Narrative point of view (also point-of-view or viewpoint) describes from which grammatical person‘s perspective the story is perceived.
Main article: First-person narrative
The first-person narrative makes it necessary that the narrator is also a character within his or her own story, so that the narrator reveals the plot by referring to this viewpoint character as “I” (or, when plural, “we”). Oftentimes, the first-person narrative is used as a way to directly convey the deeply internal, otherwise unspoken thoughts of the narrator. Frequently, the narrator’s story revolves around him-/herself as theprotagonist and allows this protagonist/narrator character’s inner thoughts to be conveyed openly to the audience, even if not to any of the other characters. It also allows that character to be further developed through his/her own style in telling the story. First-person narrations may be told like third-person ones, with a person experiencing the story without being aware that they are actually conveying their experiences to an audience; on the other hand, the narrator may be conscious of telling the story to a given audience, perhaps at a given place and time, for a given reason. In extreme cases, the first-person narration may be told as a story within a story, with the narrator appearing as a character in the story. First-person narration is used somewhat frequently. Although the first-person narrator is usually also the protagonist of his/her own story, this is not always true (for example in The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the first-person narrator is Nick Carraway and not the title character Jay Gatsby himself). The first-person narrator also may or may not be the focal character.
As aforementioned, the first-person narrator is always a character within his/her own story (whether the protagonist or not) and this viewpoint character takes actions, makes judgments and has opinions and biases, therefore, not always allowing the audience to be able to comprehend some of the other character’s thoughts, feelings, or understandings as much as this one character. In this case, the narrator gives and withholds information based on his/her own viewing of events. It is an important task for the reader to determine as much as possible about the character of the narrator in order to decide what “really” happens. Example:
“I could picture it. I have a rotten habit of picturing the bedroom scenes of my friends. We went out to the Cafe Napolitain to have an aperitif and watch the evening crowd on the Boulevard.” from The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. The narrator is protagonist Jake Barnes.
In very rare cases, stories are told in first person plural, that is, using “we” rather than “I”. Examples are the short stories Twenty-Six Men and a Girl by Maxim Gorky and A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner, the novella Anthem by Ayn Rand, and the novels The Virgin Suicides byJeffrey Eugenides, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase, Our Kind by Kate Walbert, I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, and Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris.
The narrator can be the protagonist (e.g., Gulliver in Gulliver’s Travels), someone very close to him who is privy to his thoughts and actions (Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes), or an ancillary character who has little to do with the action of the story (the character Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby). A narrator can even be a character relating the story second-hand, such as Lockwood in Wuthering Heights.
The first person narrator is the type most obviously distinct from the author. It is a character in the work, who must follow all of the rules of being a character, even during its duties as narrator. For it to know anything, it must experience it with its senses, or be told about it. It can interject its own thoughts and opinions, but not those of any other character, unless clearly told about those thoughts.
In autobiographical fiction, the first person narrator is the character of the author (with varying degrees of accuracy). The narrator is still distinct from the author and must behave like any other character and any other first person narrator. Examples of this kind of narrator include Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in Timequake (in this case, the first-person narrator is also the author). In some cases, the narrator is writing a book — “the book in your hands” — therefore it has most of the powers and knowledge of the author. A good example of this style is The Name of the Rose, written by Umberto Eco.
First-person Omniscient view
Main article: Second-person narrative
A rare form of first person, where the narrator is a character in the story, but also knows the thoughts and feelings of all the other characters. It can seem like third person omniscient at times. (e.g.:The Book Thief by Markus Zusak)
Main article: Second-person narrative
Probably the rarest mode in literature (though quite common in song lyrics) is the second-person narrative mode, in which the narrator refers to one of the characters as “you”, therefore making the audience member feel as if he or she is a character within the story. The second-person narrative mode is often paired with the first-person narrative mode in which the narrator makes emotional comparisons between the thoughts, actions, and feelings of “you” versus “I”. Often the narrator is therefore also a character in his or her story, in which case it would technically still be employing the first-person narrative mode.
In letters and greeting cards, the second-person narrative mode is often used in a non-fictional atmosphere.
Perhaps the most prominent example of this mode in contemporary literature is Jay McInerney‘s Bright Lights, Big City. In this novel, the second-person point of view is intended to create an intense sense of intimacy between the narrator and the reader, causing the reader to feel implicit in and powerless against a plot that leads him, blindly, through his (the reader’s and the narrator’s) own destruction and redemption:
“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might become clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not. A small voice inside you insists that this epidemic lack of clarity is a result of too much of that already.”
Other notable examples of the second-person narrative mode include Italo Calvino‘s If on a winter’s night a traveler, and Tom Robbins‘ Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. As well, Damage by A.M. Jenkins uses the second-person to show how distant the depressed main character has become from himself. And the narrator of Joseph Olshan‘s novel Nightswimmer intimately explains a story that his lover only partially understands. The second-person has also been used in many short stories.
Second-person narration can be a difficult style to manage. But when it is done well, this type of narration allows (or forces) the reader to imagine him or herself within the action of the novel. One possible (and frequently exploited) effect of the second-person is a strong accusatory tone, which can be achieved if the narrator condemns or expresses strong feelings about the actions of the focal character (“you”). This technique can also be used effectively to place the reader in unfamiliar, disturbing, or exciting situations. For example, in his novel Complicity,Iain Banks uses the second-person in the chapters dealing with the actions of a murderer.
One notable example of the use of second-person narration is the Choose Your Own Adventure series of children’s books, in which the reader actually makes decisions and jumps around the book accordingly. Similarly, most interactive fiction is in the second person.
An even more unusual, but potentially stylish version of second person narration takes the form of a series of imperative statements with the implied subject “you”, as in this example from Lorrie Moore‘s “How to Be a Writer”:
“Decide that you like college life. In your dorm you meet many nice people. Some are smarter than you. And some, you notice, are dumber than you. You will continue, unfortunately, to view the world in exactly these terms for the rest of your life.”
An example of second-person narrative in TV is the show Secret Girlfriend on Comedy Central. The show and story is shot and written as if the viewer is actually in the episode.
Third-person narration provides the greatest flexibility to the author and thus is the most commonly used narrative mode in literature. In thethird-person narrative mode, each and every character is referred to by the narrator as “he”, “she”, “it”, or “they”, but never as “I” or “we” (first-person), or “you” (second-person). In third-person narrative, it is necessary that the narrator is merely an unspecified entity or uninvolved person that conveys the story, but not a character of any kind within the story being told. Third-person singular (he/she) is overwhelmingly the most common type of third-person narrative, although there have been successful uses of the third-person plural (they), as in Maxine Swann‘s short story “Flower Children.” Even more common, however, is to see singular and plural used together in one story, at different times, depending upon the number of people being referred to at a given moment in the plot. Sometimes in third-person narratives, a character would refer to himself in the third-person e.g., “(Character name) would like to come with you”.
The third-person modes are usually categorized along two axes. The first is the subjectivity/objectivity axis, with “subjective” narration describing one or more character’s feelings and thoughts, while “objective” narration does not describe the feelings or thoughts of any characters. The second axis is between “omniscient” and “limited,” a distinction that refers to the knowledge available to the narrator. An omniscient narrator has omniscient knowledge of time, people, places and events; a limited narrator, in contrast, may know absolutely everything about a single character and every piece of knowledge in that character’s mind, but it is “limited” to that character—that is, it cannot describe things unknown to the focal character.
Not too rare is the multiple person narrative mode. Sometimes, an author will use multiple narrators, usually all of them storytelling in the first person. In stories in which it is important to get different characters’ views on a single matter, such as in mystery novels, multiple narrators may be developed. The use of multiple narrators also helps describe separate events that occur at the same time in different locations. William Faulkner‘s novels As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury are told from multiple points of view, in the first and third person, respectively, although the latter uses a less conventional chronology.
Alternating person view
While the general rule is for novels to adopt a single approach to point of view throughout, there are exceptions. Many stories, especially in literature, alternate between the first and third person. In this case, an author will move back and forth between a more omniscient third-person narrator to a more personal first-person narrator. Often, a narrator using the first person will try to be more objective by also employing the third person for important action scenes, especially those in which he/she is not directly involved or in scenes where he/she is not present to have viewed the events in first person. This mode is found in the novel The Poisonwood Bible.