernism movement. Modernist novelists like James Joyce
and Thomas Wolfe, who were writing mostly after the futile
devastation of World War I, rejected the expansive sense of order and
control of the Victorian era, and with it the external control imposed by
the omniscient narrative.
Instead they experimented with a variety of narrative forms,
especially those that reflected what they saw as the fragmented nature of
modern life and the subjectivity of "reality." Stream of consciousness
—the seemingly verbatim reporting of the interior mental processes of a
character—took the internal tunneling used by James and Wharton and
turned it inside out, making it the major action of the scene.
The most famous example of stream of consciousness was James
Joyce's Ulysses, a retelling of The Odyssey set in Dublin in the early
twentieth century. Here's a sample of Leopold Bloom's mental workings as
he walks on a Dublin street and sees the brother of the great Irish
... John Howard Parnell passed, unseeing. There he is: the brother. Image
of him. Haunting face. Now that's a coincidence. Course hundreds of times
you think of a person and don't meet him. Like a man walking in his
sleep. No one knows him. Must be a corporation meeting today. They say he
never put on the city marshal's uniform since he got the job.... Look at
the woebegone walk of him. Eaten a bad egg. Poached eyes on ghost. I have
a pain. Great man's brother: his brother's brother.
This is obviously pretty radical stuff (and let me tell you, it took me
almost all semester of English 315: The Modern Novel to get through 783
pages of that), but stunningly influential. The "interior monologue,"
complete with grammatical errors and sentence fragments and enigmatic
allusions, became a common feature in literary fiction throughout the
twentieth century. In fact, it's worked its way into popular fiction too,
in less radical form—still the stream of thoughts, but with a bit more
context and sentence structure—as in David Means’s "Carnie":
Strangely enough, the paths of John and Ned Alger had crossed before, on
a beach in Northern Michigan, near the encampment in which Ned grew up.
(No one was really sure how he got the name Ned, or even Alger, his
mother going by Alger but also the Indian name of Walk Moon; and there
was the man who was supposed to be standing in as his father,
Jack-something, who came in at night with his belt already undone.)
The first sentence is pretty typical single-third person, but as soon as
we get into the parentheses, we're following Ned's thought process quite
faithfully—the long, involved sentence sounds like the associative way we
think, each thought segueing into some associated memory or notion.
"Jack-something" comes right out of Ned's faulty memory, and is capped by
the vague but personally meaningful description "supposed to be standing
in as his father." But this is more controlled, more reader-friendly,
than the Joyce selection above. It sounds like thought without being too
Deep-third person (also called single-focused and deep-immersion POV) was
the dominant POV approach of the second half of the twentieth century,
and doesn't look to be losing ground in the twenty-first. It provides a
tight focus on the perspective of one character throughout an entire
scene, chapter, or even book.
Deep third has the immediacy and intimacy of
stream-of-consciousness, with the advantage of being much more readable
and compatible with other POV choices; that is, you can start a scene in
omniscient and descend into the deeper single-focused POV, or you can
alternate different characters' POV passages (as long as you stay in each
POV for the whole passage). Deep-third POV has been used mostly in books
with one or two major characters.
Another twentieth-century trend was towards the multiple POV, which
evolved from the omniscient. Like omniscient, multiple POV regards more
than one character as having something to "say" about the scene, so POV
within a scene might be shared among them. But unlike omniscient,
multiple POV has no narrator or narrative presence. The narrative can
shift frequently from character to character, but no one is commenting
from above on the characters or providing information they don't know.
The reader gets the juxtaposed experience of several characters without
the commentary and distance an omniscient narrator provides.
Multiple POV has been common since before World War II,
especially in popular fiction, and reflects a more cinematic approach to
the fictional world. You'll find it primarily in books with larger casts
of characters or dual protagonists.
These approaches haven't killed omniscient POV, but that's no
longer very common as the controlling POV approach for an entire book.
Especially since World War II, omniscient has become more of an
informational device within the narrative rather than a narrative
approach on its own. You'll still frequently see omniscient passages at
the beginnings and ends of scenes, setting the stage and establishing the
situation, and also sometimes as a bridge when the POV shifts from one
character to another.
First-Person POV Today
First-person POV is still popular, but tends to be confined to certain
genres (like the private-eye novel) or styles of fiction (the
coming-of-age novel, women's fiction, chick lit). In thrillers, you'll sometimes see it alternating with third-person POV. For example, in Simon Brett's A Nice Class of Corpse, the villain's POV is told in first-person diary entries, while the rest
of the book is told in third person (mostly single-focused).
Now, with all these POV options available, authors have more freedom to
choose among the approaches and even to mix them. This, however, doesn't
mean that anarchy rules, rather that the author now has the ability to
customize POV to suit a particular story. This ability, and the power it
gives you the author, has been the point of this book.
A FINAL EXERCISE:
1. Choose a favorite novel written before World War II, or a novel you
would consider a "classic". Read the first chapter, paying particular
attention to point of view. Can you define the major POV approach?
Identify the words or phrases that make the POV approach clear (such as
"Let the account begin, then, on the evening of the 15th..." as a marker
2. Notice in the opening how the author establishes the setting, the
situation, and the identity of the main characters. How close do you get
to any one character?
3. How does the POV style reflect the time period? What benefits and
disadvantages do you see in this choice?
Alicia Rasley is a 16-year member of Romance Writers of America and Indiana RWA, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author.
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