Writers struggle with point of view in a prose narrative. Which point of view would be the best to tell the story? From whose point of view? How to write the point of view you’ve chosen? These are all craft questions. I’ve written about point of view before here. What I’m interested in today is more of a storytelling question: Why is point of view so important in writing?
That makes me think about how we tell stories. Think about an experience you had and how you described it to a friend. What you brought to the story was your unique perspective on the experience. You also brought your personality, your background, and your knowledge to the telling. Your unique memories. Your friend is aware of all these things. Someone else with the same experience — someone who was with you, for example — would tell it differently. So, your point of view in telling the story provides a perspective that no one else can give it. The same thing occurs with written stories. The point of view anchors the story either in the author’s perspective (omniscient or omniscient third) or in a character’s.
Writing in a specific point of view provides a writer with a way to control information about characters and action. For example, writing from a first person pov limits the reader to the narrator’s eyes, ears, and experience of what is seen, heard, learned, and known. Omniscient pov gives the reader what the writer wants the reader to know at any given time in the story from a broad perspective, but may not get inside characters’ minds. For that, a writer chooses omniscient third pov close on one or more characters. I used this pov for Perceval’s Secret and the entire Perceval series.
I recently finished reading Lauren Groff’s first novel, The Monsters of Templeton. Groff used the omniscient third pov close on one or more characters also. It gave her the opportunity to move the story forward through different characters and their perspectives, although the main character is a 28-year-old graduate student named Willie Upton. Groff even tells the story from the pov of several different fictional characters that appear in a series of novels written by one of her characters. Each pov brought a fascinating character to life, in his or her own voice and from his or her own experience and knowledge. This gave Groff’s novel incredible depth and richness in the storytelling, as well as the road map for releasing information at the right time for the story and Willie’s quest.
Virginia Woolf, in Mrs. Dalloway, began in Clarissa Dalloway’s pov, but soon flows into another character’s pov, someone Clarissa meets or passes on the street. In this way, Woolf passes the storytelling baton from one character to the next and back to Clarissa in a fluid and smooth way. The pov changes occur subtly sometimes, too. Woolf can then look at a situation or a character from multiple angles described by different characters and give the feeling that it’s all happening at the same time. It reminded me of a long tracking shot in film-making.
So why is point of view so important in writing and storytelling? As I thought about this it occurred to me that a character’s pov shows how the character thinks. Writers can show readers that individuals do not all think the same way which can expand a reader’s thinking and view of the world. We each have our unique way of thinking, of perceiving the world. This is a crucial understanding about the human condition, not only in literature but in real life. It has the potential for promoting empathy, understanding, acceptance and respect for other people, whether from the same or different cultures, whether known or foreign. And then I realized that I finally understood why Joseph Campbell had picked writers as modern shamans…..