Viewpoint:

(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“The use of point of view is to bring the reader into immediate and continuous contact with the heart of the story and sustain him there.” Tom Jenks

“The artist must be in his work as God’s in creation, invisible, yet all powerful; we must sense him everywhere but never see him.” Gustave Flaubert

“On of the principal techniques is the use of a character whom the reader adopts for his reading experience. In the best fiction and most of the time, the reader is identifying with one or another of the characters in the story. He is vicariously living the fictional life of that character. He is being the Ishmael of Moby Dick. He is being the narrator of Deliverance. He is not, be it noted, being either Herman Melville or James Dickey.” William Sloane

“This is a difficult notion for some writers. No adequate terms exists for this character the reader becomes. In his book The World of Fiction, Bernard DeVoto called this character ‘the means of perception.’ It makes little difference what he is called; whether one uses the term ‘point of view,’ ‘standpoint,’ ‘alter ego,’ or ‘reader identification,’ is not important. What is important is that this is the fiction writer’s most useful device for securing his reader’s participation. Experiencing a work of fiction through one of its characters is the all-absorbing, self-obliterating joy of reading. It is the core of the child’s experience.” William Sloane

“A writer must be aware of, have a reason for, and be in control of all shifts of viewpoint character.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“You can change point of view, of course. It’s your God given right as an American fiction writer. All I’m saying is, you need to know that you’re doing it; some American fiction writers don’t. And you need to know when and how to do it, so that when you shift, you carry the reader effortlessly with you.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“There is more to viewpoint and modifiers, such as adjectives and adverbs, than first apparent. There are two types of modifiers. The mostly objective: such as green, large, shallow, loudly; and the more subjective: such as willful, resentful, demure, wistfully. The objective modifier is the result of observation (he is tall), the subjective modifier is the result of evaluation (he is stubborn). If you are trying to be unobtrusive, shun subjective modifiers, as they interpose—no matter how subtly—an evaluator between the reader and the narrative. Instead, dramatize them objectively. As in show don’t tell.” Ulf Wolf

“Point of View, POV for short and when scribbled in the margins of manuscripts, is the technical term for describing who is telling the story and what their relation to the story is.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“In fiction, the ‘I’ narrator (or the third-person narrator) is not the author.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“First person . . . only what ‘I’ knows, feels, perceives, thinks, guesses, hopes, remembers, etc., can be told.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“First person locks us in one character’s mind, locks us to one kind of diction throughout, locks out possibilities of going deeply into various characters’ minds, and so forth.” John Gardner

“Limited third person . . . only what the viewpoint character knows, feels, perceives, thinks, guesses, hopes, remembers, etc., can be told.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“In ‘limited third’ you’re writing from inside your character. You can tell only what that single character perceives, feels, knows, remembers, guesses.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“Third person limited point of view, or third person subjective, has some of the same drawbacks [as first person] for a long piece of fiction. (This point of view is essentially the same as first person except that ‘I’ is changed to ‘she’ or ‘Helen’).” John Gardner

“Involved author (‘omniscient author’) . . . the story is not told from within any single character. There may be numerous viewpoint characters, and the narrative voice may change at any time from one to another character within the story, or to a view, perception, analysis, or prediction that only the author could make.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“I don’t like the common term ‘omniscient author,’ because I hear a judgmental sneer in it. I think ‘authorial narration’ is the most neutral term, and ‘involved author’ the most exact.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“Involved author is the most openly, obviously manipulative of the points of view.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“The traditional third person omniscient point of view, in which the story is told by an unnamed narrator (a persona of the author) who can dip into the mind and thoughts of any character, though he focuses primarily on no more than two or three, gives the writer the greatest range and freedom.” John Gardner

“A related point of view is that of the essayist narrator, much like the traditional omniscient narrator except that he (or she) has a definite voice and definite opinions.” John Gardner

“Whichever person I start a novel in, I very soon begin feeling its restrictions, and remembering the liberties of the other. I think I’m settling towards the third now. The omnipotent power of gravity in the novel form is realism. I resist it less and less.” John Fowles.

“Detached Author (‘fly on the wall,’ ‘camera eye,’ ‘objective narrator’) . . . The author never enters a character’s mind. People and places may be exactly described but values and judgments can be implied only indirectly . . . it is the most covertly manipulative of the points of view.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“Observer-Narrator, Using the First Person. The narrator is one of the characters, but not the principal character—present, but not a major character in the events. The difference from first-person narration is that the story is not about the narrator. It’s a story the narrator witnessed and wants to tell us.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“Observer-Narrator, Using the Third Person. This point of view is limited to fiction. The tactic is much the same as [using the first person]. The viewpoint character is a limited third-person narrator who witnesses the events.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“The choice of point of view will largely determine all other choices with regard to style—vulgar, colloquial, or formal diction, the length and characteristic speed of sentences, and so on.” John Gardner

“What the writer must consider, obviously, is the extent to which point of view, and all that follows from it, comments on the characters, actions and ideas.” John Gardner

“He must learn to step outside himself, see and feel things from every human—and inhuman—point of view. He must be able to report, with convincing precision, how the world looks to a child, a young woman, an elderly murderer, or the governor of Utah. He must learn, by staring intently into the dream he dreams over his typewriter, to distinguish the subtlest differences between the speech and feeling of his various characters, himself as impartial and detached as God, giving all human beings their due and acknowledging their frailties. Insofar as he pretends not to private vision but to omniscience, he cannot, as a rule, love some of his characters and despise others.” John Gardner

“Once one has recognized that the novelist ought to be able to play advocate for all kinds of human beings, see through their eyes, feel with their nerves, accept their stupidest settled opinions as self-evident facts (for them), one simply begins to do it; and doing it again and again—carefully rereading, reconsidering, revising—one gets good at it.” John Gardner

“What one has to get, one way or another, is insight—not just knowledge—into personalities not visibly like one’s own. What one needs is not the facts but the ‘feel’ of the person not oneself.” John Gardner

“The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.” Flannery O’Connor

“Point of view runs me crazy when I think about it but I believe that when you are writing well, you don’t think about it. I seldom think about it when I am writing a short story, but in the novel it gets to be a considerable worry.” Flannery O’Connor

“Point of view runs me nuts. If you violate the point of view, you destroy the sense of reality and louse yourself up generally.” Flannery O’Connor

“Yesterday morning I made another start on The Moths, but that won’t be its title; and several problems cry out at once to be solved. Who thinks it? And am I outside the thinker? One wants some device which is not a trick.” Virginia Woolf

“I find the first person more natural. I never think of writing a book in the third person, although The Ebony Tower and The French Lieutenant’s Woman are both third-person books. It usually just turns out that way after having been in the first person originally. I never feel quite at home as the omniscient narrator.” John Fowles

“It is a matter of method. Sometimes the author is talking with is own voice, sometimes he is talking through one of the people in the book.” Percy Lubbock

“The landscape now has the colour that it wears in Emma’s view. . . . And occasionally the point of view is shifted away from her to somebody else, and we get a brief glimpse of what she is in the eyes of her husband, her mother-in-law, her lover.” Percy Lubbock

“The most obvious point of method is no doubt the difficult question of the centre of vision. With which of the characters, if with any of them, is the writer to identify himself, which is he to ‘go behind’? Which of these vessles of thought and feeling is he to reveal from within?” Percy Lubbock

“If the subject can be completely rendered by showing it as it appears to a single one of the figures in the book, then there is no reason to range further. Haphazard and unnecessary plunges into the inner life of the characters only confuse the effect, changing the focus without compensating gain.” Percy Lubbock

“Her [Madam Bovary’s] pair of eyes are not enough; the picture beheld through them is a poor thing in itself, for she can see no more than her mind can grasp.” Percy Lubbock

“A novelist may still do his story an ill turn by leaving too naked a contrast between the subjective picture of what passes  through Emma’s mind—Emma’s or Becky’s, as it may be—and the objective rendering of what he sees for himself, between the experience that is mirrored in another thought and that which is shaped in his own. When one has lived into the experience of somebody in the story and received the full sense of it, to be wrenched out of the story and stationed at a distance is a shock that needs to be softened and muffled in some fashion. Otherwise it may weaken whatever was true and valid in the experience; for here is a new view of it, external and detached, and another mind at work, the author’s—and that sense of having shared the life of the person in the story seems suddenly unreal.” Percy Lubbock

“It is a question, I said, of the reader’s relation to the writer; in one case the reader faces towards the story-teller and listens to him, in the other he turns towards the story and watches it.” Percy Lubbock

“To the other people in the book it makes all the difference that the narrator is among them.” Percy Lubbock

“This, then, is the readiest means of dramatically heightening a reported impression, this device of telling the story in the first person, in the person of somebody in the book.” Percy Lubbock

“It is not only the field of vision that is determined by the use of first person, it is also the quality of the tone. When we are shown what Esmond sees, and nothing else, there is first of all the comfortable assurance of the point of view, and then there is the personal colour which he throws over his account, so that it gains another kind of distinction. It does not matter that Esmond’s tone in his story is remarkably like Thackeray’s in the stories that he tells; in Esmond’s case the tone has a meaning in the story, is part of it, whereas in the other case it is related only to Thackeray, and Thackeray is in the void.” Percy Lubbock

“The use of the first person, no doubt, is a source of relief to a novelist in the matter of composition. It composes of its own accord, or so he may feel; for the hero gives the story an indefeasible unity by the mere act of telling it.” Percy Lubbock

“It seems, then, to be a principle of the storyteller’s art that a personal narrator will do very well and may be extremely helpful, so long as the story is only the reflection of life beyond and outside him; but that as soon as the story begins to find its centre of gravity in his own life, as soon as the main weight of attention is claimed for the speaker rather than for the scene, then his report of himself becomes a matter which might be strengthened, and which should accordingly give way to the stronger method. . . . The novelist, therefore, returns to the third person again, but he returns with a marked difference. He by no means resumes his original part, that of Thackeray in Vanity Fair; for his hero’s personal narration he does not substitute his own once more. It is still the man in the book who sees and judges and reflects; all the picture of life is still rendered in the hero’s terms. But the difference is that instead of receiving his report we now see him in the act of judging and reflecting; his consciousness, no longer a matter of hearsay, a matter for which we must take his word, is now before us in its original agitation. Here is a spectacle for the reader, with no obtrusive interpreter, no transmitter of light, no conductor of meaning. This man’s interior life is cast into the world of independent, rounded objects; it is given room to show itself, it appears, it acts.” Percy Lubbock

[In reference to a passage written by Petronius] “Inasmuch as the guest describes a company to which he himself belongs both by inner convictions and outward circumstances, the viewpoint is transferred to a point within the picture, the picture thus gains in depth, and the light which illuminates it seems to come from within it.” Erich Auerbach

“The selection of the narrative approach or means of perception is one of the first things a fiction writer must do if he wants to be read. His selection should be a conscious or accurate one, and it must be made scene by scene, chapter by chapter, or book by book. Thereafter, he must shape his entire narration in terms of that decision. This point cannot be ignored. To ignore it is to forget the reader. The reader must always understand on any page in any sentence at any word—at any single word—the nature of his relationship to the story.” William Sloane

“More fiction fails because the author has not had the discipline and the ingenuity to provide and sustain a means of perception than for any other single reason. That is an editorial opinion, not a statistic.” William Sloane

“Third person is emotionally cooler than first person.” Philip Gerard

“Where’s the camera?” Madison Smartt Bell

“First person—the I narrator, with access only to the narrator’s interior world and the exterior world only as perceived by that narrator.” Philip Gerard

“Third-person omniscient—the godlike ‘all knowing’ narrator, with access to the interior lives of all the principal and supporting characters and the whole universe of time and space.” Philip Gerard

“Third-person limited or assigned—the narrator with access to only one viewpoint character’s thoughts and feelings, externally limited in scope to that character’s world.” Philip Gerard

“But in fact point of view is slipperier than such a technical catalogue indicates—more of a continuum than a series of discrete perspectives. The above list is only a starting point for the maturing writer.” Philip Gerard

“Writers workshops tend to become obsessive about point of view, citing ‘violations’ as if the writer had run a red light or been caught speeding, as if a perfectly maintained point of view somehow carries its own aesthetic value. But it is only a piece of technique, part of the apparatus of storytelling—a means, not an end in itself.” Philip Gerard

“The comprehensive first-person narrator’s insights may seem almost omniscient, may even strain credulity, but credulity never quire breaks, and they remain the narrator’s, not the authors.” Philip Gerard

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