Fiction can send us to worlds without limitation. But what if I were to tell you that limited point of view can actually help your writing?
Last year, I discussed the challenges of writing fiction in third-person omniscient point of view. I compared the process to an all-you-can-eat-buffet. It’s fantastic to have all those options, but in your zeal to try the steak and the salmon and everything else, you have almost none of the honey chicken, which is what you really wanted.
Basically, for all the potential, it’s an unsatisfying meal. And third-person omniscient is the same way. The reason is that the absence of limitation leads to absence of focus.
Today, we’re going to use this concept as the springboard for a brand new series of posts on point of view. Specifically, we’re going to explore how other points of view utilize limitation to enhance the experience of reading a novel.
There’s a reason third-person limited point of view puts limited right in the name. A writer who writes in third-person limited has made the conscious decision to take a point of view capable of revealing anything—third-person—and narrow it down to only a small number of characters, usually only one or two. Why have they made this decision?
One of the most important reasons is that a narrowed point of view enables readers to experience events exactly as characters do. If the idea is for Billie to be surprised by the death of her mother, or for Captain Amazing to discover his arch-foe’s dastardly scheme at the last possible moment, third-person limited allows that by removing from readers’ view any information our character or characters don’t themselves know.
But it’s not just a matter of being surprised. It’s also about emotional impact. If the death of her mother is a major turning point in Billie’s character arc, then it’s important that readers experience that moment alongside her. We don’t get to do that if we’ve already experienced the loss from her mother’s perspective, and the doctor’s, and the nurse’s, and Billie’s stepfather’s. A sad moment becomes less and less sad when repeated. And it’s less sad too when removed from the personal experience of the character it affects most dramatically.
That’s not to say it’s impossible for Billie’s mother’s death to have meaning for her mother’s husband, or the doctor, or the nurse. And if the story you’re writing is primarily theirs, then yes, that’s the important perspective to show. But what a limited point of view also does is help define the story you’re telling. It clarifies meaning that can become obtuse in a narrative that focuses on too much simultaneously.
First-person is limited too, in similar ways. In fact, first-person is in some ways even more limited. While third-person limited can focus on one character, it can also focus on a few, and can do so with varying degrees of closeness. First-person point of view focuses on the experience of one character only, usually the protagonist, and it maintains that perspective through an entire story.
(There is a trend now toward alternating first-person point of view, but this is a non-traditional use of the concept and carries with it its own set of complications.)
The limitations of first-person point of view are effective for all the same reasons as with third-person limited. In addition, a first-person narrative basically casts the reader as the confidante of the main character. This can lead to compelling characterization grounded in subjective reality. That is, the world as a character sees it versus the world as it really is. This, in turn, can lead to an unreliable narrator—but we’ll talk about that in another post.
In a lot of ways, third-person objective is the opposite of first-person. This is true by virtue of its different pronouns (any third-person voice relies on “he” and “she” versus first-person’s “I” and “me”), and also in establishing that there is an objective reality to the world. Yet third-person objective is also one of the most limited perspectives because unlike third-person limited, the author has no access to the internal experiences of any of their characters—not even the protagonist. In a third-person objective story, the only insight into character you get comes from what they say and do. That is, through showing rather than telling.
And showing versus telling is one of the most important components of effective writing. Of course, that applies to all points of view, including those more frequently used—third-person objective is more common in short stories and films than in full-length novels—but if the strength of your story is in watching your characters from a bird’s-eye view, then the limits of third-person objective give you something no other perspective can.
Considerations for Limited Point of View
The particular way in which limitations help your story depends entirely on what story you’re trying to tell. But here are some questions that may help:
- Whose perspective do you need? And whose could your story survive without?
- Did you base your story in subjective or objective reality? Do you want your reader to experience a character’s world or the real world?
- In any given scene, what character is most significant?
As the author of your world, you have the power to do anything you want. But just like with the patron of that all-you-can-eat buffet, you need to choose wisely. Much of POV is learning to limit your narrative’s scope to find the story you truly want to tell.
In the weeks to come, we’ll learn more about the significance of point of view in fiction. For now, though, I want to hear about the most important point of view you’ve ever cut from a story. What led to that decision? How did it change your narrative? Let me know in the Comments section below!
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners. He’s part of The Writer’s Ally team as a developmental editor of fiction and memoir, for which he’s currently accepting new clients.