The Creation of Perception
Imagine yourself tucked away in the crevices of someone else's mind, privy to their perceptions. You see what he sees, hear what he hears. You smell, taste, touch and even sense what he does. You experience a roil of emotions and a plethora of thoughts. You meet other characters in his world, grow to like them, care about them, perhaps even love or hate them. Everything around you is different, yet familiar. Nothing is yours, yet you laugh, cry and partake of various delights as though they were your own. Fascinating, isn't it?
As writers, we do this naturally through our storytelling. We coax our readers into the minds of our characters, offer the them a chance to escape into others' lives and enjoy a world outside of their own reality.
How do we do it? Through a technique called point of view.
Point of view, or POV, is a literary term for the perspective through which a story's events are told. It is the relation of experiences by the narrator, who exists within the story world, not the author, who is the creator of the story.
Though some would argue that several different types of POV's exist, according to Rennie Browne and Dave King, authors of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, “. . . there are really only three basic approaches: first-person, third-person, and omniscient.” (page 30) Each has its own set of characteristics, its own advantages and drawbacks; all are viable methods for delivering a story.
So which one is right for you? Let's explore the options.
This narrative is written in the “I” voice, as though the narrator (or main character) is speaking directly to the reader. He literally invites the reader into his head; what he experiences and knows, so does the reader. Consequently, with one particular character at the forefront of the story, the reader gets to know this character—and only this character—very well.
In Anna Sewell's classic novel, Black Beauty, Beauty brings the reader on his life's journey as he goes from well-bred colt to hard-used cart horse. His joys and trials, friends and various masters are all recounted through his eyes and memories. Right from the beginning, the POV is unmistakable:
“While I was young I lived upon my mother's milk, as I could not eat grass. In the daytime I ran by her side, and at night I lay down close by her. When it was hot we used to stand by the pond in the shade of the trees, and when it was cold we had a nice warm shed near the grove.” (page 1, Black Beauty)
Both “I” and “we” are used concurrently throughout the novel and, as Beauty speaks directly to the reader, the reader slowly comes to know him as a friend. This ultimately creates an empathetic connection which defies the reader not to feel the turbulence of emotions alongside the main character, particularly the pangs of grief experienced by Beauty for the later death of his pasture-mate and long-time work companion, Ginger.
But what the writer gains in intimacy with the first-person narrative, he loses in perspective.
The reader is essentially “locked” within a certain character's mind; he cannot readily switch to another pair of eyes to experience a different viewpoint. Because of this limited scope, the main character must be present at all key scenes in order to move the storyline forward, and this gives rise to the reader's potential of being duped.
Duped? you say. The main character can fool the reader?
Certainly. He could be biased, misinformed, or intentionally misleading. This is why first-person narrators are also known as “unreliable narrators”; their close relation to the circumstances often skews the true understanding of events. Whatever the main character recounts, so does the reader believe, unless his honesty is challenged through implied deception.
This narrow viewpoint can be remedied, however, through a distinct and complete change of POV—a switch to a different character in a separate manner from the first, not within the original character's section, which will shatter the suspension of disbelief. A new section or even a new chapter can bring about a successful first-person perspective change, lessen the chances of the reader being fooled, and open up a better understanding of the story's events, without the added burden of keeping track of a myriad of characters and situations.
This narrative is considered to be the direct opposite of first-person. An omniscient narrator's perceptions aren't filtered through any one character; he knows all. He can reveal any character's actions, thoughts and motivations, whether hero or villain, secondary character or bystander. He can also deliver any pertinent background information a few, many, or all of the characters know nothing about. As a result, the reader receives a more complete account of the story's events, with its all-inclusive details.
But just as the first-person narrator loses a wide range of perspectives, the omniscient narrator loses intimacy through distance. An emotional attachment to any of the characters is rarely formed with true omniscience. However, a literary technique known as limited (or selective) omniscience can help bridge this gap.
As contradictory as the term might sound, limited omniscience allows the narrator to know everything, but only dip into the minds of a few selected characters. With the scope narrowed down, yet still broad in certain ways, the reader has a greater chance of developing empathy for the main characters while discovering information not known to those at the forefront of the story.
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is a perfect example of this. At the start of The Bad Beginning, the reader finds himself greeted by an omniscient narrator:
“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things happen in the middle. . . . I'm sorry to tell you this, but that is how the story goes.” (page 1, The Bad Beginning)
This narrator is prepared, no matter how awful the story becomes, to tell the woeful tale of the Baudelaire children, including any past events that would have affected the presently unfolding story. However, the frequent use of “they” and “them” throughout the series signifies the importance of all three children as main characters; their thoughts are revealed equally and the narrator does not recount any part of the main story without at least one of the Baudelaire children present.
But Snicket takes this even one step further: He becomes an intrusive narrator.
An intrusive narrator, a type of omniscient narrator, interjects his own thoughts and comments, and reflects upon the story's events in general. He essentially becomes a character in his own right, separate from the main characters yet so much a constant presence that it's possible for the reader to develop an attachment to him. He's distinct from the author, constructor of the story, though the line between intrusive narrator and authorial intrusion can sometimes blur.
Omniscient narrative in the form of narrative summary can be useful for introducing information that might otherwise be difficult to insert into a story's tight flow. It often lacks the closeness that first- and third-person, and even limited omniscience, can achieve since it's comprised of more telling than showing. But scenes are shown and narrative summaries are told, so all narrative summary, by this definition, is omniscient to some degree, despite a writer's possible use of a single POV throughout.
This narrative is a compromise between first-person and omniscient. It provides the author with both the flexibility of perspectives and the intimacy of one character. This is not to say that a writer can jump from one character's mind to another at will in the third-person narrative; switches need to be made properly to avoid “head hopping,” a term to be discussed later.
Because of its natural feel, third-person narrative is the one many writers choose to use. The majority of novels are written this way, so its frequent exposure likely influences new writers—even if subconsciously—who are working to develop their storytelling skills.
Two basic choices exist in third-person narrative: Subjective and objective.
Third-person subjective, the most common type of narrative, delivers everything to the reader through the viewpoint character; anything he sees, hears, smells, tastes and touches, anything he thinks and experiences. Bits of internal monologue (character's thoughts) are often interspersed throughout the story's progression. This helps to connect the reader to the character, similar to the way first-person narrative would.
In third-person objective, only the facts from one fixed POV are told. The writer does not dip into the the mind of the main character; interior monologue is non-existent and only those things seen or heard are recorded. Unfortunately, this can distance the reader from the main character, and can come off as an aloof, stripped down way of telling a story. Good for journalism where facts are reported, not so good for encouraging your reader to identify with the hero.
For new writers, keeping the point of view consistent throughout a third-person narrative story can sometimes be tricky. It's easy to accidentally slip into into omniscient narrative by revealing something to the reader a viewpoint character cannot naturally perceive on his own. Something hidden from the main character must also be hidden from the reader in third-person narrative, lest it lack a proper POV switch and become a case of head hopping.
“Head Hopping” and Proper POV Switching
Head Hopping. It's a dreaded term that makes new writers wince. But what exactly is it?
Simply put, head hopping is switching POV's so often within scenes, paragraphs or even sentences, that it jerks the reader this way and that in an effort to cram in as much information as possible, from as many viewpoints as possible, in as little space as possible. This results in a mental whiplash of sorts, leaving the reader confused and unable to identify with the story's protagonist.
Wait a minute, you say. Isn't that what true omniscient narrative does, go from one character to the next?
The line between true omniscient narrative and head hopping does seem indistinct, doesn't it? What sets them apart, though, is the establishment of perspective.
A writer who sets a clear POV in first- or third-person from the start of the story, then begins to dip into other characters' minds as that story progresses, is head hopping. Head hopping breaks the suspension of disbelief and yanks the reader unnecessarily from of the world created around them.
If all viewpoints are important to a storyline, then true omniscient narrative needs to be established immediately. The reader is told this indirectly through the POV construction and so would not be surprised to find himself inside many characters' heads. The suspension of disbelief is maintained and the story world left unscathed.
Head hopping should not to be confused, however, with multiple points of view, which can happen during third-person and even limited omniscient narrative. Multiple POV's contain methodical, proper switches between characters, whereas head hopping does not.
So what constitutes a proper POV switch?
In order for a POV switch to be successful, it needs to happen at a natural break or pause in the action. A properly done switch will alert the reader to the new character and allow him time to adjust to the new character's POV. There are several ways to accomplish this:
Chapter break—New chapter, new POV; a common way to change viewpoints within a story. The reader will easily take to the new main character because of the obvious switch.
Line breaks—A double line space between the end of one scene and the beginning of the next also informs the reader of a shift in POV (or time and place, for that matter). A natural pause between scenes, or where a “breather” occurs for the reader, is an ideal place.
Transitional object—The passing something to another character, whether it be an actual physical item or something similar, can shift the reader smoothly to another POV. Transitions should be kept short and the POV maintained long enough afterward for the reader to grasp it.
One exception to the nix on mixing POV's is to start off in omniscient narrative, then focus down into third-person, much like a camera with a panoramic view narrowing to a specific point. A firm establishment of third-person narrative must happen quickly though, in order to orient the reader properly.
The successful creation of perception comes from a writer's willingness to adhere to his chosen viewpoint's attributes, so understanding what sets one apart from another is important for anyone looking to embark on a lengthy writing venture. Reading published works is a convenient way to learn how proper viewpoint establishment and switches are handled. These are readily apparent in both fiction and non-fiction novels, and can give a new writer an idea of what's conventionally accepted in today's writing world. After all, a good publisher or agent can easily tell the difference between a writer who understands the rules and one who doesn't.
So arm yourself with a solid grasp of POV. Learn the hows and whys behind first-person, third-person, and omniscient narratives. And don't be afraid to invite your readers to enjoy your created world through the method that's best for your story. If done well, your novel has the potential to catch the attention of a prospective publisher or agent and boost your chances of eventually being accepted into the ever-growing world of published authors.