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POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 2: internal narrators


Point of View seems to get more aspiring writers in more of a fuss than almost any other technical issue... with the inevitable result that there's also more nonsense talked about it, and more prescriptive "rules" bandied about, than almost any other technical issue. I've even heard "first person" described as a point-of-view, which is a category error.

But it's not, actually, that complicated to understand the basics, so this is the first of my fourt-part breakdown of the issues, for you to decide for yourself how you're going to handle it. And, indeed, many writers handle PoV naturally and well from the start, so don't worry if you haven't ever thought about it. Maybe - just maybe - you don't need to. Having said that, most aspiring writers do need to think about it, because most aspiring writers do let their writing down by handling it badly. First, let's clear the decks a bit.


All novels are written by people, about people (even when they're apparently about animals), so let's start there. Any human being can perceive certain things through their senses, and not perceive others: human consciousness is the basic filter between real life, and the words on the page. As visual animals we talk about 'view', but it encompasses all the six senses: we can't physically see behind our own head; we can smell the bakery next door to us in Brixton; we can't hear a song being sung in China.

In writing (as in the rest of life), this idea of what a particular human can, and can't, perceive widens, to include how they understand it, how it makes them feel, what else they know about the world, what they think of it all, and what they say and don't say about it.

So: I and my husband can both smell the bakery. But because I'm pregnant the smell makes me feel sick, and because I don't want to be pregnant that makes me angry, but I don't say that because I haven't told my husband I don't want to be pregnant. Whereas my husband had a beloved uncle who was a baker, so the smell makes him feel happy, but also child-like and nostalgic, which makes him look forward to the baby's arrival. Two totally different experiences of the same phenomenon.

And another: my best friend Jane thinks that the world would be better if we gave up eating wheat, so the smell reminds her to write another article, and the thought of the fee makes her decide to take her partner out to a (wheat-free) dinner, except that she knows they'll end up having a row about whether to give up keeping a car, given that they desperately need the money for infertility treatment, which she hasn't told me about yet. All these perceptions, and more, together reveal various truths about human beings and bread, and about each of our selves.

But, crucially, no human being can truly experience another human's consciousness - their thoughts, their feelings, their memories, and their subjective experience of their world and the people in it. We cannot, actually, see the world through their physical or mental eyes. I can only know that the smell makes Jane want to write another article if she tells me it does, although even if she doesn't say a word I can guess that she might want to (because I know her of old), or deduce that she wants to (because she gives a loud sniff and then dashes to the computer and starts a new document called wheatismurder.doc). But I could be wrong in what I guess or deduce, and when it comes to fiction, the reader knows it.


Everything in a story is told through one human consciousness: every story has a teller each time it's told, and this time the storyteller is you. In your novel, at bottom you are always the storyteller because you invented this story, and it's your mind and personality which shapes it. And because it's your imagined story, within the basic lie that this stuff never happened but you're writing as if it did, you can get as close as you like to the objective truth of this story and the world in general. You can enter the consciousness of as many or as few of your characters as you choose to. You can also choose to tell things which none of them perceive, in ways none of them would think. In other words, you can't, actually, get away from the power you have to make this story whatever you want.


However, as the storyteller you may also choose to form your story by being selective in what and how you choose to tell: to give up some of the power you have to know and tell everything. I think this is most easily understood if you think of creating a narrator who is an entity separate from you, and may or many not be very like you. Either way, you will be creating/imagining a narrator specifically for this novel. This narrator's consciousness is the one which filters the events of the story, and expresses them in some ways, and not in others - according to your choices. Remember the swipe cards that so many of us have to get in and out of offices at work? Remember how Security, or someone, has the job of granting you access to some buildings and not others? In deciding how to tell your story, you are Security, and you get to code your narrator's swipe card however you choose.

Any narrator may be very knowledgeable about the events and characters they're telling, or extremely subjective, or honest but limited in their understanding (Inadequate Narrator). They may even be a liar (Unreliable Narrator).They may be highly visible, addressing the reader directly, or with a very strong voice which is different from any character's. Or they may be almost invisible: a near-neutral transmitter of the action, like a fly-on-the-wall cameraman. Although, of course, what is filmed and what footage ends up in the final cut is where the narrator's point of view can't help but be revealed, even when they're trying to appear neutral. And of course that narrator may be a character within the story - at which point you have a whole new set of decisions about how to program their swipe card: what do they know beyond their own borders, what other heads do they read into?

So the fundamental question, in talking about Point of View, is actually, Who Is Telling This Story, and where do they stand in relation to the events? If it's a character who experiences the events of the story we call it an internal narrator: Jane Eyre tells her own story, for example, from shortly after the events in the novel end. If it's some person or entity who has no part in the action it's an external narrator, such as the narrator who for convenience we call "Henry Fielding" (who may be a rather different entity from the mid-18th century magistrate who wrote stories in his spare time) telling the story of Tom Jones at an indeterminate period after Tom gets his happy ending.

Of course, in taking on a particular point of view the narrator's voice may stay very much itself, telling  the reader about what a character is seeing or feeling as the teller of a fairy tale tells/informs us that Snow White's stepmother is jealous. Or, as part of trying to evoke/show us a character's consciousness and personality, the narrative may be take on a flavour of the voice and opinions of the character concerned. (More on Showing and Telling here.) This where thinking in terms of psychic distance can be very helpful: not just about which point-of-view we are in, but how deeply we are in it. How close in to an individual character's consciousness doese the narrative gets? What psychic distance suggests is that the more the character is present and the more their voice dominates, the more the narrator and their voice fade out. Free indirect style is one way that this comes about, and if the narrative goes right in to give us a character's interior monologue and physical perceptions as they occur, it becomes stream of consciousness and the sense of a narrator almost disappears altogether. 

So in the rest of these posts about Point of View and Narrators we should remember that questions of voice are closely involved in decisions about point of view, and they work together in the effect of the story on the reader. But they're not the same thing.

And one last, preliminary point. It's true that getting deep inside the point of view of a character (whether they're the narrator, or courtesy of an external narrator who takes you there) is the way we become most intimately involved with them. But it's entirely possible for us to be engaged with a character whose point of view we're never admitted to, and indeed we should be: we should care about what happens to the MC's children, or the villain's elderly mother. Their fate does matter hugely to our overall experience of the story. After all, if we couldn't care about character unless we could enter their consciousness we'd never care for a single character on stage or film. Come to that, if we could never engage with a character whose consciousness we couldn't enter, we'd never fall in love with a partner, children, or care about a friend. The viewpoint characters are our representative in the world and events of the story, and it's through them that we experience it. But that doesn't mean we can't or won't mind about the others.

My main point-of-view posts:

POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 1: the basics : what point of view is, what a narrator is, and why it matters

POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 2: internal narrators : character-narrators who narrate in first person

POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 3: external narrators : limited, switching and privileged point of view in narrators who narrate in third person

POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 4: moving point of view and other stories : how to work with a moving point of view, second-person narrators and other stuff

HOW TO MOVE POINT OF VIEW : not just between chapters, but in a single sentence. And why (as long as you do it well) no one can tell you it's not allowed.

CIRCLES OF CONSCIOUSNESS : a more useful and sophisticated way of thinking about point-of-view and psychic distance, and how to use it to best effect