Points of View
narrators and personae
Traditionally, there are three points of view, first, second and third, but myriad ways to implement and deploy them. With third person, there's an especially great range of possibilities, from the Godlike omniscient to the close third that sits almost on the shoulder or in the mind of characters who are rendered in third person, him or her or them, and whose inner life is known to us through the narrator's access. A third person narrator may also jump from character to character. When point of view switches from one first- or third-person point of view to another, it is typically done with some amount of white space. But not always. Just look at a page of Virginia Woolf, or study the point of view changes in Beloved by Toni Morrison for examples of swift, deft breaks from one character to another.
On p. 79 of Beloved, we're in Paul D's close third (and have been for three pages) — "No sooner did he have the thought than Beloved strangled on one of the raisins …" Then Denver speaks, and the next paragraph suddenly delivers us the world through her point of view: "No moment could have been better. Dever had worried herself sick …" In each character's close third, the persona of the narrator is subtly different, choosing language and imagery that fits the character. In many other passages, especially scenes in dialogue, the persona becomes more objective, going further from the individual characters, omitting the details that would reveal the skew of each one's perceptions of their shared world.
When writing in the third person, defining the persona of the narrator is essential. Persona is a word with multiple meanings, but perhaps the one overarching sense is personality. Importantly, it also implies the existence of other personae. In literature as in life, individuals have multiple personalities — not in any schizophrenic sense — but rather, they adopt different ways of being according to context. The narrator may change over time, or depending on which other characters are present, or where the scene is set — just as a person behaves differently and has different beliefs and even habits at different stages of their life and in different situations, say childhood and old age or school and home.
In a literary sense, the idea of persona can help the author create variations in voice that will help the reader understand the characters. It can also be useful to distinguish the difference between the author and a first person narrator, the differences among multiple close-third characters, and the extent to which a third person narrator is in fact a player in the story.
The first person has a surprisingly wide range as well, from the unreliable narrator of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, who unwittingly implicates himself as he tells his sometimes contradictory, often unbelievable tale, to narrators like Melville's Ishmael and Marilynne Robinson's Ruth (in Housekeeping), who manage to convey both the intimacy of their personal experiences and a wider, nearly omnicient, knowledge of their worlds.
PROMPT: Locate a switch in persona or point of view in your work, on any scale. This could be a change from one character's pov to another, a place where a third person narrator goes wider and tells truths about the world, or a moment when a first person narrator goes deeper and more introspective rather than narrating outward events. Whatever it is, consider why you altered your point of view at this spot and experiment with varying the shift — heighten the distinction or eliminate the change altogether. Consider how often such shifts occur and how and why you deploy them.
Going forward, see if you can perpetuate subtle distinctions among different points of view or narrative personae. Heightening your awareness of the persona of your point of view at any given point in your story is a good way to deepen the resonance of your writing. If a reader comes to understand your characters not just through what happens to them in the story but through the voice and mood with which their parts of the story are rendered, they will connect with them more fully and understand more intuitively who owns which elements of the narrative. They'll care more and be more engaged in the narrative as a whole.
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