Came across one of my old college textbooks the other day. Seeing as I went to college in the early 90s, I can’t even really remember which class it was for, but it had an interesting guide to elements of fiction, with an eye towards analyzing and critiquing written stories.
One of the elements it talked about was the issue of “point of view”. All stories need to make a decision about how they’re told, and in pure prose this decision is one of the more important ones because of the scale of intimacy and information provided. You may have heard terms before such as “first person” or “third person”, but did you know that the third person viewpoint can be subdivided further into a “limited” or “omniscient” style? Or have you heard of the “dramatic” viewpoint?
Well, let me back up in case you were confused at the beginning. The point of view is probably defined most simply as the identity of the narrator of your tale. For example purposes I could take the first line of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series: “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”
This is a third-person viewpoint, possibly even a dramatic one. In a couple of other choices, I might get the following…
First-person: That damned man in black fled across the desert, and I followed him.
Third-person omniscient: The traitorous Walter, the man in black, fled across the desert, and the honorable Roland Deschain, gunslinger, followed him.
You could also switch the first-person viewpoint and get “I fled across the desert, and that stubborn gunslinger followed me.”
These simple changes become pretty fundamental when you think about them. First-person viewpoints are the most obvious in terms of coloring everything experienced, because it’s through the filter of a single character, an “I” which not only has imperfect access to information about the world and other characters, but may also be very, very biased.
Third-person limited takes a step back and tends to still present information through the focus of a single character, having access to their inner thoughts as needed, but has a little more leeway in relating events; including the option to actually jump the focus around, something that can’t really happen with first person unless you want the reader to be thoroughly confused. In A Song of Ice and Fire George R. R. Martin uses third-person limited, first following one of his protagonists, and then another. In this chapter you might be treated to Tyrion’s thoughts and fears over a certain event, while in the next it might be the same event retold from another character’s perspective. It’s a very flexible option, allowing for a balance of bias and detatchment.
Third-person omniscient just basically plays God. The narrator sees all and knows all, although there’s a paradox in that sometimes this viewpoint is the most biased of all. “The traitorous Walter, the man in black, fled across the desert, and the honorable Roland Deschain, gunslinger, followed him.” Judgments are being communicated to the audience right from the start, all the more powerful for the fact that there’s a “voice of God” delivering them. “In this week’s episode, the courageous He-Man must rescue the beautiful princess from the evil Skeletor!” In cases like these the audience really isn’t given any chance to decide for themselves, the story does it for them. Tolkien certainly never seemed interested in showing us Saruman’s point of view, so much as condemning him, both through Gandalf and the Universe. Omniscient stories might arguably be the only ones where unfettered Good and Evil can exist–although it could be only because the author tells us so.
Now if you’re paying attention you might have noticed that I skipped over the idea of second-person. There’s a reason for that, and that reason is because it is almost non-existent in narrative fiction.
“You fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
That’s the second-person viewpoint, and it’s a mighty awkward choice for telling stories… with one exception: Interactive Fiction. The Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, or the Infocom games of yore, are shining examples of where second-person works to draw the reader into the story as an active participant. The storyteller in this case isn’t talking about someone else (or even “themselves”), they’re interested in you, and what you will do next.
Finally there’s the dramatic viewpoint, which is the one Zombie Ranch uses most. It’s the idea of having no narrator at all, of just capturing events as they unfold and leaving the audience to form their own opinions and judgments. No telepathic insights, no universal adjectives or inner monologues. Actions and words, presented with minimal commentary. Hemingway was said to be a master of this, and so perhaps I really ought to brush up on my Hemingway.
For now, I hope this entry wasn’t too rambling. I’m still trying to get over a nasty cold and I have an unfortunate feeling my coherency is not the better for it. But that might just be my point of view.