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August, 2006 : Feature:

Point of View

Reading Beyond the I's

Most of the discussion here is informed by the linguistic area of pragmatics. Detailed theoretical discussions can be found in Levinson, Stephen C. Pragmatics. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983.

The voice of a narrator is usually so transparent that we feel it without needing to analyze it. If fellow readers mention a story's point of view, we easily slip it into one of the three common categories: first person, third person omniscient, or third person internal. But then, every so often, we run across a sentence like the opening of Alfred Bester's "Fondly Fahrenheit" (Science Fiction 101, p.100, emphasis added):

He doesn't know which one of us I am these days, but they know one truth.

Suddenly, the words used for point of view are not only visible but provocative. "What is he doing?" we ask. "Four different pronouns in the same sentence?" Then quickly we move on from our initial surprise to ask, "What special situation or alternate reality can this signify?"

As readers of speculative fiction we have a special talent: the ability to come into a story prepared for the strange and unexpected, ready to look for clues to when, where, and with whom the story takes place. Above, Bester has chosen to use pronouns to alert us to the presence of an alternate reality, and at the same time, to provide hints about the nature of that reality. Such hints are vital to our understanding and enjoyment, and they are always available — but they aren't always so easily recognizable.

Consider our easy classification-by-person of a moment ago: it's simple, sure, but doesn't exactly explain everything. First-person narrators can feel visceral and immediate, or quietly retrospective. Third-person omniscient narrators can feel like epic bards, grandfatherly storytellers, or coldly speculative scientists. Third-person internal narrators can feel claustrophobically close to us, or more distant. How can we explain differences like these?

Although viewpointing is an art, much of it can actually be analyzed in terms of the particular words that authors use as viewpointing tools. In general, these words are simple and familiar — words that we use unconsciously every day in verbal speech. Here we will examine the role they play in the context of some of the stories in which they appear.

Consider the following example in the first person, from Henry Kuttner's "Home is the Hunter" (Science Fiction 101, p.210, emphasis added):

There's nobody I(1) can talk to except myself(2). I(3) stand here(4) at the head of the(5) great waterfall of marble steps dropping into the(6) reception hall below(7), and all my(8) wives in all their jewels are waiting, for this(9) is a Hunter's Triumph — my(10) Triumph, Honest Roger Bellamy, Hunter.

Imagine each of these words in bold face as an arrow, pointing to an implied center, in the same way that each of us points to ourselves by uttering the word "I." In the example above, Kuttner's pronouns, personal and possessive (1, 2, 3, 8 and 10), create the person of Honest Roger Bellamy, locating him at the implied center, well before we learn his name. Although Kuttner presents Bellamy's name and title at the end of the paragraph, it is not necessary to the continuation of the narrative.

These pronouns are what give the narrative its classification as "first person." They are not, however, the only words that take their meaning relative to an implied center. The words "here"(4) and "this"(9) do so also: "here" draws a relation between the occupant of the implied center and a location, while "this" draws a similar relation between the center and (in this case) an ongoing event.

More subtle in pointing to the protagonist are the final two words, "the"(5, 6) and "below"(7). In describing the steps and the hall, Kuttner has chosen to use "the" instead of "a." This choice indicates that both steps and hall are judged to be known—rather than new—information. Since readers of the story cannot possibly have encountered Honest Roger Bellamy's home before, either in reality or in the story's text, the presence of "the" must therefore imply that these places are known to the protagonist himself. This judgment is exactly the kind of knowledge that is intimate to the perspective of Honest Roger.

Finally, "below." The word does not in and of itself make reference to an implied center, and the positions of protagonist and hall are publicly available knowledge. However, when presented in this context without a following noun, "below" is ambiguous between two interpretations: either "below the steps" or "below me." The very availability of the "below me" interpretation serves to tighten the sense of first-person point of view.

The narrative pointers in this example may be illustrated as follows:

Honest Roger Bellamy
(implied center)
I, myself, my (pronouns)
here, this, below
(indicators of relative position)
the (judged quality of information)

The next example, the first sentence from C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (p.1, emphasis added), places the narrator rather than the protagonist at the implied center, resulting in what is usually called third-person omniscient point of view:

Once(1) there were(2) four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story(3) is about something that happened to them(4) when they(5) were sent away from London during the(6) war because of the(7) air-raids.

If nothing else, the phrase "this story"(3) serves to establish the narrator as occupying the implied center, since whoever occupies the implied center knows he is telling a story. The children are introduced using the phrase "there were"(2), which presents them as information that the narrator has judged will be new to the reader. The later use of third-person pronouns "them"(4) and "they"(5), as well as the time-pointer "once"(1), clearly treats the children as not occupying the same implied location as the narrator.

It should also be clear that the narrator is a person. The word "the"(6 and 7) marks the war and the air-raids as known information, locating him historically — and looking again at the words "once" and "this story," we can see the first signs that this narrator is poised to deliver something resembling a fairy tale, and thus may be tentatively seen as grandfatherly. It might be tempting because of the given historical context to decide that the author C.S. Lewis is our narrator. However, because he is created for us by the words of the text itself, we use the word narrator here.

The summary for this example looks like this:

them, they (pronouns)Narrator (implied center)
once, this (indicators of relative position)
there were, the (judged quality of information)

As we move on to third-person internal, it's easy enough to guess what will be happening in the area of pronouns — which then leaves our position and judgment tools to deal with the question of what exactly it is that makes a third-person perspective "internal." Certainly we are familiar with the general characteristics of this viewpoint, in particular the idea that all information presented in third-person internal must be part of the experience, sensation, or knowledge of a single character while that character's viewpoint is in effect. For the specifics we'll consider the example below, written for the character Danny in C.J. Cherryh's Rider at the Gate (p.69, emphasis added):

He(1) noted the(2) footprints of a(3) timid scavenger that had crossed the(4) road last night(5). Field-rats, he(6) thought. Somebody had been careless with the(7) garbage. Probably(8) the(9) garbage-wagons had spilled over when they(10) went out(11) yesterday(12) to the(13) dump.

Cherryh uses multiple instances of the word "the"(2, 4, 7, 9, 13), which we have seen used for known information; she also uses one "a" to indicate new information. Since this example is in the middle of the story, all these pointers could be centered on a narrator — or, just as easily, they could be centered on Danny. With the third-person pronouns automatically centering on a narrator, we can read all the way to "road" without being sure who is really standing at our implied center — but the phrase "last night"(5) is centered solidly on Danny, and has the effect of retroactively making all the earlier pointers seem to point to Danny as well. The word "probably"(8) gives us Danny's judgment of his statement about garbage-wagons, and thus is also private to Danny's perspective. "Out"(11) locates the dump relative to a position previously occupied by Danny inside a town, while "yesterday"(12), like "last night," is a time-pointer clearly centered on the present time occupied by Danny (as opposed to "the previous night" or "the day before"). Cherryh's various pointers can be summarized as follows:

(center 1)
he     (pronouns)     they Danny
(center 2)
 last night, out, yesterday
(indicators of relative position)
   the, a, probably
(quality of information)

In fact, what we're looking at here is a controlled division of implied centers: the third-person pronouns automatically create a center occupied by a narrator; but most other indicators point to an implied center occupied by the point-of-view character, Danny. This viewpoint feels "internal" because the two implied centers are out of balance.

Different authors choose to manipulate this balance, either using more protagonist-centered pointers for a sense of intimacy, or more neutral and more narrator-centered pointers for a greater feeling of distance. In Cherryh's example above, the only real indicators of a narrator-center are the pronouns: she gives us no tools to locate the external narrator in a world, and no sense of that narrator's judgment. Thus in a sense her external narrator stops being an identifiable person. Since the only person we can really "find" here is Danny, the intimate-feeling context of this viewpoint makes "he" act like "I," and "they" like "we."

When this style is sustained over paragraphs or chapters, its effect is very strong, and it can influence nearby sentences which would otherwise appear neutral. On the other hand, although its impact is much less, we can actually find the same divided-center effect occurring to create brief flashes of intimacy with passing characters, even inside the same sentence. Consider the two underlined examples of the word "you," in the following example from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (p.1, emphasis added):

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you(1) very much. They were the last people you'd(2) expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.

Here, the first "you"(1) is directed to the reader from an implied center occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, and the second "you"(2) indicates the reader from an implied center occupied by the narrator — exactly the same split as in the previous example. It looks sneakier, though, because it uses the word "you," which, unlike first- and third-person pronouns, is directed outward toward the reader from its implied center. Indeed, some readers find second-person narration irritating in general, because it requires the reader to accept a complex and difficult placement both as source (implied center/ protagonist) and destination (person being addressed/reader).

Divided centers can also occur in first person. After all, the two centers don't necessarily have to be occupied by different characters. Consider the two underlined uses of "now" in the examples below, from Kij Johnson's The Fox Woman (p.14 and p.16, emphasis added):

I have words now(1), maybe too many.
Even now(2) I smelled the shadows of people, ghosts in my nose.

Both of these sentences occur in the context of a first person retrospective diary, but the first "now" takes its meaning relative to the time at which the diary is being written (as indicated also by the use of present tense), while the second "now" is relative to the time at which the action is happening (past tense). And so, here are our two implied centers, one occupied by the narrating character, the other by the protagonist — except that the two of them are in fact the same person. In one time period that person is carrying the story, and in the other she is acting as our guide, helping us to interpret the story's events.

Fox, thinking back
(implied center 1)
now   Fox, in the action
(implied center 2)

At this point we should go back to revisit the question of what happens when a reader dives into a speculative fiction story looking for clues. The categorization-by-person will tell us less than thinking of the narrator as a person — as a host; a person whose job is to help us orient ourselves in the world of the story. The host has a place of special importance in a world of speculative reality whose characteristics are not easily predictable.

We can now re-categorize our traditional narrators into two types of hosts: people who serve as guides to their world and their experience, or people who serve as filters for that experience. Guides, who have a reflective distance on their stories and the characteristics of their world, are the first-person retrospective and third-person omniscient narrators. Since they know themselves to be delivering a story, they maintain a more direct relationship with the reader and are able to explain things as they see fit. They often (but not always) occupy a calm and unchanging location from which they can pass judgment, in addition to providing information on the location of the story's characters and their judgment of events. Filters, by contrast, are the first-person single-centered narrators and the third-person internal narrators, who are placed in the middle of the story events. They can show no awareness of the reader, but they interpret their world and their story on the reader's behalf, sensing, reacting, and judging as their location changes. And since a filter is a single person, that person's simple comprehension of even an extremely complex world can make that world accessible to readers who might otherwise get lost.

In both cases, though all of the word-tools we've discussed play a vital role, pronouns prove to be the least informative. They are absolutely necessary to the existence of characters and narrators, of course, and in the hands of someone like Alfred Bester they certainly go beyond our expectations. However, they do the least to flesh out characters and narrators into people who can serve as interpreters of another world.

When we consider the special functions of location and judgment words, it should also become clear how different authors can create viewpointing effects so differently, even when they are working within the same general category of first person, third person omniscient, or third person internal: by using word-tools to point in different ways. Depending on an individual author's approach, a single sentence can offer many opportunities for pointing, or only a few. However, pointing words can very quickly create an effect that sustains itself, and unless it is explicitly counteracted, influences a reader's overall sense of the narration.

With these principles as guides, we can now look beyond the few examples here. We can begin to understand, say, how C.S. Lewis and Mary Doria Russell can establish third-person omniscient narrators with such vastly different personalities:

Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. (p.1)
It was predictable, in hindsight. (The Sparrow, p.3)

Or how Margaret Atwood and Ursula LeGuin can convey so much information about character and mood when describing setting in first person:

There must have been a chandelier, once. They've removed anything you could tie a rope to. (The Handmaid's Tale, p.7)
If this is the Royal Music no wonder the kings of Karhide are all mad. (The Left Hand of Darkness, p.3)

Or how Orson Scott Card, Anne McCaffrey, and C.S. Friedman can handle the thoughts of their viewpoint characters so differently in third person internal:

Ender tried to imagine the little device gone from the back of his neck. I'll roll over on my back in bed and it won't be pressing there. (Ender's Game, p.2)
Menolly bowed her head, and let drum and stick slide from her fingers into the sea. How could she ever use them again when they had beaten Petiron's last song? (Dragonsong, p.3)
He was handsome, in a way, black hair and black eyes in a mid-toned face, expressive features, a lean but graceful frame...with a start she realized where that thought was heading, and she forced her mind away from it, quickly. (This Alien Shore, p.65)

In the end, we find that the art of viewpointing is not diminished by analysis. The indescribable feel of a well-handled viewpoint lies in the phenomenon of effect mentioned above: the creation of a sensation through the layering of thousands and thousands of instances of pointing, the vast majority of which pass into our subconscious without notice. Although analysis can show us how these authors accomplish what they do, it should only increase our appreciation of their subtle skills, for through the use of tiny words, they create masterpieces of perspective and depth. As Ursula LeGuin has said, "The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling." (p.1)

Works Referenced

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. New York, Anchor Books, 1986.

Bester, Alfred. (1954, 1982) Fondly Fahrenheit, cited in Silverberg, Robert. Science Fiction 101 New York, ibooks, 1987.

Card, Orson Scott. Ender's Game. New York, TOR, 1977.

Cherryh, C. J. Rider at the Gate. New York, Warner Books, 1995.

Friedman, C.S. This Alien Shore. New York, DAW Books, 1998.

Johnson, Kij. The Fox Woman. New York, TOR, 2000.

Kuttner, Henry. (1953, 1981). Home is the Hunter. cited in Silverberg, Robert. Science Fiction 101. New York, ibooks, 1987.

LeGuin, Ursula. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York, Ace Science Fiction, 1969.

Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York, Collier Books, 1950.

McCaffrey, Anne. Dragonsong. New York, Bantam, 1976.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York, Scholastic Press, 1997.

Russell, Mary Doria. The Sparrow. New York, Ballantine, 1996.

Copyright © 2006, Juliette Wade. All Rights Reserved.

About Juliette Wade

I have degrees in Anthropology, Linguistics and Education, and I write speculative fiction in the time I have free from my full-time work as mother of two. My language-related stories have appeared in Analog magazine: "Let the Word Take Me," July/August 2008, and "Cold Words," October 2009. I blog about language and culture issues in SF/F, at


Aug 9, 17:52 by IROSF
A thread to discuss tricks and techniques of point of view, or Juliette Wade's discussion of same.

The article can be found here.
Aug 11, 08:52 by Pat Lundrigan
Great article!
POV sometimes drives me crazy trying to figure it out, but now I think I understand it better.
Aug 11, 14:09 by Juliette Wade
Glad I could be of help. In my own experience, I felt like I was muddling through on instinct before my teachers started directing my attention to "little words". Thanks a lot for your comment.
Aug 12, 09:17 by Michael Andre-Driussi
Interesting article!

I have one nitpick, though: the use of the phrase "thank you very much" from Harry Potter as a example of second person-ism.

It doesn't feel right, but maybe I'm missing the larger point.

To my mind, "thank you very much" used in that way is a set phrase that does not conjugate (there is no "thank I very much," "thank him very much," etc.), so the whole thing is a single unit. While I can see that the phrase implies a colloquial tone of conversation between two gossiping intimates (where such a tag phrase would naturally be spoken as a unit to provide amplification to what has immediately come before, here to comedic effect), and that a certain amount of this is carried by the pronoun, still, the isolation of "you" seems almost like highlighting the "you" of "university."

But it's probably just I.
Aug 12, 10:22 by Juliette Wade
Thanks for this thoughtful comment.

This is the first time I've heard the use of 'you' called 'second personism'. In fact, I believe my comment on the use of second person narrators was intended as a postscript to the discussion of the quote, which is to say that I never thought of that Harry Potter quote as an example of a second person narrator.

As for your comment on the non-conjugation of "thank you very much," I would certainly agree that it is treated as a phrasal unit. It does provide a great deal of conversational tone to that portion of the narrative. But I think one could argue that even if the phrase is not broken up, it remains directional by its very nature. After all, the reason we don't see "thank myself very much" or "thank him very much" is because of the nature of the act of thanking, which is delivered by the speaker directly to another person. We can say "I thanked him very much for his trouble," which would be the natural context for a pointer 'him' directed to another person, but because that is a report of a thanking event, rather than the actual thanking event itself, it has not become a unified phrase as a result.

So it's not just you at all. It's a very good observation, in fact; but I still think that there's an arrow hiding in there pointing toward whoever the Dursleys happen to be speaking with at the moment they say the phrase, and since those people are not identified, it ends up feeling like it points outward toward the reader.

Thanks again!
Aug 12, 12:00 by Lois Tilton
These are all interesting points. Thanks for the article.
Aug 13, 10:33 by Bill Preston
Thanks for an interesting article. I especially appreciated the meticulous breakdown of small passages to demonstrate how even the most innocuous words carry weight. I struggled with POV for years before truly finding a wall to satisfactorily use it in my writing--largely as a consequence of teaching about it in my classroom. While I hadn't thought about it in precisely your terms--and a lot of my thinking is now internalized--I tend to approach narration in terms of narrative stance and narrative distance. Distance can tell me what POV will work; stance tells me the attitude of the narrator at that distance.

Also, I find "internal" not entirely the best distinction. The terminology I learned, and that I teach, is third-person omniscient vs. thirp-person limited, and a variety of possibilities exist within the limited approach. John Gardner broke down "limited" into subjective and objective, the one more closely resembling your internal approach, the other the kind of approach you find in, say, Lord of the Flies, in which the narrator gives us nothing but cold observation much of the time.

My old copy of the short story collection Point of View (there's now a revised edition) uses the terminology "anonymous narration" to cover "third-person." I like that, because it shifts from the odd focus on pronouns to a focus on "Who the heck is narrating this, anyway?" I like to think of my narrator as a person with a particular attitude, even in third person.

Lastly, I want to note those lines you pulled from the first Harry Potter book. That's the only Potter book I've read, and I was disappointed, partly because I was unimpressed overall, but also early on because I felt the narration of the first chapter was so unfocused. I suppose it's because Harry hasn't come along yet to give her the "internal" focus, but it's a jarring shift between the chapters to move from that uncertain start to something more grounded.

Again, a terrific, useful piece. Thanks.

Bill Preston
Aug 13, 18:57 by Juliette Wade
Thanks so much for weighing in. My use of "internal" was motivated simply by the fact that I've heard the expression so much - also probably because I like to cultivate an "internal" feeling in the limited points of view I use in my own writing. "Limited" definitely covers a larger number of possibilities, but at the same time covers so many of the options that it becomes less informative. Regardless, I'm sure you can tell that I'm not advocating the use of particular terms to describe these points of view and their characteristics - only taking a look at several specific types of effects. The accumulation of POV effect over all instances of pointing in a particular work can have all kinds of different manifestations, and consequently different moods and limitations associated with it. I, too, like the idea of thinking about narrators and narration rather than pronouns (as you can probably tell) because that frees me up to think about how to infuse a story with the particular narrator's attitude (I've called it judgment in the article).

Thanks again.

Juliette Wade
Aug 25, 18:13 by Michael Andre-Driussi
Ah, I see--or I think I see!

This is the first time I've heard the use of 'you' called 'second personism'. In fact, I believe my comment on the use of second person narrators was intended as a postscript to the discussion of the quote, which is to say that I never thought of that Harry Potter quote as an example of a second person narrator.

Sorry for the coinage that only caused confusion. I didn't intend it as a substitute for "second person narrator," but I can easily see how it could be taken as such. I meant it for the case of "the narrator directly addresses the reader as 'you,'" which seems like what you were saying in the piece. And I still can't think of a shorter way to say that, but often the shortcut leads to nowhere, as here.

but I still think that there's an arrow hiding in there pointing toward whoever the Dursleys happen to be speaking with at the moment they say the phrase, and since those people are not identified, it ends up feeling like it points outward toward the reader.

Here we come to the (or perhaps only "a") nugget of my confusion. If I read it correctly, in the piece you give two different cases from Harry Potter: the first, you say, has the Dursleys talking to the reader as "you" (by circuitous default); the second has the narrator talking directly to the reader as "you."

Now, for some reason, I was not prepared for the first case as being "different" from the second case: even after two readings, I still thought that the first case could =only= be the narrator talking directly to the reader as "you," perhaps using "the Dursleys" as a sock puppet, as it were. (That is, I do not see the Dursleys saying anything to anybody in the text.) To this reading, both cases are contained within the cozy context of two gossips, author and reader, talking about people down the street. (There is no "arrow" pointing to anyone, really--it is a hypothetical speech act as a send up of people who are not present. A joke of the "stereotypical phrase" variety. Or, to repeat, it is from narrator to reader, not from the Dursleys to anyone real.)

Beyond this fundamental misapprehension on my part, I was distracted by the single word "you" being flagged for what I saw was a phrasal unit, as I trust I have already explained to death. Maybe I saw this cosmetic thing with its tangential baggage as the cause of my dissonence with the Potter bit.

But now I can see that you mean, and the author probably intended, that the first case is a "super sock puppet," or something nearly like the Dursleys actually talking to someone in the text. The equivalent of those TV commercials or movies where a character suddenly lip-synchs what the narrator says they are saying.

Aug 28, 11:30 by Juliette Wade
Thanks for writing back, and I'm sorry it's taken me this long to pick up your comment.

I think you're probably right on with your "super sock puppet" metaphor.

This is a tricky quote to have included because of the fluidity of the point of view in this section of Rowling's novel. I think one reason for confusion is that it doesn't involve any direct quotations or any animation of an actual scene between the Dursleys and anyone else. Thus, as you say, "I do not see the Dursleys saying anything to anybody in the text." Indeed.

In putting the Dursleys in as sock puppet to animate the phrase "thank you very much," Rowling gives them more voice in the text and brings them closer to readers. Certainly I'd have to say that my own mind hears the essence of the Dursleys coming through with the addition of "thank you very much"; I can't think why that phrase would have been included as a comment from narrator to reader, as it doesn't seem to me to fit in the established narrator voice.

Maybe this is all so hard because everything about a written text dissociates us from the context of real speakers and real listeners, and so, with no one actually present, every voice involved is necessarily hypothetical. It's just a question of hypothetical to what degree.

No wonder I keep wrestling with it in my own writing. :-)

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