Point of View & Narrators

Point of view is considered to be a bit of a loose description. In general, narration is the telling of a story, but there’s a lot of little niggly things about narration that make it complicated.

Also, as you all are fantastic readers, you all know that narration can be mixed up within a singular work. I’ve given a whole bunch of examples from excellent fiction to show how really complicated it can be. Screw the rules! Even the rules I’ve seen in academic books don’t ring true. Generally speaking, YA is considered to have a lot more first person than third person, but we can all quote a billion books which show the opposite. So, whatevs!

This blog post is more about the academic perspectives on narration (particularly through children’s and YA fiction books) rather than an author’s perspective (because I don’t have experience with that. There are a LOT out there by people who are, though!).

I’ve also tried to be very good and not give away any spoilers!

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Narrative Voice and Focalisation

One of the reasons why ‘point of view’ is a bit loose is because there are two aspects to what makes up a point of view: narrative voice (who speaks) and focalisation (who sees). The narrator says what the focaliser sees. The narrator allows readers to envisage the world, and in all cases, limits the reader’s perceptions (perhaps to what is important to the story, perhaps hiding a mystery from them etc).

  • Is the narrator someone outside the story (hetereodiegetic narrator)? E.g. another character who knows what is happening
  • Is the narrator also a character (homodiegetic narrator) who is talking to someone? E.g. such as through a diary, recollection etc.
  • Is the narrator also the protagonist? (autodiegetic narrator)
  • Is it the character’s own internal narration? E.g. stream of consciousness/interior monologue.
  • Is the narrator overt (showing; clear personality and opinions coming through) or covert (telling; more objective, detailing events)?

This will have an affect on what is revealed and how it is revealed. Other effects on the narration can be the chronology – is it told linearly or back and forth? Sometimes these methods can be reflective (see Winds of Heaven), or reactionary (see A Gathering Light).

The Emily series by L M Montgomery is extremely interesting in terms of narration and focalisation. While the events are spoken of in third person omniscient form, the narration is limited to Emily’s perspective (sometimes in the form of letters, sometimes it goes directly into her mind). But occasionally, the author steps back in as narrator. Here is an example from the third book, “Those of you who have already followed Emily … must have a tolerable notion of what she looked like. For those of you to whom Emily comes as a stranger let me paint a portrait of her…”(Also known as an intrusive narrator).

A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly is an example of reactionary narration. In effect, there are two narrators. One is Mattie, a young girl in the turn of the century trying to come to terms with what she wants in life. The other is Grace, a dead girl found around where Mattie lives. Grace’s narration only comes through Mattie’s reading of her letters to her beau. Reading Grace’s letters (written in the past, clearly since she is dead), changes Mattie as to how she acts now. She reacts to them.

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First Person

In first person, limited narration, you are restricted to that one point of view. This works to make you sympathetic to that point of view. First person is used to show the ‘true’ character, and give a sense of reality – but it also binds you to the character’s personal bias in giving only their idea of the story; it is inherently unreliable. First person narration is also referred to as intradiegetic narration – characters who only know about little bits of the narrative, who exist within the story. They will also use language as it is familiar to them, with jargon or slang, rather than sticking to the formalities of language use.

Feed by M T Anderson is entirely narrated by Titus (also getting his Feed interruptions). Readers are restricted to his point of view. From memory, we don’t even know Titus’ brother’s name, he just refers to him as Smell Factor.

Ideologically, the implied reader is positioned to oppose Titus. We would get on much better with Violet, but she is not the chosen focaliser. I find this rather familiar in dystopia, that you are always first in the head of someone who agrees with the society and how it is run, and then follow them as they learn from others how it is wrong. This is a process of defamiliarisation – stripping away what is normal to the implied reader.

Multiple first person is not much better in terms of reliability; it may give outside perspectives on what is happening, but those points of view could be just as biased or tainted in their own way.

Junk by Melvin Burgess is a great example. There are two main protagonists (Tar and Gemma), but they aren’t the sole focalisers. There are numerous characters in Junk who are granted a focalising role, with each chapter sub-titled by who is the current narrator. Each character, however, has their own personality that filters their vision of reality. While there are a range of characters to give outside feedback on how Tar and Gemma change, they are just as biased and unreliable as Tar and Gemma themselves are. The story itself is warped as you lose all sense of time and place, particularly due to this narrative strategy.

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Third Person

Third person narrators stand outside of the events of the novel, and can be omniscient or  limited. It depends on whether the narrator is aware of everything everyone is thinking and doing, or if the narration is restricted to the character the narrator is following and does not reference things unknown to that character. An omniscient narrator, one outside of the text, is also called an extradiegetic narrator. Third person narration is considered more reliable, less prone to informal language. The narrator can still step in with ‘I’ or ‘we’ in commentary. (I will make a short note here that epic fantasy does tend to rely on third person narration a lot – again, you’ll find examples to break that).

Generation Dead by Daniel Waters uses third person limited narration. While there are multiple focalisations within the book, the text limits itself to focalising one character at a time and narrating through their perspective in the third person. One character is sitting and thinking, but we only get his interpretations of the events around him. The perspective does not change by chapters but by sections. The reader is in one mind. Then a break. Then the reader is in another mind, elsewhere, maybe even at the same time as the previous event.

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Multivoiced and Multistranded

Multivoiced narratives have two or more focalisers from which the events are narrated. Multistranded narratives are two or more interwoven narrative strands. These can be either in first person or third person.

Wake by Robert J Sawyer has a very curious manner of multivoiced narration. There is a nameless (at first) focaliser who talks in the first person, while the rest of the narrative – the majority of it – is written in the third person with a few focalisers, such as Caitlin and Dr Kuroda. The perspectives shift to focalisers who at first don’t seem in any way related to the main story, and it becomes part of the mystery to unravel.

The Winds of Heaven by Judith Clarke is a good multistranded narrative. The chapters are split between time and the two focalisers, Clementine and Fan. There is a greater arc overall as the beginning clearly puts the timeline into 2009, then retreats to 1952. The different parts of the novel are of different time periods. Then each chapter changes as to who is leading the narration. It is a reflective text, these focalisers are meant to be compared to each other.

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Metafictive Techniques

A metafictive technique is where the text self-consciously refers to its status as a fiction text and blurs the boundary between reality and fiction. It could be the character directly addressing the reader, or the author stepping into the novel.

Liar by Justine Larbelstier is an exceptional piece of art, in both story and technique. Micah is the ultimate unreliable narrator (duh, the title! Of course she is). She varies her stories from fantastic to down to earth, but is never boring. She is the autodiegtic narrator – the only one who tells her story. As well as this limiting narrative technique, the structure of the novel deceives and confuses. I would call it stream of consciousness, except for these almost random disturbances and lack of linearity (or is that what a mind is, flipping constantly between events and unable to stay in one time?). Chapters are titled by words such as “Promise”, “Lie Number #”, “History of Me”, “Before”, “After”. Micah also directly speaks to the reader, “you”. She is self-consciously teasing the reader, with promises to tell them the truth, then turning back on them and admitting she was lying.

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Recommended Reading

  • Baldrick, Chris The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. 2001.
  • Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse: An essay in method.
  • Cadden, Mike. “The Irony of Narration in the Young Adult Novel.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 25.3 (2000): 146–154. Web. 15 Aug. 2013.
  • McCallum, Robyn. Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction. New York: Routledge. 1999 Print.
  • McCallum, Robyn. “Metafiction and Experimental Work.” International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. 1996. 397–409. Print.
  • Stephens, John. Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction. New York: Longman. 1992. Print.
  • Trites, Roberta S. Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. Iowa: University of Iowa Press. 2000. Print.

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Recommended Fiction

  • The Emily Series by L M Montgomery
  • Feed by M T Anderson
  • A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly
  • Feed by M T Anderson
  • Junk by Melvin Burgess
  • Generation Dead by Daniel Waters
  • The Winds of Heaven by Judith Clarke
  • Wake by Robert J Sawyer
  • Liar by Justine Larbalestier
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