It’s been a while since I’ve talked about viewpoint, so I think I’ll devote this post to it, and maybe a few more if people seem interested.
Viewpoint is one of those areas of writing where there seems to be a tremendous amount of confusion. A lot of the confusion stems, I think, from the imprecision and lack of standardization in the terminology, so I’ll start with that.
The term “viewpoint” itself can mean several things:
1. “The position or vantage point from which the events of a story seem to be observed and presented” – Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms
2. The type of viewpoint
3. The viewpoint character
The first meaning is the broad overview sort that’s supposed to encompass everything, but often ends up just confusing people. I think of it as the angle from which the author chooses to tell the story – from inside the story or from the outside looking in? After the fact or as it happens?
The type of viewpoint is basically whether the narrative is in first-person (“I hit him”), second person (“you hit him”), or third person (“she hit him”). Second-person is rare; usually, the choice is between first person or third person. Plural viewpoints (“We hit him,” “They hit him”) are even rarer than second-person, but they do get used on occasion. The examples I know of are short stories.
The viewpoint character is the character through whose eyes the reader sees the story. The viewpoint character can be the protagonist, or he/she can be a major secondary character or sidekick (like Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories), or she/he can be a minor character who’s in a position to observe most of the key plot moments. He can even be an omniscient narrator who doesn’t appear in the story, as with Steven Brust’s Paarfi novels.
Thus the answer to the question “What’s the viewpoint in this story?” could be:
1. The story is told “from inside,” as it happens
2. Third-person subjective
3. Jane Smith, identical twin of Judy Smith
Most of the time, people don’t stop to clarify which answer they’re looking for when they ask the question, which leads to lots of misunderstanding. This is especially true when people are talking about type of viewpoint (first, second, third), because viewpoint types can be broken down into finer and finer detail…and there doesn’t seem to be much agreement about what those sub-types ought to be, much less what they are called.
For instance, that viewpoint type I listed up there, “third person subjective,” is also called tight third person, third person personal, intimate third person, limited third person, and limited omniscient, depending on what source you’re looking at. And each of those terms breaks third person viewpoint down in slightly different ways, some of which map to each other (as “third person subjective” = “third person personal” and “third person objective” = “camera eye”) and some of which don’t.
One of the most useful ways of looking at all these different ways of breaking down point of view, for me, came when somebody pointed out that all these categories are trying to sort out different combinations of three different factors. The first one is the easiest and most obvious: whether the narrative is in first, second, or third person.
The second one is where the narrative falls along a range from subjective to objective. The more of the characters’ personal thoughts, feelings, opinions, etc. make it directly into the story, the more subjective it is; the more everything is conveyed by describing strictly what anyone and everyone could see/hear/touch/etc., the more objective it is.
The third factor is how limited/omniscient the narrator’s knowledge is or is not. This is especially relevant in third person, where an omniscient narrator can stop and tell the reader about the prehistoric geology of the landscape the characters are walking over (which none of them know anything about), or give a quick two-page summary of the entire future life of the cab driver who’s taking the protagonist from the airport to her hotel.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention multiple viewpoint in here somewhere, even though it isn’t really a viewpoint at all. Multiple viewpoint is a structure, in which different scenes are told through the eyes of different viewpoint characters and/or using different types of viewpoint. The most common multiple viewpoint uses tight third-person throughout, and shifts from one character’s point of view to another’s between scene breaks.
There are, however, books written in multiple first-person, and books that have both multiple viewpoint characters and multiple types of viewpoint (i.e., when George is the viewpoint, the scenes are in tight-third person, but when Jane is the viewpoint, they’re in first person, and when Kitty is the viewpoint, they’re in camera-eye). All of these are just as much “multiple viewpoint” as the more common ensemble-tight-third type, which is why I say it’s a structure and not a type of viewpoint at all.
Being an analytical sort of writer, I find it useful to look at and try to comprehend all these different ways of looking at point of view. Not everyone will. The good news is that you don’t have to worry too much if you don’t find the terminology or the various divisions helpful in your writing. The terminology really matters only when you’re talking about writing and books to other readers and writers. Since most writers do talk quite a lot about books and writing, however, it’s usually a good idea to have at least a passing acquaintance with the different terms, and an awareness of all the differences, so that one doesn’t end up having a three-hour discussion only to find out that you were using different terms for the same thing, or talking about two completely different aspects of viewpoint.