Who Perceives What? Point of View.

What a character perceives: Point of View.

One of the most important choices an author must make concerns Point of View.

In storytelling, people use the term Point of View (or PoV) to refer to different things. We’ve narrowed it down to four definitions:

  1. The overall perspective from which a story is told
  2. The scene by scene perspective of a story
  3. The narrator’s point of view
  4. Attitude or belief system of the author

Overall perspective

The entire Star Wars saga is, in very general terms, told from the point of view of the two characters that have least status: the robots C-3PO and R2-D2. They are not present in every single scene, but they are part of the overall course of events – and in a ironic tip of the hat to their function of providers of overall point of view, George Lucas has C-3PO relate the entire story so far to the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

George Lucas borrowed the idea from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, which tells a story of generals and princesses from the point of view of two peasants. These two are involved in the action, but understand less about what they see going on than the audience does. For an idea of the effect, imagine what the story of Hamlet would feel like for two of the bit parts: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Or actually, don’t bother, because this is what Tom Stoppard did in his play and subsequent film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Its witty and ironic take on a familiar story demonstrates how choice of point of view can be vital not only to how the characters, but also how the audience understands the story. It may be fair to say that overall point of view may determine the “truth” of a story, a subject Akira Kurosawa had explored already in his earlier movie Rashomon.

Scene Point of View

In its most technical sense, point of view refers to the way a scene or an event is presented to the recipient, the audience or reader. In film, point of view is very specific to the way a scene is photographed and edited.

A direct instance from film is the camera taking the position of a character’s eyes, as for example in The Silence Of The Lambs when we see the protagonist stumble through the dark through the eyes of the murderer, who is wearing night vision goggles. In those shots, the point of view is the murderer’s. But it can be less obvious, as when we see a character (say, Cary Grant standing on the lonely road in the open in the middle of North By North West), then there is a cut to what that character is looking at (a wide expanse of nothing, some corn fields, and in the far distance a crop-duster plane). The audience is brought closer to the sensations of the character by seeing what the character sees.

Whatever the medium, the presentation of each story event tends to be linked to the understanding of that story event that one specific character has. In prose, this scene by scene point of view is also connected to narrative mode – first-person, third-person and the like – though it is not exactly the same thing. Even when there is a narrator, who may indeed be omniscient, usually the recipient sees or reads the information content of an event through the perception of a character taking part in that event. This is the Point of View Character.

An easy test to understand who the point of view character is goes like this. We as audience watch or read about a handful of characters in a room. Which of these is the point of view character? One of the characters looks out of a window. A car has pulled up outside the house. Only the character who looked out the window can know this. Do we know it too? Then the character who looked out the window is the PoV character, because we obtained the information at the same time as the character did.

Point of view has to do with who the story is about, or at this scene by scene level who the plot event is about. It doesn’t have to be explicit. It may be that we see or read about several people at a dinner party conversing – the prevailing feeling we get from that conversation may well be determined by the way one of the characters at the table is reacting to the conversation.

What this shows us about story is that story events don’t happen in a vacuum. What occurs (the plot, basically) has an emotional effect on the recipient when the recipient is feeling with one or more of the characters. The effect of the conversation at the dinner table would be quite different if the scene is about a father’s distaste of his daughter’s new boyfriend than if it is about a nervous boyfriend being introduced to his beloved’s family for the first time. The father’s and the boyfriend’s points of view are so much at odds, and produce such different versions of the event, that they virtually tell different stories. The point of view, the perspective on the events that is related to audience, determines the story.

So our understanding is determined by our emotional connection. Furthermore, if events are told neutrally, without being linked to the reaction of one of the characters to these events, then they may have little or no emotional impact at all. All of which means that scene by scene point of view is necessary for scenes to work in the way the author wants them to.

The Narrator’s Point of View

To recap: usually each scene or event is related from the Point of View of one of the characters, even when there is a narrator who may or may not take part in the action. If that narrator does not relate the action through the point of view of one of the characters taking part in that action, then probably the narrator has her or his own point of view. Strictly speaking this turns the narrator into a character in her or his own right.

The narrator has a huge influence on the way readers or audiences receive the story. The narrator may have an agenda, be trying to convey a point, moral or message, to prove something, to vindicate her or himself, etc. etc. In this case, the narrator wants something, has a goal perhaps, might need something – all of which the readers or audience should become aware of as the story progresses.

Hence the author should consider the motivations of the narrator in much the same way as with any other character.

Furthermore, it is possible for authors to create “special effects” with Point of View. The following are real examples from successful novels:

  • a character’s pair of boots tell the story
  • a colour tells the story
  • a worm tells the story (though the reader does not find that out until the end)

Such a device can be intriguing and powerful. Again, for the author it entails considering the narrator as a character. What does this narrator want? Does this narrator exhibit an inner problem that needs to be solved, some kind of shortcoming or flaw? Etc. etc.

Author’s attitude or set of beliefs

Finally, some people use the term point of view when they refer to the prevailing attitude that the subtext of the story brings across.

For instance, genres tend to exhibit certain general or thematic points of view: A hardboiled thriller will typically express a pessimistic point of view, while a romantic comedy would leave the audience or reader feeling more optimistic. These are, then, generic attributes, in the sense that they are typical of genre.

Beyond that, an author’s more specific idea, attitude or belief system may well shine through – more or less explicitly. Through Chinatown, for example, screenwriter Robert Towne and/or director Roman Polanski seem to be expressing the quite distinct point of view that the rich and powerful get away not merely with corruption, but with murder and worse.

Now hear this!

Related function in the Beemgee story development tool:
Point of View


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