Barbara A. Barnett is a writer, musician, orchestra librarian, coffee addict, wine lover, and all-around geek. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, GigaNotoSaurus, Fantasy Magazine, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Online.
A 2007 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, Barbara is currently managing editor of the workshop’s blog and a critiquer for the Odyssey Critique Service. She also spent several years as Resident Supervisor for TNEO (aka The Never-Ending Odyssey), an invitation-only workshop exclusively for Odyssey graduates. The following essay was adapted from a lecture she did for the 2021 TNEO masterclass on “Modes and Forms.”
You can find Barbara online at babarnett.com or roaming the wilds of southern New Jersey, where she lives with her husband, a herd of surly unicorns, and a pantsless stuffed monkey named Super Great.
Point of view (POV) is generally defined as the narrator’s position in relation to the story being told. But it’s a bit more nuanced than simply identifying who is telling the story.
In his essay “From Long Shots to X-Rays: Distance and Point of View in Fiction” (from On Writing Fiction: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom About the Craft), David Jauss says of POV:
“Perhaps the most important purpose of point of view is to manipulate the degree of distance between the characters and the reader in order to achieve the emotional, intellectual, and moral responses the author desires.”
Or as Catherine Brady puts it in Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction:
“Dramatic tension more often derives from the reader wavering in relation to character, writer, or narrator for most of the way. Ideally, the reader will be left holding the bag, with a changed awareness of the difficulty of the judgment. The true rhetorical aim of point of view is to complicate this question, not steer the reader to one answer or another.”
In other words, POV is ultimately about the reader-character relationship and how that relationship influences the reader’s response to the story. When it comes to shaping that relationship, there are three elements to consider:
This is what most of us tend to think of when it comes to POV—which viewpoint is being used.
- First person (I/we pronouns), in which one of the story’s characters is narrating from their perspective;
- Second person (the you pronoun), less common because it makes the reader the object of the narrator’s story; or
- Third person (he/she/it/they pronouns), in which the narrator describes events from an outside perspective.
Jauss refers to the story’s “locus of perception,” or “the character whose perspective is presented, whether or not that character is narrating.” In first person, this is straightforward—the narrator’s perspective is the one being presented. In third person, however, the narrative can be filtered through a character’s perspective even though that character isn’t narrating. In Game of Thrones, for example, George R. R. Martin uses a third-person narrator throughout, but each chapter focuses on a different character’s perspective.
This is where we consider the narrative techniques being used, such as third-person limited (the narrative is confined to a single character’s perspective) vs. omniscient (the narrator knows everything and can access any character’s thoughts at any given moment). This can also include elements such as style (e.g., stream of consciousness) and structure (e.g., nested narratives).
That brings us to the main focus of this post: unusual POV modes and how they can be used to position the reader in relationship to the narrative and its characters.
Unusual Characters or Objects
In this mode, the author generally uses a traditional viewpoint (first, second, or third) but with an unusual choice of narrator or perspective. Some examples:
- Nutshell by Ian McEwan: narrated by a fetus
- Watership Down by Richard Adams: told from the perspective of rabbits, complete with their own society and language
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: narrated by Death
- “Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell: told from the perspective of a house
So what do these unusual characters or objects offer us?
Mostly, a fresh perspective. There are many stories set in WWII-era Germany, but using Death’s POV in The Book Thief allows for different types of observations than we’d normally get in that setting. Or in the case of Watership Down, Jo Walton points out in “Rabbit realism and folklore: Richard Adams’s Watership Down” (Tor.com, October 19, 2010) how the rabbit POV enables Adams to tell an old story in a new way:
“The plot is straight from Livy—it’s the story of the founding of Rome—but the story is so essentially steeped in the natural history of … the rabbits that the allegory never becomes intrusive.”
Unusual objects and characters can also create surprise and tension—it’s hard to know what to expect next when the microwave is narrating. In a particularly weird example, Filth by Irvine Welsh includes a tapeworm’s POV, presented in a way that visually intrudes on the main narrative. If you click on the image on the right, you can see in more detail how the POV mimics the invasiveness of an actual tapeworm, thus creating a sense of unease.
This is exactly what it sounds like: a story told via two or more POVs that contradict each other. Often the narrators are unreliable, such as in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Another example is One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus, in which we get the POVs of four students suspected of a murder, all of whom withhold information and contradict each other.
This is a mode that’s great for creating tension, not just by putting the characters into conflict with each other, but also by instilling doubt in the reader, making them unsure what’s true and who to believe. Contradictory POVs can also help develop character complexity, showing their contradictions, what they’re willing to lie about, and how they see things vs. how others see them.
Memoir or Observer Narration
This mode utilizes a first-person narrator who is an observer rather than the main character, often serving as:
- A confidant to the protagonist (e.g., Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, in which the narrator, Watson, is a confidant to the protagonist, Holmes);
- An eyewitness to the story’s events (e.g., “The Bridle” by Raymond Carver, in which an apartment building supervisor narrates the story of a family moving in); or
- A Greek chorus (e.g., The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, in which a group of neighborhood boys provides a first-person plural, Greek chorus-style narration).
This outside perspective enables the narrative to comment on the story’s events in a way the protagonist can’t. For example, the narrator might notice things the protagonist isn’t self-aware enough to realize. Or, by virtue of being more grounded or relatable, an observer narrator might make a larger-than-life protagonist more palatable—Holmes seen through Watson’s POV is a fascinating character, but he could easily become insufferable if we saw everything through his eyes.
This mode can also create dramatic tension by exploiting what the narrator knows vs. what the protagonist knows. Because Sherlock Holmes is often several steps ahead of everyone else, the stories would be far less surprising if we were in his POV rather than Watson’s.
This one is the Russian doll of unusual POV modes: a POV within a POV, sometimes within a POV within a POV.
A popular example is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The novel starts with Captain Walton’s POV as he writes to his sister (we’ll get to epistolary later). Walton encounters Victor Frankenstein, at which point we switch to Victor’s POV as he relates his story to Walton. Within that POV, we get the creature’s POV as he tells Victor about his experiences after being created. Then we back out one layer at a time: the creature finishes his story, Victor finishes his story, and we end where we began with Walton’s POV.
One benefit of this POV mode is that it allows the author to control the context in which the reader encounters the story. For example, in The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, the Time Traveler’s story is framed by the perspective of skeptical dinner guests, casting more doubt upon the narrative than the reader might have had without that frame to influence their perception.
With Frankenstein, the nested POVs highlight the story’s themes from different perspectives, putting them in conversation with each other. One of those themes is the pursuit of knowledge, which we see explored via three different perspectives: Walton, an explorer trying to reach North Pole; Victor, a scientist obsessed with creating life; and the creature, who endeavors to learn about human behavior and language on his own after Victor rejects him.
Now we come to the downfall of many a James Bond villain: the monologue. A speech delivered by a single character. In Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stories, editors James Moffet and Kenneth R. McElheny describe a monologue as a character having “a particular reason for telling a particular story to a particular audience.”
There are two types of monologues: dramatic and internal.
In a dramatic monologue, the narrator is speaking aloud, usually to another character. This differs from traditional first-person narrative in that we get only the character’s speech.
In Frankenstein, the creature’s POV is a dramatic monologue, set in quotation marks because he is verbally relaying his tale to Victor. Another example is “The Lady’s Maid” by Katherine Mansfield, where the narrator is speaking aloud to someone. Although there are implied responses to what the narrator is saying, we get only one side of the conversation, which is what makes this a monologue rather than dialogue.
Dramatic monologues can be a fun way to play with voice and character development. As Moffet and McElheny put it, “Besides narrating, monologuists may explain themselves, reveal themselves, or betray themselves.” Also, because we’re not inside the narrator’s head, their reliability might be in question, thus creating tension. Did that guy at dinner really go back in time? The reader has to make sense of what they hear without, to quote Moffet and McElheny again, “benefit of a narrative guide.”
Internal monologues are similar, only we get the character’s thoughts instead of their speech. There are two different types of internal monologue, though the terminology used for them varies. We’ll start with this distinction:
(1) Soliloquy: A character sharing their innermost thoughts, as if talking to themselves. The presentation of their thoughts is generally organized, using traditional syntax and logical sentence progression. In William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, for example, several characters relay the story of someone’s death via internal monologues.
There’s a fine line between internal monologue and traditional first-person narration. The distinction tends to be in the context of the presentation—whether the character has that “particular reason for telling a particular story to a particular audience” mentioned earlier.
(2) Stream of consciousness: A character’s direct thoughts as they happen, written in a way that mimics the actual experience of thinking. James Joyce’s Ulysses is a popular example:
“I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish Wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
The line between soliloquy and stream of consciousness can sometimes be blurry. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway frequently slips back and forth between the two. But in general, stream of consciousness tends to be more rambly and unorganized.
Another set of terms often used for these concepts is:
- indirect internal monologue: a character narrating a sense of their thoughts (soliloquy)
- direct internal monologue: a character’s exact thoughts (stream of consciousness)
Or, in Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction, Catherine Brady uses these terms:
- first-person colloquial: a narrator intentionally telling their story with the language they’d use when speaking (soliloquy)
- first-person overheard: the narrator is not aware they’re telling their story; instead, we are overhearing their thoughts (stream of consciousness)
As with dramatic monologue, internal monologue can be a great way to play with voice, revealing the character through how they think. Where it differs is that internal monologues allow characters to express unspoken thoughts and internal conflicts they might not otherwise share aloud.
Diaries & Journals
Another POV mode that’s exactly what it sounds like: a story told via diary or journal entries. It’s similar to internal monologue, only we get the character’s inner thoughts in writing. Some examples:
- “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in which we see a woman’s mental health deteriorating via her journal entries
- Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, which is partially told via one character’s diary entries
- Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre by Max Brooks, which is primarily told through the protagonist’s journal entries
The intimacy of diaries and journals makes this a useful mode for character development, offering a candid glimpse of the character’s thoughts in a way that can show inner shifts or a changing mental state.
This mode can also be used to create tension. We might question the narrator’s reliability since we’re only getting their take on things. Devolution uses the circumstances in which the journal was found (left behind after a massacre) to generate suspense about what happened. Or in Gone Girl (spoiler alert), the diary turns out to be a fabrication, misdirecting the reader and feeding into the story’s conflict.
This is a story told via letters or other forms of correspondence, including electronic communication formats (e.g., texts, email).
Some definitions of epistolary include diaries and journals, but I’ve separated them since the intended audience is different. Diaries, unlike letters, are generally not meant for another person to read. There are exceptions, of course—when the protagonist in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple writes letters to God, she’s not expecting a reply in the mail. But in general, letters are a mode of direct communication, and so the effect on the narrator’s relationship to the story and the reader is somewhat different than that of a diary.
With epistolary stories, exchanges can be:
- one-sided (e.g., in Frankenstein, we get Walton’s letters to his sister but no replies from her),
- two-sided (e.g., Sarina Dorie’s Dear Jezzy flash fiction series features letters between an advice columnist and the characters seeking advice), or
- multi-sided (e.g., “A Bundle of Letters” by Henry James has several letter writers, while “Wikihistory” by Desmond Warzel features an exchange between several participants on an internet discussion forum).
This mode can create tension by leaving narrative gaps—we don’t necessarily know what happens between letters/messages/posts, and so the reader has to, as Moffet and McElheny say in Points of View, “figure out for themselves ‘what’s the story’ from the personal and sometimes conflicting evidence that characters supply.”
Epistolary format can aid character development by offering an intimate view of a character’s thoughts in a way that highlights their relationship with the person they’re communicating with.
Epistolary tales can also offer different perspectives on the same events or people, which is what happens in “A Bundle of Letters” as the residents of a boarding house write to friends and family, primarily about each other.
Media & Academia
Some definitions of epistolary include “other documents or ephemera” in the category, but I’m going to give those other documents their own mode: media and academia, in which the narrative is told via forms of mass communication such as broadcasting, publishing, and the internet (media) or via documents tied to scholarship and research (academia).
This mode can be useful for delivering exposition and commentary, because that’s its nature: media delivers news and information to the public while academia researches, analyzes, and educates. And that’s why I’m not including this stuff under epistolary. Media and academia formats not only have a different goal, but also a different (and often broader) audience than epistolary formats.
I mentioned Devolution previously. While primarily told via the protagonist’s journal, the novel also includes a framing device in which a reporter is asked to contextualize the journal after its discovery. And so throughout the novel, the journal entries are interspersed with various bits of media and academia—interviews, footnotes, book excerpts, quotes—some real, some fictionalized.
This mode has a lot of potential functions in a story:
- It can provide an outside perspective on events. In Devolution, it’s used to provide backstory and information the protagonist doesn’t have access to.
- It can create dramatic tension. In Devolution, characters in the journal entries think help is coming, but we know from the media and academia excerpts that it’s not. Bad things will happen, but we’re left in suspense as to exactly what and how.
- It can lend a sense of realism to a story’s fantastical elements, making it seem like a real, documented event.
- It can very quickly establish tone. Think of a scholarly journal article vs. a clickbaity internet article—you’re probably inclined to take one more seriously than the other, which is something an author can use to influence the reader’s perspective.
Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is notable for its use of an omniscient POV with extensive footnotes. At first glance, the footnotes lend a scholarly feel—ooo, this is well documented, I should take it seriously. It’s also a fun way to provide backstory or details tangential to the plot since a footnote, by its nature, is an aside with additional information. But, as Erika Harlitz-Kern points out in “History and SFF: Footnotes in Fantasy Storytelling” (Tor.com, March 26, 2020), the footnotes also feed into the conflict. From the very first page, via the footnotes, the narrator takes a side in the drama that’s about to happen, revealing a narrative bias that’s easy to miss at first glance.
Fixed Format POVs
Now we come to our final mode: fixed format POVs. This is a story told via a specific but non-traditional narrative structure, such as internet formats (e.g., discussion forums, social media posts), list stories (e.g., Buzzfeed-style lists, instruction manuals, shopping lists), or other miscellaneous formats (e.g., dictionary definitions, computer programming code, recipes).
This mode is particularly prevalent in flash fiction. There’s also a lot of crossover with other modes we’ve discussed. For example, a story mentioned earlier, “Wikihistory,” could be classified as both epistolary (told via a mode of written communication) and fixed format (told using the structure of an online discussion forum).
Despite the often unusual formats, you can still apply the three POV elements discussed at the beginning of this essay—person, perception, and technique—to fixed format stories, though sometimes it’s a bit more challenging. Let’s consider “Recent Activity,” a flash story by Dennard Dayle (Matchbook, July 2017) told via a list of financial transactions.
- Person: I would say the narrator is the software that tracks the data and generates the financial statement. But is that a first-person or third-person viewpoint? There are no pronouns to provide an easy answer, and I think you could make an argument either way.
- Perception: The story is about the character making those financial transactions, but we’re not seeing things from his perspective. We’re seeing things from the perspective of his bank account, making that the locus of perception.
- Technique: If you accept the idea of the banking account software as narrator, this story falls into the unusual character/object mode. If you classify the narrative as third person, then it’d more specifically be third-person limited since we only have access to this one character’s financial transactions. But if you consider it first person, you could make the argument that this is a memoir/observer narration since the narrator observes and reports on the transactions but is not active in making them.
So what are the benefits of this kind of story? Similar to the media and academia mode, fixed formats can very quickly establish tone. The format can also generate tension as there’s no traditional narrative guide; the reader has to piece things together in a different way than usual. You can therefore exploit the reader’s expectations of the format and surprise them. No one expects a gut punch from a bank statement, but I think Dayle’s story above does just that.
Challenges & Solutions
Now that we’ve talked about all of these unusual POV modes, let’s consider the challenges that come with using them.
The first is artificiality—unusual POV modes don’t always lend themselves to realistic storytelling. Why, for example, would you keep writing in your journal when under siege by killer sasquatch? One solution is to put a lampshade on it. Acknowledge the artificiality. Devolution does this by having the protagonist directly address the issue in her journal:
Another challenge of unusual POV modes is that they can limit the scope of your story. They might restrict what kind of information can be brought in. They might not lend themselves to common literary tools such as dialogue or description.
One solution is to keep it short. There’s a reason fixed format stories are more common in flash fiction: flash fiction is short enough to sustain the unusual format. You can get in and out of the narrative before the story exceeds the format’s limits.
But what about longer-form fiction? The most common solution is to mix and match POV modes, which is what several of the novels mentioned earlier do. Frankenstein uses framed/nested POVs, epistolary format, and dramatic monologue. Devolution has a framing device, journal entries, and media and academia excerpts. Gone Girl utilizes diary entries and contradictory POVs.
You can mix and match in short stories too, which is what Sarah Pinsker does in “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” (Uncanny, issue 39, March/April 2021). When analyzed using our three POV elements from earlier (person, perception, technique), it quickly becomes clear that this story has a lot going on in it. Spoilers follow.
This one is a fixed format story in two respects, told via both the lyrics of a fictional English murder ballad and a wiki-style song lyrics site discussing the ballad. It’s also epistolary (communication between characters via their comments on the site), and it uses a lot of media and academia: footnotes (done as hypertext to allow for nonlinear storytelling, which is a whole other technique I haven’t discussed here), a fictional list of musical covers of the song, and even a link to an actual recording (one benefit of the author being a musician as well as a writer).
The ballad’s lyrics tell a third-person omniscient story about Fair Ellen, who takes her lover’s heart and puts it in a tree; cue angry villagers with torches and pitchforks. But the commentary on the ballad involves multiple characters, as well as a nested story about a scholar who went missing while researching the ballad’s origins. The commenters could be classified as memoir/observer narration since they function much like a Greek chorus. But one of them goes missing while following the path of the vanished scholar, the implication being that he has become another victim of Fair Ellen.
So of all these characters, whose story is it? The disappeared commenter, who could potentially be classified as protagonist since he’s the one pursuing a clear goal? Or is it maybe Fair Ellen, the only character active in both the ballad and the commentary (assuming she’s indeed responsible for the missing commenter)? I think you should read the story and decide for yourself.
When it comes to unusual POV modes, there are so many more examples I could have cited, so please do share more in the comments if I missed one of your favorites. And then maybe go experiment with some unusual POVs in your own writing.