I Avoid Defining My Terms
I would like to talk about the idea of "point of view," which is usually discussed in terms of storytelling mechanics, as in "who is telling the story to the reader." There are traditionally about four possible points of view: First-person, second-person, third-person (limited) and third-person (omniscient). It's also possible to have both singular and plural POVs, as in first-person plural ("we"). The verb tense of the telling is also considered to be part of the point of view, as in second-person singular past tense ("you were doing") or third-person present tense ("she is doing"). All of these are ways of showing the story to the reader through characters (and yes, I consider the narrator in third-person to be a character in the novel). All of these points of view have advantages and limitations, and there is no general "best" point of view, nor (I think) a "best" point of view for any particular story; there are only different choices and the results of those choices.
Anyway, this post isn't about comparing POVs. What I want to talk about today is the idea that point of view is a decision writers will make once for the duration of the story, and that the established framework of this point of view will remain constant for the length of the tale. That is, a story "written in" first-person singular past tense, for example, will (and should) remain in that point of view from beginning to end. This is a widely-held idea. But in actual fact, this is rarely the case in good writing and point of view will shift, however subtly, throughout the story.
We are told that point of view is a system for establishing a stable narrative framework for the story, of determining through which character's experience the story will be told, and controlling how much of that character's internal reality will be part of the storytelling mechanism. This way of talking about point of view sometimes treats the experience of the so-called "point of view character" as the most important experience of the story. This is incorrect.
Whose point of view matters?
The most important experience of the story is that of the reader. The reader is always present, as is the writer. The reader and the writer are the only real people involved in the telling of this story; everything else is artifice. Point of view is therefore a matter of distance between the reader and the writer (or between the reader and the story, if you like) and the writer uses character and voice to manage that distance. What the writer is doing with point of view is, in a way, determining from moment to moment how involved in the action--how deep into the story itself--the reader is allowed to be. Think of point of view as something like a zoom lens through which you show the story to your reader. You're able to zoom in or out on not only what is visible, but on what is invisible as well (memory, emotions, thoughts and attitudes).
You have to keep in mind that your reader is, in a very important sense, a character in your story. With point of view--more than any other tool in your writerly toolkit--you are able to effectively place the reader however you like in relationship to the story and its characters, actions and emotions.
What Can You Do With Point of View?
Shifting point of view within the story has been done for a long time. Homer's "Iliad" is about 3,000 years old, and is written in third-person omniscient, so you can see the thoughts/emotions of any character Homer wants you to. But there are also shifts into first-person where you know the narrator is talking directly to the reader. The first line of the poem is Homer speaking to his muse: "Sing, O goddess, the wrath of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans." Homer is not just addressing his muse, but also the audience, telling us what story he's about to tell. The narrator reappears later, at the beginning of Book XII, when he steps outside of the "story present" and discusses, in a brilliant digression, what happens long in the future, when the fortifications built by the Greeks on the Trojan beach erode and rot away.
What Homer is doing here, by skipping in and out of the action of the narrative, is to show the reader the place of the story within history, and to show the reader his own place within history; to demonstrate in a subtle manner that although history is made by real people who experience the drama of the real historical moment, time will pass them by and some day they will be part of the past, for there is not only a historical past and a historical present, there is also a historical future. So Homer is playing around with time and tense in his epic poem, focusing the attention of the reader alternately on past, present and future.
Just as you can direct the reader's attention to different levels of time in a novel, you can direct their attention to different levels of emotion. I think of this as the story's "emotional distance." This emotional distance is usually a fixed distance in work of beginning writers, but by manipulating the point of view, you can change this distance at will.
Herman Melville in "Moby Dick" is allegedly using a first-person narrator named Ishmael to tell the tale. "Ishmael" is of course not the narrator's real name (we never learn what it is), and is given as a symbol; the first line of the book is beginning a process of reference to things hidden, buried, submerged as it were. But that's the least of it, when we consider the levels of viewpoint Melville uses. There's Ishmael, telling about his voyage on the Pequod under the command of Ahab, and once the voyage gets underway Melville--not Ishmael--elbows his way over and over into the narrative and brushes his narrator aside to put us directly into the minds of Ahab and Starbuck (not to mention a host of minor characters). There's also a fun moment in a later chapter when Melville is clearly addressing the reader directly to discuss his difficulty as a writer in describing certain behaviors of whales. The reader is thus pulled to and fro in the narrative, suddenly inside Ahab's head, suddenly sitting next to Ishmael (a bright but inconsequential character), suddenly standing outside the story with Melville. All of it works, too. There is disorientation in the reader (but that's quite deliberate, I'm sure) as the landscape shifts beneath his feet and Melville takes the reader's hand and points at the story, saying "Look here! Now here! And here!"
You can also remain within the "story present" and do more subtle things, like increase the reader's emotional involvement here and there, or pull the reader back emotionally, sort of like playing with the lens of a camera or, maybe, like turning the heat up and down in the shower or under a boiling pot. For example, consider this passage:
"The woman looked the three travelers over. They seemed respectably dressed though the Irishman had some dark stains on his coat and breeches. That one and the handsome one had spoken to each other mostly in half sentences and single words. Irish had all but ignored the lady, who’d doted on Handsome all through the meal."
We begin at some distance, as observers outside the scene, and then we get the woman's opinion ("respectably dressed"), and then we are seeing slightly from her point of view ("that one and the handsome one"), and finally we are inside her head ("Irish had all but ignored the lady..."). The emotional distance has moved, in four sentences, from neutral to intimate and personal. You can draw into your characters this way for private thoughts and observations which can tell us about the people in our story. The woman in the passage above is making observations about three travelers that the travelers themselves wouldn't make. When you "drill down" from third-person to first-person like this, you are in effect allowing characters to speak directly to the reader, person-to-person. Which is cool; don't tell me it's not.
Just for Davin, I'll also mention that Tolstoy was a master of point of view. "War and Peace" is written from maybe fifty characters' points of view, including, at one critical point, the viewpoint of a dog. None of this shifting of POV is done mechanically or as a matter of course as scenes and characters change. Tolstoy (like all good writers) has considered what the effect on the reader will be, and how close to the emotion of the story the reader should be in each scene (or part of the scene) and has chosen his POVs accordingly. Good writing isn't done by rote or on autopilot.
So, by shifting POVs around, either in a subtle or direct manner, we can:
Change the (emotional) distance between the reader and various characters. We can see characters as they see themselves, so that we see what they themselves hold important (about themselves and other characters).
We can also use this technique to introduce irony. Story knowledge is given to the reader by one character but that knowledge is not given to other characters in the story.
Point of view is a tool that you can use for more than one thing. It's a complex subject (or it can be, and I don't think I've really done it justice in this post) and, as usual, the best way to learn more about it is to read well-written books and pay attention to what the writer is doing. I know that some writers can't (or don't bother to) control the point of view in their stories. When done sloppily, it ends up being something called "head-hopping" (where the POV changes so rapidly that you can't really be sure whose POV it is; note that sometimes this is done deliberately for effect and can be powerful and dramatic) or "point of view slippage" (a phrase which never ceases to amuse me and refers to writers not realizing that the POV of the story has changed--usually just for short passages--because the writer wasn't paying attention).
But just because it can be done badly (and often is by writers who are just starting out), that doesn't mean it can't be done well. I suggest that you think about point of view as less a set of imaginary cameras through which the story is viewed, and more as a system for communicating the fictional experience with the reader. Follow the emotional line of the story through your characters, in and out of the hearts/minds/souls of those characters, and take your readers with you.