by Jim Rushing
Before a writer’s fingers can ever begin the dance of creation and deletion they must answer a few important questions. How, when, and from whom should our story’s information flow? These answers determine from which point of view (POV) our story should be narrated. When thinking about POV, writers tend to focus on the information each POV is able to convey but are less inclined to consider the opposite. What information can a POV hide? What can it mask?
Why would a writer want to keep information masked or hidden? Some answers include mystery, tension, pacing, and above all, to make the reader want to keep reading. Choosing the right POV can help us do all these things.
Before we explore masking information through POV, let’s flesh out just what POV means. Every story is told from at least one POV because someone or something (I’m looking at you, Sci-Fi and Fantasy writers) must deliver information to the reader. Regardless of the narrating entity, the scope of his/her/its knowledge about the story is bound by the limits of each style of POV and the “rules” that govern what should be done with that knowledge. Let’s take a look at each style.
- First Person: The main character is the narrator (‘I’) and tells the story as they lived it or are living it. They can only convey what they themselves know and experience.
- First Person Peripheral: A secondary character is the narrator and tells the story as they witnessed it or are witnessing it. Again, they can only convey what they themselves know and experience.
- Second Person: The narrator addresses the reader directly (‘you’) and describes what the reader has done, is doing or should do. This is exceedingly rare in narrative fiction and much more common in instructional writing.
- Third Person Limited: A narrator that exists outside the story follows only one character (‘he/she/they’) throughout the narrative and can only convey what that character knows and experiences.
- Third Person Multiple: The narrator is able to follow more than one character and can convey what each knows and experiences.
- Third Person Omniscient: The narrator knows and can convey everything there is to know about the story, the characters, their thoughts and feelings, and the world they inhabit. Nothing is off limits.
- Third Person Objective: Like Third Person Omniscient but without showing the character’s thoughts and feelings.
In all of these cases, the narrator should divulge all the important information they have access to. The information can be withheld from other characters in the story but if the narrator knows, the reader should too. Otherwise, when the information is finally revealed, it can feel like a cheap ploy.
On the surface, Third Person Omniscient seems like every writer’s dream. The narrator has access to everything that could possibly be said. It’s like having a bar stocked with every possible bottle. Unfortunately this god-like knowledge doesn’t come with god-like power. Knowing everything means telling everything, at least everything that matters. There are plenty of mystery-filled stories that use Third Person Omniscient, but it takes some finesse to do it well. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is a great example.
When secrecy and subterfuge are needed to make your story shine, it can be best to get your reader into a character’s head. First Person POV is a great way to mask information within our stories since we can only ever know what the narrator knows, be it the protagonist or a secondary character. Because our characters are not omniscient, some information within the story will be unknown by default. Careful planning on the part of the writer can ensure the reader makes the big discoveries along with the character/narrator. This also drives our plot and makes the story engaging. Think Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.
Third Person Limited and Third Person Multiple can also do this, but they go about it in different ways. Third Person Limited is similar to First Person POV in that we follow only one character, but it’s less sensual. We still experience the story unfolding at the same pace as our POV character, but from a bird’s-eye view that allows the reader to know some things the character doesn’t. Think The Bourne Identity here. While this makes for slightly less mystery, there’s a tension built when the reader can see what’s coming for the protagonist.
With Third Person Multiple POV, it becomes more complex. While the characters we follow have to discover the story details for themselves, we the readers have a broader view of events since we can learn from the experiences of each character. How much the writer divulges, and to which characters, determines how much mystery is preserved for the reader. George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones does this well.
Choosing POV requires a lot of thought. From genre norms to personal comfort, each writer will have to make the best decision for the story. Just remember that what isn’t known or said can be as powerful as what is, and the right POV can be an excellent tool to exploit that.