“Point of view” or “narrative mode” describes the pronouns used when writing a story. At the most basic level, the points of view can be broken down as follows:
|First person||I, we|
|Third person||he, she, it, they|
Stories written in the third person are probably the most familiar to most of us. Consider this sentence from Melville’s The Confidence Man:
His cheek was fair, his chin downy, his hair flaxen, his hat a white fur one, with a long fleecy nap. He had neither trunk, valise, carpet-bag, nor parcel.
As an example of first person narrative, consider another hopefully familiar passage from Melville:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.
Although second person narratives are fairly rare in writing for grown-ups, there are dozens if not hundreds of instances available in the form of Choose Your Own Adventure books. Here’s a sample from one entitled Space and Beyond:
You are born on a spaceship traveling between galaxies on a dangerous research mission. The crew of the spaceship includes people from five different galaxies. Your parents are not from the same galaxy, but both have features common to those found on the planet Earth in the Milky Way galaxy.
Of course, point of view isn’t really just about the pronouns — it’s about how the use of those pronouns orients you in relation to the story. Third person generally keeps you at a little distance as an outside observer, as if you’re watching the story like a movie.
A story told in the first person lets you stare out from the eyes of the narrator. Even if you wouldn’t necessarily expect to identify with a particular first-person narrator, looking at the world he describes as if from his vantage can have the effect of making you feel more sympathetic to his perspective. It’s easier to relate to melancholy Ishmael in the first person than it might have been in the third.
Second person narratives turn the camera around and dump you into the story. They can be pretty gimmicky (see Choose Your Own Adventure above) and accordingly aren’t terribly common.
Other narrative modes abound, however. For example, there’s a subdivision between third-person limited and third-person omniscient. In the limited POV, the narrator has access to the thoughts and feelings of one character but not others. In the omniscient POV, the narrator can tell you what any character is thinking and feeling. By contrast, in straight third-person POV, the narrator simply relates events as they happen, without subjective access to any character’s thoughts and feelings.
For an example of third-person omniscient narrator, I give you Dan Brown in Angels and Demons:
Before ascending, Langdon knew he needed a weapon, any weapon… He hoped the element of surprise, combined with the Hassassin’s wound, would be enough to tip the scales in his advantage.
That’s followed on the next page by the following:
When she had first awoken to find them tied behind her back, she’d thought she might be able to relax and work her hands free… Vittoria knew in an instant that she was capable of killing.
Within a very short span, we have not only descriptions of different characters’ behaviors but actual access to the things going through their minds. Third-person limited provides the same sort of access, but for just one character within the story.
Then there are epistolary stories. These are written in the forms of letters between characters, and though each letter is written in the first-person, the effect to me is one of almost a third-person omniscient narrative. The first novels were written in this form, and you can find fairly palatable examples in books like Dracula, Frankenstein, and another little favorite of mine, Ella Minnow Pea (which is also incidentally a riff on the lipogram).
Authors can choose to mix narrative modes, of course, switching from one POV to another as theme or character merits. Some of the most fun fiction to read, I think, is fiction that does this sort of switching, keeping the reader really on her toes.
Some authors write from the perspective of what’s known as an unreliable narrator. It’s POV-independent and is often used to comment on the nature and mechanism of story-telling itself. Of course, it can also be used, as in movies like Fight Club and The Usual Suspects, to turn around a big surprise at the end. You find unreliable narrators all through literature, but one striking example lies in David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress:
Though perhaps another reason why I did not remember it is that I am feeling somewhat tired.
Actually, I am not feeing tired. How I am feeling is not quite myself.
Again and again in Markson’s book, the speaker makes a statement and then corrects or contradicts it, so that you begin to wonder over time whether there’s any truth at all in what she’s saying. In a book partially about the slipperiness of language, it’s a very fitting device.
There are plenty of other ways to tell stories. James Joyce’s Ulysses switches styles and viewpoints in at least 18 noteworthy ways. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (out in theaters now but well worth a read if you like ambitious novels) includes an astonishing set of nested stories told in different modes and voices. William Gaddis’s J R is written almost completely in unattributed dialogue that makes it, I suppose, a strange variant on third-person omniscient but that’s really sort of unclassifiable.
When choosing a point of view, I think most of us will choose a first-person voice if we’re telling a story that’s fairly personal or close to the truth, a third-person voice if we want to distance ourselves from the story a bit, and a second-person voice if we’re trying to be innovative (but we’ll probably fail). Sometimes when I run into a roadblock when writing something, I’ll think about changing the POV to see if it lets me think about the story a little differently and head in a better direction.