Writers’ Font: Point of View Esoterica

Writers font series advice for beginning authorsIn June, we looked at the most common Points-of-View used in fiction today: First Person, Third-Person Limited, and Third-Person Omniscient. In July, we examined some pitfalls to avoid in mastering POV.

Now let’s look at two POVs that aren’t so commonly used in fiction:

The Second Person POV allows the author (or a fictional character) to speak directly to the reader. Today it’s used almost exclusively in nonfiction. You’re likely to find it in speeches and how-to articles (like this one.) Its pronouns are you, yours, and yourself. In fiction, you’ll sometimes see it in children’s books. (Addressing the reader directly in other POVs is known as “breaking the fourth wall.”)

[This article has been updated to include verbiage more thoroughly explaining the use of Second Person POV in fiction writing.]

With thanks to Rick Taubold, I should have realized that there’s a distinction between Second Person POV in fiction and non-fiction. “Second Person POV [in fiction] has nothing to do with who is being addressed, but with who is narrating.” Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City is written in this POV:

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 that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. [Ch. 1, 1st sentence]

The narrator is telling the story using the “you” pronouns (you, your, and yours.) The effect is to involve the reader as a character in the story. It’s extremely difficult to pull off, but wonderfully effective for putting the reader into the story!

The Omniscient POV is written from the viewpoint of an all-seeing, all-knowing narrator with knowledge of everything that’s happening in the story from any character’s viewpoint, including their feelings and motivations, and it knows the history of the setting, the characters’ family histories, and even future events (after all, the omniscient narrator knows the end of the story.)

At first it may seem best to use omniscient POV because then you wouldn’t have to worry about whether you’ve strayed out of your chosen POV. Well yes, but the main drawback is that you’ve placed a barrier (called narrative distance) between the reader and your character(s)’ feelings.

Another drawback is that it isn’t as easy to write as it may look. It takes expertise in the Craft to do it well. (An example of such expertise is Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. More about this later.)

Victorian reading room

That narrative distance between reader and the characters’ feelings is one reason it isn’t used as much today. It was popular in times past because books weren’t as plentiful and readily available to the reading public. I imagine that gentlefolk sat reading such luxuries in cozy, gas-lit parlors. Without television, radio, or Internet, novels were an entertainment to be savored. Long descriptive passages, musings, and omniscient observations of each character’s physique and clothing prolonged the delight of reading. But today’s readers want less description and more action, and they especially want to care about the main character.

Third Person Omniscient vs. Omniscient

If you read about the Third Person Omniscient POV in the June issue, you may now be wondering, what’s the difference between these two POVs? It’s a bit tricky. To review:

For Third Person Omniscient POV, the outside narrator (you, the author) may tell the story from the viewpoint of the MC; also, you can make the thoughts and motivations of any or all other characters known to the reader.

Unlike Third Person Limited, in Third Person Omniscient the story is written from the POV of the MC, with forays into other characters’ viewpoints. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is an example of the Third Person Omniscient POV. For most of this beloved story, we enjoy Elizabeth Bennet’s POV. Sometimes, though, the outside narrator lets us in on something Elizabeth doesn’t know:

The Bennets were engaged to dine with the Lucases and again during the chief of the day was Miss Lucas so kind as to listen to Mr. Collins. Elizabeth took an opportunity of thanking her. “It keeps him in good humour,” said she, “and I am more obliged to you than I can express.” Charlotte assured her friend of her satisfaction in being useful, and that it amply repaid her for the little sacrifice of her time. This was very amiable, but Charlotte’s kindness extended farther than Elizabeth had any conception of; its object was nothing else than to secure her from any return of Mr. Collins’s addresses, by engaging them towards herself. [Ch. 22, 1st paragraph]

Now look at this excerpt from Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Lonesome Dove, which is written from the Omniscient POV:

Old Hugh Auld soon replaced Augustus as the main talker in the Hat Creek outfit. He caught up with the herd, with his wagonload of coats and supplies, near the Missouri, which they crossed near Fort Benton. The soldiers at the tiny outpost were as surprised to see the cowboys as if they were men from another planet. The commander, a lanky major named Court, could scarcely believe his eyes when he looked up and saw the herd spread out over the plain. When told that most of the cattle had been gathered below the Mexican border he was astonished, but not too astonished to buy two hundred head. Buffalo were scarce, and the fort not well provisioned.
[Ch. 98, 1st paragraph]

You can easily see the emotional distance between the reader and the characters (and events) in both passages. In Pride and Prejudice we’re told that Elizabeth is grateful and “obliged” to Charlotte more than she can express. Charlotte assures her friend that being useful gives her “satisfaction.” These feelings are told in an informative but dry tone.

In Lonesome Dove, we are simply told that the soldiers were “surprised” and that Major Court was “astonished,” all in the same tone in which we’re informed that “the fort was not well provisioned.”

Understanding the Difference

In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is the POV character throughout the story, yet there is an omniscient narrator who knows about Charlotte’s designs on Mr. Collins. If the story had been written in Third Person Limited, Elizabeth (and thus the reader) could only know what Charlotte was up to if Charlotte had told her, or if Elizabeth overheard her tell someone else.

In Lonesome Dove, passages like the one shown above tell us about events, different characters’ thoughts and feelings, and even give us information such as the scarcity of buffalo. In other passages of the novel we are treated to POVs from several characters in their own voices.

Next Month

You may have heard the writing advice Show, Don’t Tell (which I prefer to call Show vs. Tell.) Go back and reread the above excerpt from Lonesome Dove. If the whole book read like that, you’d eventually get bored. Why? Because it’s a brief example of telling, not showing. Yet Lonesome Dove is hardly a boring book. Fortunately for us, McMurtry is a masterful writer who knows that we need to do both, in the proper balance. And that will be the subject of next month’s Writers’ Font.

Author: Candace Williams

Candace Williams lives with her husband and beloved rescued Iggys (Italian Greyhounds) in Texas. Her first novel, THE EARTHQUAKE DOLL, was inspired by her early experiences in post-war Japan while her father was serving in the Korean Conflict. Learn more about Candace on her website and her Author Central page.

14 thoughts on “Writers’ Font: Point of View Esoterica”

  1. Interesting post – thank you.

    Kim Stanley Robinson is a writer still working who writes (IMHO) very successfully using the Omniscient Narrator PoV. I am currently completely absorbed in his ‘2312’.

  2. A very interesting and concise series on POV. I did a graduate program in creative writing last year, focusing on the mechanics of writing. My supervisor and I probably spent half our time honing my issues around POV. The program as a whole was great, but working on POV consistency, plus when and how to change has probably been the biggest improvement in my writing. Your series has been a great review and re-enforcer.

    1. Oh my goodness, thank you, John! I’m printing this out for those days when I wonder if I’m beating my head against the wall. LOL!
      I feel strongly that a level of mastery of POV and Show vs. Tell (next month’s topic) makes writing more interesting and exciting.

  3. “McMurtry is a masterful writer who knows that we need to do both, in the proper balance.” Yes! Show vs Tell is a technique that draws the reader into the story, but it’s still just one /tool/ amongst many. The important thing is the story and how best to craft it.

    1. I agree, Mika. There are lots of tools available to craft Story. Depending on how long this series goes, I might get to them all in my lifetime. LOL
      Thanks for commenting.

  4. Candace– While you’ve done a very good series here, I fear that you’ve misunderstood what second person POV is and what it is not. It is not talking to the reader directly, but rather talking as if the reader WERE the character. To understand the difference, preview Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City” on Amazon, consider THE classic 2nd person POV novel and the one that made this POV acceptable. Second person is found a lot in short stories published in literary magazines today, although not so much in novels. Not everyone liked McInerney’s voice (although they did make a movie from the book–Michael J. Fox and Kiefer Sutherland).

    In your example of talking to the reader, the POV is actually 1st person because it’s the narrator speaking (in first person “I married him”–not 2nd person). POV has nothing to do with who is being addressed, but with who is narrating. Here’s the opening excerpt of stunning short story titled “Driving Fast” (published about 20 years ago in Story Magazine). This story is also first person, not second, despite addressing the reader.

    –You know me, and I scare you. But I’m your boy. You call me bastard. Son of a bitch. “Where you going so fast, you son of a bitch?” you say, turning down the morning radio girl who’s been rubbing against you from the traffic copter. “You want to kill somebody?” Yes I do, actually, that’s exactly what I’m thinking. Maybe I’ll kill me. Maybe I’ll kill you. Yes, you, banging on your locked door as I stroke out from behind you on the Garden State Parkway, pushing wind-dents into your fenders on the Long Island Expressway, sucking a blurry reflection across your hood on the Los Angeles freeways, forcing you to jump your brakes and jerk into a Sears truck on I-94 through Chicago.–

    1. “POV has nothing to do with who is being addressed, but with who is narrating.” Rick, thank you! I absolutely misunderstood this. Whilst “using the Google,” I ran across such examples as, “You use second-person point of view to address the reader,” http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/first-second-and-third-person?page=1,
      Had I delved deeper, I would have found that its meaning when used in *fiction* is different, and that’s unfortunate since this series is for writing fiction.
      The famous Jane Eyre sentence, “Reader, I married him,” seemed to fit my understanding of 2nd P pov because it’s a sudden address to the reader. It also throws the reader out of his/her “suspension of unbelief,” so to my mind, it was *also* a pov change.
      Many, many thanks for the clarification!
      Well, live and learn, I hope. I’m going to submit a correction to the admins for this article.

        1. You are most welcome, Candace. Second person POV can be a lot of fun and can yield a strong voice when done properly. I’m seeing more and more writers experiment with it in short fiction with good effect, often for humorous pieces, where it can work very well.

          My wife and I publish Fabula Argentea magazine (www.fabulaargentea.com) and we’ve published a couple of very good and amusing 2nd person pieces written in present tense (usually the tense used for 2nd person pieces) in recent issues that your readers might want to check out for examples to see the potential: “Paper Cutter” (April 2015, issue 11) and “Acceptance” (July 2016, issue #16).

          1. Thanks again! Hm. This POV could be fun to try with our weekly FlashFic contest.

            I just read “Acceptance” and will check out “Paper Cutter” later on today.

            “Acceptance” was hilarious, peeps. It’s a satire about the writing trade – well worth a look.

          2. Rick, I also read “Paper Cutter,” which was as entertaining as “Acceptance.” I’m sure our readers would enjoy it, too. It’s in Second Person POV *and* written in present tense. We are in the here-and-now, living inside a character’s mind that is s-l-o-w-l-y becoming unmoored. (I can relate!) lol

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