By Bonnie Stanard
Point of view (POV), like other literary devices, changes fashion as the art of writing explores new territory. The omniscient POV, which prevailed in the 19th Century with authors like Dickens, Poe, and Hardy, has given way to first person POV popular today.
Many critics claim that first person POV began as interior monologue, historically used by playwrights (i.e., soliloquy) and poets. It came to the novel in a big way with James Joyce’s Ulysses, an entire book written as the stream of consciousness of the narrator. Not many novels today are as immersed in first person as Ulysses, in which the narrator’s ramblings fail to identify other characters or places, leaving the reader to pick and sort for himself.
I am reading The Zahir by Paulo Coelho, which is a first person narrative, further defined as stream of consciousness POV. It is heavily invested in one man’s ruminations. The plot simply sets up the situation that the main character meditates on at length. In fact, aside from minor activities as a novelist (the main character is an author), the only plot so far is his wife's leaving him. From that event, the writer ponders his relationships with his ex-wife and current lover, his own sense of worth, his future without his wife, etc. He has just met the man who stole his wife, and I'm hopeful that something will happen.
Not long ago, I read Shantaram by Gregory Roberts, a very different first person narrative. This book, given from the POV of a character named Lindsay, is plot-driven. We follow Lindsay as he arrives in the slums of Bombay where he falls in love, is imprisoned and rescued by a mafia don, and goes to work (and war) for him. The author introduces numerous other characters, and the interaction that results fashions the plot. Though we get some insight into Lindsay's thoughts, the book is driven by the events of his everyday life. Needless to say, this type of story can only succeed if the life is exciting.
Very close to the first person POV is third limited. This too is a popular device for delivering a story. In fact, the main difference between first person and third limited is the choice of pronouns for the narrator, whether “I” or “he/she.”
A number of contemporary writers are experimenting with POV. You can find books in which POV shifts from one character to another and from first to third person limited. Stef Penny, as an example, employs first person and third person limited POV in her novel The Tenderness of Wolves. What each POV character doesn’t know is revealed to the reader by other POV characters until the reader has more information and can solve the mystery before the “I” narrator who tells the story. Tension arises when the first person narrator makes mistakes because she doesn’t know what the reader knows.
The changes in POV technique are moving toward greater intimacy. The narrator is less likely to be the bard standing aloft his audience and describing the world as it is. He has morphed into a character in the story, one who experiences the plot and feels the bullets, if vicariously.