Narrators and Viewpoint Characters: Whose Line is it Anyway?

This post is second in a series, following How to Keep Your Reader’s Attention. Here we delve deeper into Points of View (POVs), throw around some technical jargon, uncover some popular POVs of the past and find out what is current.

Point of View is a powerful storytelling tool that lets you adjust the tone of your story and fine tune your reader’s experience. By adjusting the POV, you can give your story a detached news-report aura or an intense roller-coaster feel.

However, like any powerful tool, you need to know how to use it correctly. So before we go any farther I’m going to let you in on a secret.

The Narrator is the Storyteller:  The key to using POV well is to keep in mind that the narrator of the story is not the author.

This is easiest to see in a 1st person story where the narrator is the “I” character. You tell the story from this character’s perspective whether he is the main character, a minor character, or a witness to the events of the story. This comes naturally to many fiction writers. We slip easily into the skin of our characters. It’s almost scary. But no matter how easy it is to assume the identity of our characters as we write, you wouldn’t argue that we actually are those characters. At least I hope you wouldn’t. Unless you write memoirs.

Third person gets a little more tricky. You may argue that it’s really you telling the story–the fictional narrator doesn’t exit. Maybe, but you will write better if you think of the narrator as a fictional persona or “voice” you adopt to tell the story. It’s important to separate the narrator from you, the author, because the “voice” of the narrator can be honed to reflect the thoughts and speech of the story’s characters. It can even take on its own personality to lend an air of authenticity to a story.

Viewpoint Characters and Narrative Distance

If your story is told in 1st person, the narrator, the “I” character, is the viewpoint character. Your reader experiences the story from this character’s POV. Here the narrative distance (how close the narrator is to the character) is close and relatively fixed.

We see the story only through the lens of the viewpoint character’s capability to tell the story and his proximity to the events. But don’t despair–if you choose the right viewpoint character/narrator, these limitations can work for you. They add texture to your story and filter out information that you don’t want your reader to know.

Third Person Zoom

When we use a 3rd person POV, things gets a bit more complicated again. Third person stories can be told from inside a character’s mind or from a distance. Think of a zoom lens on a camera. If you zoom out to a wide-angle view, you can see a lot, but not in detail–this is good for a panoramic landscape shot. Zooming in gives you a detailed view but a narrower range of vision. There is a continuum of 3rd person viewpoints, from tightly-focused which we call Limited to all-seeing which is often called Omniscient.

Within a 3rd person story, you can zoom in and out to vary the narrative distance. We sometimes see a similar effect used at the beginning of a movie. The opening credits begin with a sweeping panorama over mountains or a city. Then the camera gradually zooms in on a particular character in action. Because you can vary the narrative distance, 3rd person POV is versatile like the zoom lens on your camera.

Four Useful Viewpoints

If you read much about narrative distance and POV, you will undoubtedly come across many terms for various levels of narrative distance. We will make it simple by adding just four viewpoints to your kit. That’s all you need to effectively use the zoom lens of 3rd person. Just to be clear–these are all variations on the 3rd person POV.

1. Omniscient

The narrative equivalent of the wide-angle view has several names. Omniscient, All-Knowing, or God’s Eye POV are common terms because from this viewpoint you can see everything going on in the story even things no character can see. This kind of all-knowing narrator sounds like a traditional storyteller at a campfire or the narrator of children’s fables. This POV isn’t used often in modern fiction but was almost universal in stories before the novel was invented.

2. Detached or Objective, “Just the Facts, Ma’am”

This is sometimes called the Fly on the Wall POV. The easiest way to write from a detached viewpoint is to imagine you are a fly on the wall. A literate fly. There is no viewpoint character. The narrator-fly can only report what it sees and hears and is never in the mind of any character. The result can be emotionally detached.

If you want your reader to identify with your characters, this is not the way to go, but it can be powerful when you want to convey the impression of an objective reporter or create an eerie detachment. John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl starts off with a long narrative in this style. It was a risky way to start a novel–you can decide whether it worked.

3. Observer

We mentioned a witness-to-events narrator in 1st person and we can use a similar viewpoint character in third person. This is when a minor character sees and reports the action. It differs from the detached viewpoint in that a minor character is the viewpoint character.

4. Limited

The limited 3rd person narrator is the counterpart to a 1st person narrator. The narrator takes on the persona of the viewpoint character even though he relays the story in 3rd person. If you want the reader to feel close to your character, you go deep into the mind and reveal the character’s experience and thoughts. At this level, the reader is only one step removed from being in immersed in a 1st person narrative.

Effectively, we have taken the camera lens and zoomed it in on a single character. We are so close that we are inside his mind where we are privy to his thoughts.

It’s called Limited so there is a catch–we are limited to that character’s viewpoint. The limitation is that we do not enter into the minds of other characters at the same time. There is no jumping from head to head. Es ist verboten! You must also be careful not to disclose any information that the viewpoint character would not know. It can be hard, because stuff you the author know sometimes slips in. Be vigilant. Also writing in a close style will help. (This is what we worked on in the post: How to Keep Your Reader’s Attention.) Most modern stories are written from this POV, usually alternating between two or more viewpoint characters, chapter by chapter.

Which POV to Use?

That is like asking a painter which brush you should use. It’s a matter of choosing the right tool, be it brush or lens or POV, for the job at hand. And that is why we study POV or any other element of fiction writing. To know what tools we have in the box and to be able to pull out the right one when we need it. That said, in the next workout we will go into more detail about choosing POVs and switching between them. Until then, here are a couple exercises to strengthen your awareness of POV.


1. Assume you want to tell a story of a drug addict in denial. Of the four types of 3rd person narrators described above, which would you use to accomplish the task? Would a 1st person narrator work better that the 3rd person POV you chose?

2. Take several of your favorite novels off the shelves. Choose books published within the last 50 years. What are their genres? Are they written in 1st or 3rd person limited or some other POV?

3. Read through a scene or two and notice whether the author sticks to a single POV throughout the scene. We will work on changing viewpoints in the next post.

If you would like examples of how different POVs sound, there are excellent examples in Chapter Seven of Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. I highly recommend the entire book.

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