Literature 101: Point of View & Narrator

Literature 101
Literature 101 is a ten-part course based on 10 Literary Concepts Every Reader Should Know.

WEEKS 4 & 5: POINT OF VIEW & NARRATOR

Point of view is, essentially, how the story is told. The narrator is who tells the story. However, the two concepts are completely intertwined.

There are three main point of view categories:

  • Third-person – uses “he,” “she,” or “they” to tell the story; does not participate in the action
  • First-person – uses “I”; is a major or minor participant in the action
  • Second-person – use “you”; the reader becomes a participant in the action

There are several types of narrators:

  • The omniscient narrator knows everything and may reveal the motivations, thoughts and feelings of any or all of the characters.
  • A limited omniscient narrator presents the material from the point of view of a single or a limited number of characters.
  • The objective narrator presents the action and the characters’ thoughts, without comment or emotion. The reader has to interpret them and uncover their meaning.
  • An unreliable narrator, can be first or third person, but presents the story at least partially incorrectly.

DISCUSSION

Point of view is pivotal to the story. Is it pivotal to your reading? It probably should be. Why did the author choose the point of view that she did? Would a different point of view drastically change the story? Would a different point of view possibly improve the story?

For example, I recently read Finny, by Justin Kramon. The story was told by a limited third-person narrator, but the entire story was about Finny. Despite the entire story being about Finny, I failed to connect with her. I think that a first person narration by Finny herself might have allowed me to get to know her better.

Can you think of a book that you wish was told from a different point of view or narrator? It is kind of fun to consider the possibilities. In fact, you can see that this is not necessarily a new idea. Look at the revisionist fairy tales and other books being published recently. For example, Wicked is essentially The Wizard of Oz told from the Wicked Witch’s perspective. And people love Midnight SunTwilight from Edward’s perspective. The possibilities are endless here. What about The Hunger Games from Peeta or Gale’s perspective? I wouldn’t turn that down!

EXAMPLES

Here are a few examples of the points of view and narrators of some of the books I’ve read recently. Did I get them right?

MOCKINGJAY, by Suzanne Collins
First person

EAT, PRAY, LOVE, by Elizabeth Gilbert
First person

FINNY, by Justin Kramon
Third person, limited omniscient, reliable narrator

My favorite example of an omniscient narrator is Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. Famous examples of unreliable narrators include Humbert Humbert in Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov and Huck from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. Examples of the unusual second person point of view are Absalom! Absalom!, by William Faulkner and The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien.

Can you think of more examples?

HOMEWORK

1. Consider a book from your recently read pile or the book that you are currently reading.
2. Using the concepts above, try and identify the point of view of the book.
3. Identify how the author used the point of view to shape the story. Consider how another point of view might have affected the book.

Feel free to post your thoughts on the homework in the comments below. I’d be curious to hear which books or stories you used.

_________________________________

That concludes our study of point of view. Make sure to check in next Wednesday for Week 6: Characterization. But first, chime in with your thoughts on point of view and narrators in the comments.


6 Responses to Literature 101: Point of View & Narrator

  1. Jenny says:

    I am intensely interested in books that play games with point of view: alternating narrators, unreliable narrators, retellings from a new point of view. I read this *blush* Caroline B. Cooney book called Among Friends when I was a kid, and it was told from multiple points of view, and I just thought that was the best idea anyone had ever had. :p Great post!

  2. Jessica says:

    Jenny – I agree that point of view/narrator gives the author some of the best fodder for mixing things up – sometimes with amazing effect. One of my favorite reads from the last few years was THE RIVER, BY MOONLIGHT, by Camille Marchetta, which switches narration every chapter. It dazzled me.

    (Also, I loved Caroline B. Cooney as a teen. THE FACE ON THE MILK CARTON is one of my favorites. No blushes needed here!)

  3. softdrink says:

    Hey, is this a trick question? ‘Cause I could’ve sworn Mockingjay was first person.

  4. Jessica says:

    Softdrink – Um. Wow. That’s embarrassing. It IS in first person. I have no idea why I thought it was third person, particularly since I read it a few days ago. Sigh. My brain is really going these days. Thanks for checking up on me.

  5. Shelley says:

    Justin Kramon puts Elizabeth Gilbert to shame.

  6. Jessica says:

    Shelley – Interestingly, I liked EAT, PRAY, LOVE better than FINNY. Could have been my moods, though.

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