Point of View in Writing

The point of view in writing can be a powerful way to set a tone for the material. The same story written from a subjective point of view can echo quite differently in a reader's mind compared with the version in an omniscient point of view. Why is that?

Humans over the thousands of years of our development have been trained to communicate and empathize in a certain way. Those humans who got along with the group and cared for each other tended to survive, while those who completely lacked empathy tended not to pass down their genes. For better or for worse, what it means is that most of us in modern times have certain survival skills built into us. This then impacts how we react to stories, and in particular how we react to the language in which they are presented.

We are designed to connect to the emotions and feelings of others. We feel a "reward" in our brains when we "get" that connection. We feel a lack when we are completely baffled by another's actions.

So, in terms of reading a story, there are three types of connections we make.

A subjective point of view is when we see things through a character's eyes. This is the world that most of us live every day. We see the world through our own eyes, and what we see is filtered by our own experiences and expectations. The story might be written in the first or third person - we might read about "Lizzy went to the ball" or "I went to the ball" - but in either case we are still seeing things through Lizzy's point of view. When Mr. Darcy acts aloof, we get Lizzy's interpretation of the situation - that he is snobby. We don't get an actual "factual" interpretation (if such a thing even exists) that Mr. Darcy is uncomfortable with the situation.

I write all my novels with a subjective point of view. I love it, because it gives that sense that we all understand - of the way life has a variety of angles and shades on it. Can any reality ever have one static form? Or is it always dependent on who looks at it and from what angle?

Most novels are written with a subjective point of view, for this reason. It's the one readers relate to most strongly.

Think of Objective as reading a script for a movie that doesn't have ANY emotional hints in italics or parenthesis. All it has is the dialogue and actions. So along the line of:

Lizzie: (walking into the ballroom) Wow, what a beautiful set of decorations.

Mr. Darcy: (taking a sip of a drink) I want to go home.

Lizzie: That's too bad.

Mr. Darcy: Would you like to dance?

Lizzie: No.

We have no idea what they are thinking, beyond making guesses based on their words or actions. We as the reader are making guesses about their feelings and motivations. This can be a lot of fun - it involves the reader in the process. But it can also be frustrating for the reader, because they might guess incorrectly, go for half the book enjoying how they think it's going, and then only realize much later that they'd been wrong the entire time because of a new plot twist. It can make them feel as if they've been fooled or deceived. On the other hand, some readers like that kind of change-up.

"Hills like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway is an example of this style of writing. So it can definitely be done well, if the intention is to give an overhead look at what is going on.

Omniscient is when we're a God-like entity and somehow know the exact thoughts and feelings of every character in the story. Some writing coaches warn that this is the "lazy" approach to writing because instead of having to show how characters feel and think through their words and subtle actions, everything can just be stated blandly.

Aragorn stared into Arwen's eyes, worry overtaking him. He knew she might be tempted to give up eternal life just to be with him. He couldn't do that to her. He wanted her to live long and prosper. So he took her hand and said, "We have to break up."

Arwen blinked in surprise. Surely Aragorn was just exhibiting his silly human stubbornness. After all, the guy was barely a toddler, based on her standards. He was going through his 'terrible twos'. He was getting cold feet because he couldn't imagine matching up to her beauty, intelligence, and archery skills. Plus her fantastic horsewomanship. Time to give this boy a swift spank on the rear and get him in line. "I don't think so."

It's a good idea to give long, hard thought as to why you want to try omniscient writing. Why do you need direct access to all characters' thoughts and feelings like that? Could you instead "show" their feelings and reactions through subtle action and dialogue tweaks? In our real world we are not telepaths (well, most of us aren't at least). This kind of superpower distances the reader from the story. If this is your aim, be sure that you think through why before you implement it.

Poorly done omniscient writing is often called "head hopping" where the point of view randomly jumps from one character's head to another.

"Lonesome Dove" by Larry McMurty is an example of an omniscient novel which did win awards.

All three styles of writing have been used successfully by authors - so it's not that any one is "wrong". You still want to give serious thought to why you're using a style, and if it best suits your purpose.

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