Mastering Point of View in Fiction

(Since Bloggingauthors.com has removed my article "Mastering Point of View in Fiction," probably archived it, I reproduced it here for readers.)

Beginning writers tend to have trouble with Point of View (POV). The most frequent problem is shifting from one POV to another in the middle of a sentence or a paragraph. Often, just the awareness of the POV is enough to fix the problem. From writing my novels and short stories, I can appreciate the challenge to discipline the mind and focus on the view from which I am writing. But like other disciplines, practice will improve the awareness of POV.

First Person Point of View

In the first person point of view, the readers are inside the head of the narrator and view the events from her perspective. In fiction, the perspective is usually from a character’s orientation, whether that be the protagonist or another character. In an autobiography, it would be in the author’s orientation.

The major advantage of the first person point of view is that the reader can identify and sympathize with the narrator. The reader knows her thoughts and would tend to accept her opinions through the intimacy of this point of view. The writer could share the narrator’s thoughts and feelings without having to resort to speech and action. And he can experiment with various writing styles to match the narrator’s thought patterns. Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is an example of dazzling prose written in the first person point of view.

The first person point of view tends to reveal the narrator’s subjective rather than objective account of the events and the reader has to depend on her honesty. In the extreme, the narrator may be deceptive, often unintentionally but sometimes intentionally. Creating an unreliable narrator is one of the major reasons for using the first person point of view, not only to create twists in the plot but also to build a multi-dimensional character. The butler in Kasuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Days is such a narrator.

Epistolary fiction is a special case of the first person point of view writing where the reader sees the letters that the narrator addresses to various other characters. An example of such fiction is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

So far, I have described the single angle first person point of view, i.e. a single narrator. But it is possible to have multiple first person point of views where, for example, each chapter of the book is from a different person’s point of view. The advantage of this technique is that the reader can understand and sympathize with more than one character. William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is such an example.

Third Person Point of View

In third person point of view, the author separates the narrator from the viewpoint character. The narrator, who the reader usually couldn’t identify, would not be in the story. Even though the reader may see the events from the viewpoint character’s perspective, the narrator describes those events. There are various third person point of views depending on access—the penetration into the viewpoint character’s mind.

Third Person Objective Point of View

In this point of view, the reader sees the characters’ actions and hears their dialogue and can only infer from them the players’ thoughts and feelings without direct access to their mind and heart. Some call this the camera perspective, a video camera capturing the sights and sounds. The audience would watch and listen to the characters and deduce their thoughts and feelings. The reader almost never feels the presence of the narrator, just as the audience almost never thinks about the cameraman. The advantage of this POV is precisely that the author wouldn’t have to reveal the characters’ thoughts except through their actions and words. If the author is skilled in showing the characters’ behaviors, the reader can use her imagination to derive the thoughts. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is an example.

Third Person Limited Point of View

In this point of view, similar to that of the first person, the reader can access a character’s—usually the protagonist’s—thoughts. But the narrator is different from the viewpoint character. Like other third person point of views, the narrator is usually unnamed and unknown. The reader never knows him except through his prose style. The advantage of this POV is that the author can adjust the narrative distance between reader and character. The reader can be as intimate with the character as in the first person POV or almost as distant as the third person objective POV. And the author can use her own writing style rather than that of the viewpoint character as in first person POV.

As in first person point of view, the author can use many angles in this POV. For example, she can write each chapter of the novel in a particular character’s limited POV. The advantage is that the author can describe events without having to rely on a single viewpoint character being present in all of them—a useful tool for plot-driven novels.

Third Person Omniscient Point of View

In third person omniscient point of view, the reader has the God-perspective, that is, he is in all the characters’ heads all the time. The reader not only has access to all the actions but also all the thoughts and feelings. The advantage is that the author can describe vistas with unique angles and summarize events across time that can move the reader like no limited perspective can. This POV was popular in the previous centuries as in Henry Fielding’s novels, but is less so among contemporary writers. However, a master, using this POV, can dazzle the reader with his prose.

Form and Content

The writer would look at the content and the narrative structure to choose the appropriate point of view. When I read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I couldn’t imagine these novels written in another point of view without destroying their haunting moods. We can write most stories in more than one point of view but given the content and the author’s goal, we should rank the POVs and choose one on the top of the list.

Thoughts on Andre Gide’s Strait is the Gate

Le Havre

Strait is the Gate is a story of love between a man and a woman. But it is a love beyond the love of a man and a woman. They sought “mental love,” which is akin to divine union: the love through union with God, the fellowship of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. They sought a love without happiness, a love too elusive between two mortals, a love at once holy, pure and sublime, which our mortal passions would likely taint. In the end they must give up the love between a man and a woman, to reach for that holy and pure love without joy and passion. Andre Gide, through his personal struggle between puritanical virtues and personal happiness, created a thought-provoking story about love, which challenges the reader to assess the variations of love. 

Andre Gide

Journey to the End of the Night

In Journey to the End of the Night, Louis-Ferdinand Céline jabs at war, colonialism, the U.S., the medical profession and anything that comes along the way. His writing style, its coarse language and cynical humor, reflects his irreverence toward norms, and animates his contempt for society and pessimism toward the human condition. The book starts like Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, hammering at the futility of war, where wide-eyed youths waste their lives fighting for the ambitions of bureaucrats and return with disillusion, wrecked health, chronic unemployment and alienation from society. When our antihero Ferdinand Bardamu goes to Africa, we feel like reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which exposes cruelty and inhumanity in colonial outposts and multinational enterprises’ exploiting the natives for profit. Bardamu’s travel to the U.S. and struggle to stay alive remind us of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, where the business conglomerates exploit cheap laborers, squeezing every ounce of life from them, to maximize profit and shareholder value.  In our antihero’s return to France, we recall Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and any number of Honoré de Balzac’s works, with the masses struggling to eke out a living. In the novel, the characters lie, steal, and even kill to survive and live anyway they could. It’s rats fighting each other for scum.

Night in Paris

As the title indicates, our antihero, and his friends and acquaintances, journeys through the dark night of life, in the hope that the end would come soon and the darkness would end. Toward the end of the novel, his friend Robinson, after all his suffering and failure and disillusions, chooses death to end this night. This novel, based on Céline’s life, reveals his disgust for society, government, and humanity.



George Orwell's 1984: Dystopian Society of the Future. Or the Present?

"Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four."

Winston Smith works in the Ministry of Truth creating “alternative facts.” Under Big Brother’s omniscient eyes, he tried to ignite his only freedom, the freedom to believe in “obvious” truths, to separate facts from “alternative facts,” but by the novel’s end, at the café Winston was unsure what two plus two would make, a sign that O’Brien had successfully reintegrated a “lost soul” and Winston had become like his friends and neighbors, unable to question and thus unable to revolt. What sends shivers down our spines is not the various tortures O’Brien performed, but after these tortures, Winston’s total capitulation-mind, body, and soul-to Big Brother. When the mind kowtows to external authority and ceases to reflect and question, then the individual had successfully metamorphosed into a machine.

Winston, by editing previous documents to create “alternative facts” and conform to Oceana’s present position, such as whether Eurasia is friend or foe, had helped the regime’s guardians, who like O’Brien believed “who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past,” censor news and mold the citizens’ minds. Censor the media, control sources of knowledge and the government controls what people think. It is the classic feature of totalitarian regimes. We see this in Russia and North Korea alike. Oceana, like other totalitarian regimes, also turned to the indispensable tool, fear, to chisel its citizens’ minds and hearts to its agenda’s shape and form. To stimulate fear and rouse its citizens to a common cause, it would when necessary create fathom enemies, either Eurasia or Eastasia, even though these totalitarian regimes also had similar ideologies, or rather, like Oceana, no ideologies. This sense of ultra-nationalism is another key feature of totalitarian regimes as seen in Nazi Germany and current day North Korea. Fear of a common enemy unites the citizens and detracts from the dictator’s encroachment upon freedom. A common doom gives the dictator much leeway. To that end, worshiping the dictator as God is a requirement of totalitarian regimes. As the Germans worshipped Hitler, so the citizens of Oceania bowed before Big Brother.  

Oceania Society

Under 1984’s dystopian sky, Winston must bow, not only because of Big Brother’s overwhelming power and presence, but also because of Winston’s inability to form any ideologies. Even though he wanted to think freely, he lacked the training and thus the analytical mind to counter O’Brien’s offenses. In the end, his mind followed the path of least resistance. We see this in North Koreans trained from birth to worship their leader as God and to blame all woes on foreigners.


Orwell’s 1984 is a dark apocalypse of sub-human society where homo-sapiens had replaced machines to operate an efficient hierarchy, an apocalypse where man and women have ceased questioning “intuitively obvious truths” and just regurgitate government slogans. What is terrifying is that we continue to have such regimes in our world even in the twenty-first century. The warning of 1984 is a reminder that we can regress just as we can progress and if we don’t mind our steps, we may revert to the past.

Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X



When Yasuko Hanaoka’s ex-husband shows up to exhort money, she and her daughter kill him. Her neighbor Tetsuya Ishigami, a high school math teacher, volunteers to help dispose of the body and divert the police’s attention. What results is a scheme to deceive the police into solving the wrong crime.

A dead body whose face is smashed to hide the identity shows up near the river and Detective Kusanagi must identify the murder and find the perpetrator. On reaching a dead end, he solicits his friend and schoolmate, physics professor Dr. Manabu Yukawa, to sift through the clues and red herrings. Thus, pinning the two masterminds against each other.

In The Devotion of Suspect X, Ishigami and Yukawa try to outwit each other in this cops and robbers game. What Yukawa couldn’t fathom is the depth in which Ishigami is willing to devote himself to and ultimately sacrifice for Yasuko. This mystery is among the handful of mystery novels whose plots surprise me. And though I wish the key characters have more depth, the plot more than compensates for that flaw and the sparse prose pushes the plot along without extraneous verbiage. Smart and powerful. I almost wish Ishigami could triumph over Yukawa.