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Allow me to indulge my Inner Pedant for the length of a post. After this, no more graphs. Promise.
Choosing the right POV for a story is one of a writer's most critical tasks. Sometimes the choice is obvious from the outset, and comes wholly from intuition; at other times--especially in multi-POV stories--the kinds of things that can be told depend on whose consciousness is filtering events, and the writer may have to wrestle with whose POV ought to dominate a given scene.
It seems to me that each of the major categories of POV (first, second, third limited, and third) also have a distinct range of intimacy, or psychic distance, over which they can work. I've tried to capture my concept of 'range' in the chart below, with the bars representing the natural distance each kind of POV voice can cover.
Before I launch into details, I ought to define how I'm using the protean term 'omniscient.' Many writers use the label casually to mean a narrative POV that can dip into many minds, even in the course of a single scene. Omniscience includes that ability, of course, but it also means much more. An omniscient narrator in principle can know anything about anything (though any given narrative voice may not claim quite that much), even foretelling the future accurately. But one of the most important aspects of a truly omniscient POV is a reliable narrative consciousness that exists independently of the minds of any of the characters--a narrative voice that must be believed for the book to work. An omniscient perspective is what allows Tolstoy to open with "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." An omniscient distance is what allows Jane Austen to add her most memorable and ironic running commentary on the events of her stories. And, despite claims that the omniscient POV is largely a creature of the 19th century, omniscient narrators are alive and well in plenty of recent fiction, including Douglas Adams' Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
In terms of psychic distance, or "intimacy," the first-person POV can get closer to the reader than any other. In first-person (with a few odd exceptions--more on that later) there is no narrative voice separate from the the voice of the POV character; there is no suggestion that another consciousness is filtering thoughts, and we can share a wholly subjective experience with the character.
On the other hand, first-person cannot reach the fully omniscient, authorial voice, that declares Truth, delves into the minds of others, or makes impartial observations about the first-person character. The first-person narrator can engage in objective exposition, and can even attempt to describe matters in an omniscient fashion; but there is a single, fallible consciousness narrating, and this means any observations the narrative voice makes--even pertaining to facts, and even more so with regards to principles and conclusions--are bound to be colored by the narrator's perceptions. The 'unreliable narrator' is possible in other POVs, but is most common in first person. (It may be most effective in second person.)
Putting second-person to the side for a moment, third-person limited has a range very similar to first-person; indeed, some people describe third-person limited as "first-person using 'he' or 'she' instead of 'I'." (John Gardner, brilliant but always grouchy, claimed that the dominance of third-person limited showed there was something deeply wrong with modern fiction.)
Third-person limited has a range with a span similar to that of first-person, but offset a little in the direction of greater psychic distance. Third-person limited can be very subjective--it can delve deep enough that the inner workings of a mind can be reported verbatim without the mediation of "he thought." Yet I don't believe it ever feels as wholly subjective as the first-person equivalent, where we are aware that the whole text belongs to the perceptions and voice of the narrator. Third-person limited is slightly more distant, because there is the hint of a non-character narrator (no matter how self-effacing or transparent that narrator may be).
That hint of an independant narrator also allows third-person limited to reach a little farther up the scale toward omniscience than first-person. Reporting of facts, and conclusions drawn from them, are more credible in a third-person POV, as we believe there is an objective narrator hiding somewhere back behind the curtain. Push this too far, however, and the narrative form spills over into full third-person.
Third-person has the greatest range of psychic distance. Although I don't believe it can ever get quite as intimate as first-person--the narrator lurking in the background always makes us conscious of a gap, though it may be small--the third-person voice can range up and down the psychic-distance scale, and, wielded skillfully, can also range through the minds of characters, even non-human characters. It is certain that the full third-person is the POV that offers the most freedom; but it also creates corresponding problems of control and balance. (Above all, a writer who wants to assume full omniscience must create an authorial voice for the novel that the reader accepts unconditionally. In our cynical and suspicious times, such a voice is most often humorous, satirical, or ironic; this is one reason Austen and Voltaire still seem so fresh and readable to the modern eye.)
Second-person, as I will discuss in a later post, is a slippery little devil--very much like first-person that refuses to admit it is first-person. Although it is subjective, the constant use of 'you' keeps us at a distance from the narrator's inner being; and this evasive quality makes the narrator's observations on events and larger truths seem even more suspect than in the first person. The result is that while second-person can be quite powerful, it works only in a narrow range.
For first-person (and also, to a less-important extent, in second-person and third-person limited) there is a critical additional third dimension not shown on the graph--the choice of past or present tense. Since in first-person narration, the narrator is also the POV character, in principle when first-person narration is done in past tense, the narrator is capable of looking back and reflecting, of playing the 'had I but known' game; the narrator knows what will happen next. This cannot be done if the narrator is locked into present tense. (Some novels have it both ways. For example, Leslie Schwartz's Jumping the Green alternates between chapters of first-person past and first-person present, so that the same narrator can tell what happened as she was growing up and then can switch to the uncertainty of telling what is happening right now.)
Why all this talk about range? Because not every kind of POV will work for every kind of story. Writing an epic in second-person might be an interesting exercise, but it's doubtful that second-person would serve the scope best. If the story requires moving across a wide range of psychic distances and multiple minds, nothing but true third person is likely to work. If you're writing War and Peace, you'll need the full range from omniscient down to subjective, as well as the span of multiple characters. If you're writing The Old Man and the Sea, you have more choices of how to go about it.
Choosing the wrong POV for your story is the easiest way I know to saw off the branch upon which you're seated. If you've gone to the trouble to find the right voice for the story, started all the gears in motion, and then you find can't tell the things you need to tell, the problem can't usually be fixed by changing "I" to "he." Believe me, I've been there.
Novelist Raymond Obstfeld has discussed ways of reviving a novel when it simply isn't working. His first suggestion is changing the names of the main characters to try and readjust your subconscious relationship with them. (I've never done this, but I've seen it work for people.)
His second-line, more drastic attempt at salvage is to change the POVs and narrative strategy--either jump from, say, third to first, or, even change the POV characters without changing the cast.
Does this have an impact? You bet. Because when you change POVs, you are actually writing another book, a book with a different set of possibilities and often a different range of available psychic distances.
It's easier if you pick the right narrative structure and POVs before you've written a couple of hundred pages.
It's also easier said than done. Even if you have a graph.
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