Our book group is reading a highly recommended bestseller. Halfway through, all of us are frustrated by inconsistencies in the the narrative point of view. One of the characters is telling the whole story, even though he isn’t present in some scenes and wouldn’t know what is happening everywhere. It’s tedious and confusing, and has left gaping holes in the plot. We’re hopeful that this might be some clever literary trick that will make sense soon.
Point of view is an important tool writers use to tell a story. Most opt for the third person, where an outsider describes the action. Fewer stories are told in the first person because of its limitations in tales with more than one character. Even fewer use the second person point of view, which can have a jarring, bossy tone.
In conversation, the speaker has made a choice concerning the point of view from which to share the details of an experience. It has a direct effect on the meaning of what is said, and the listener follows the lead. When someone speaks to me in second person, I end up questioning how much she owns her story. “You can’t know exactly what you might do when faced with an opportunity to cheat,” a friend told me recently. Really? Safer to toss that out there as if she were referring to me, or people in general, rather than state that fact about herself.
We are encouraged by psychologists who have studied these things to communicate important messages from a first person point of view. “I am angry,” instead of “you make me angry”, or “Honesty is important to me,” instead of “You need to be honest.” There’s ownership there, instead of blame and denial of responsibility. It’s a powerful mechanism that enables a clear presentation of facts, creating space for action and accountability.
Acknowledging that our own point of view is limited can be inconvenient for us. Even things we think we know for sure might be clouded by emotions or judgments based on something other than facts. Ideals, convictions, hopes, fears, all create a point of view. That bird’s-eye view we are enjoying is a figment of our imagination. No one observes everything. We can never really know another person’s intentions, no matter how obvious they might seem.
An omniscient narrator can be useful in a novel, but no such thing exists outside of fiction. Even so, that point of view is adopted in every arena. We see it daily in politics, religion, media, and personal relationships. The story it tells is confusing and tedious, with gaping holes in the plot. Just as a writer monitors the point of view to keep the story clear and sound, vigilance is required to keep our own voice credible. Consideration of other view points and an understanding of our limited perspective won’t guarantee a happy ending, but the tale will be a more powerful one.