Sorting out characters and narrators

Last time, I said there are two kinds of POV: Narrator POV and Character POV, and I mentioned that each has some subsets. Here they are.

Narrator POV

The omniscient narrator knows everything and can share everyone’s thoughts, but doesn’t have to. He can, and often does, make value judgments about the characters and events of the story.

The limited narrator usually shares the thoughts of some, but not all, of the characters. He doesn’t usually make value judgments.

The objective narrator is almost like a camera. He can record and relay the events, but doesn’t make value judgments and doesn’t share anyone’s thoughts.

The drawback to all of these is that any narrator puts psychic distance between the reader and the character. The advantage is that you can reveal information not known to the characters, which can be useful in epic stories.

One key to maintaining Narrator POV is to remember that your protagonist is not the POV character. Your narrator is the POV — well, not character, because he’s not really a character in the story — let’s call him the POV persona.

In omniscient POV, and to a lesser extent in limited POV, it’s possible for the narrator to have a really distinct personality. But in objective POV the narrator has no personality. This gives the effect of watching a movie: sensory details without interior monologue.

Character POV

In deep POV, there is no narrator—the POV character essentially is the narrator. I highly recommend it, if it works for your story, because the reader engages more deeply when there’s no narrator coming between them and the characters.

There is such a thing as shallow POV, but it is Not Recommended. It is virtually indistinguishable from limited narrator POV. In fact, a lot of writing books refer to a “third person limited” POV, but some of them are describing the limited narrator form described above, and some of them are describing shallow character POV. I’ll discuss this more later.

I believe much of the confusion about POV comes from the use of “person” instead of “character” or “narrator” to describe it. The writing books will tell you a lot about “first person” POV, but generally everything about it they have to say applies to character POV regardless of what grammatical person is used.

In character POV, the difference between deep and shallow has to do with the depth of psychic distance between the character and the reader. The primary drawback to shallow POV is that it lends itself too easily to telling.

Jill Elizabeth Nelson, in her excellent book Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View, offers many examples. Here’s one of mine.

Shallow:
Slider was sore from a whole day of doing yard work. The next morning, every muscle ached.

Deep:
When Slider woke on Saturday, his first movement made every muscle seize. He flopped back onto his pillow and waited for the spasms to subside. Then he braced himself and made another attempt at rising. Dull aches radiated from deep in every limb.

The greatest benefit to Deep POV is that when you close the psychic distance, you’ll find it much harder to fall into “telling,” and much easier to keep “showing.”

Note that the narrator POVs are almost always written in third person but, rarely, can be in second person. Character POV, even Deep POV, can be written in either third person or first.

About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

One thought on “Sorting out characters and narrators

  1. […] Next week, we’ll look at those subsets I mentioned. […]

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