Getting some perspective on perspective


Silk’s Post # 27 — This is a short trip into the murky territory of ‘perspective’ and ‘point of view’. These terms are often used interchangeably in general discourse, to describe some combination of outlook and opinion. However, they have more esoteric meanings to the writer of narrative fiction. Still, most people would probably say it’s pretty clear what these words mean.

But should they?

I thought I had a perspective on narrative perspective until I started doing a bit more research online. That was an hour ago, and it wasn’t an illuminating hour. (Since I’m on the road I’m without my library of writing books that have whole chapters on this topic).

I found many more references covering ‘perspective’ and ‘point of view’ in literature than I had time to read. Some seemed to interpret these terms as ways to describe the same phenomenon, others insisted they were distinctly different things. Some declared there were only four points of view in literature, or knocked off an appealingly simple definition (did you know there is actually a Point of View in Literature for Dummies online?). Some were mind-numbingly dense academic lectures. I concluded I could spend many more hours trying to interpret the various interpretations, and retreated to write my post in a state of only partial enlightenment.

It made me wonder how I wrote a whole book without really knowing the finer points of this stuff. But then, it would appear that a good many of the online references I consulted really don’t know them either.

Narrative perspective is a quicksand that can really suck you down when you dip your toe into the murky region of personhood: First Person, Second Person, and the whole Third Person family, which includes the pesky narrative voice triplets – Third Person Objective, Third Person Subjective and Third Person Omniscient – who like to fool writers by impersonating each other.

And let’s not even talk about Alternating Person View. About halfway through my first book, the eagle-eyed Karalee observed in one of our critique sessions that I had already created eight POV characters. Executions followed (of some characters, not of Karalee).

If you really want to drive yourself nuts, you can contemplate the differences between Third Person Omniscient and Universal Omniscient (sometimes referred to as the “Little Did He Know” POV). Or you might wish to converse knowledgeably about whether Third Person Objective is really better named (as some insist) Third Person Dramatic. And, of course, you’ll want to be aware that if you are using the Third Person Subjective narrative voice for only a single character in your book, it’s more properly called Third Person Limited.

Not only that, there are other, even more rarefied narrative voices to choose from – antiquated or black sheep POV cousins such as the Epistolary Voice (who speaks through letters or documents), and my personal favourite the Unreliable Narrator Voice (who obviously speaks with forked tongue).

Now that I’ve led you into this swamp, I wish I could pull you to shore with some nice, crisp definitions of all these POV variations on narrative perspective. Sorry. I’d love to help you but I’ve completely lost perspective.

Oh, and did I forget to mention that each of these POV varieties comes with its own set of strict rules, which must be absolutely followed except when they can be broken, and which often sound exactly like the rules for some other POV variety with the exception of some slight sub-rule?


4 thoughts on “Getting some perspective on perspective

  1. Thanks for trying to shed some light on this murky topic, Silk. Not an easy undertaking. It’s a swamp alright, but mandatory for us writers to have some awareness of the rules. All part of good writing.

  2. I think it’s a swamp because there really aren’t any binding categories, let alone binding rules; at least not in fiction. Innovative perspectives are part of the story being told. If readers “get” the perspective and the way it enhances the story, it works, and that’s good. If they don’t, or can’t, you’ve written gibberish, regardless of your intent or design. That’s true, except when it isn’t. Faulkner’s point(s) of view baffle me, but he’s a Nobel Laureate, and I’m not.

    My “unreliable narrator” is a first person narrator who is very perceptive (so you tend to believe him) but occasionally gets things wrong, sometimes really wrong (though he doesn’t lie to the reader). When his mistakes hit him in the face, he and the reader realize together what went awry and try to recover. Trouble is, you never know when he’s seeing through the crap and telling it like it is (which is most of the time), and when he’s missed something critical. NOt an easy read, but the story is supposed to be disquieting. [sigh]

  3. Pingback: An Homage To Alternative Points of View: An Exercise in Objectivity | The Narcissistic Anthropologist

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