Point of View: Following the Rules
I just finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final installment in J.K. Rowling’s series. I adored it, but as with any popular media, some people were less than pleased with the way the story played out.
One of the complaints that I take issue with is this: a fair number of readers dislike the fact that the stories are told from Harry’s point of view, with some of the action happening “off camera.”
Rowling chose to use a close third person narrator for the series. Most popular fiction uses some type of third person narrator, but the specifics can vary. A close third person, as in Harry Potter, sticks with one character. We’re not inside Harry’s head, the way we would be with a first person narrator, but the reader can only see and hear the action within Harry’s proximity.
Here’s an example from early in the seventh book:
Harry sat up and examined the jagged piece on which he had cut himself, seeing nothing but his own bright green eye reflected back at him. Then he placed the fragment on top of that morning’s Daily Prophet, which leay unread on the bed, and attempted to stem the sudden upsurge of bitter memories, the stabs of regret and of longing the discover of the broken mirror had occasioned, by attacking the rest of the rubbish in the trunk.
Other third-person options are objective and omniscient. With an objective third person narrator, the author simply tells the story without giving the reader access to any character’s thoughts or feelings. An omniscient narrator, on the other hand, can give us access to any character’s thoughts or feelings.
Choosing a point of view can be difficult. First person (told from the “I” perspective, usually by the story’s central character) can be good for telling stories that are deeply personal and emotional, but it can also be very limiting. Third person omniscient allows a great amount of freedom, but it can be difficult to manage. They all have advantages and disadvantages, and different types of stories will demand a different type of narration.
Once a point of view is chosen, though, the author has an obligation to play by the rules. I can’t fault Rowling for that!
Subscribe to Receive our Articles and Exercises via Email
- You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!
- Subscribers get access to our exercise archives, writing courses, writing jobs and much more!
- You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!
10 Responses to “Point of View: Following the Rules”
The “close third person” style has been integral to this entire series of books. It allowed Rowling to maintain suspense all the way through to the end. Only in the final chapters of any of the books, do we ever get to find out what the other characters were really thinking and why events transpired as they did, instead of what the hero thought was really happening. It even carried over to the whole series. Afterall, we didn’t just get a conclusion to this final book, readers actually learned something about the larger story of the entire series.
To take issue with such a technical matter, and fail to appreciate whether the reading experience was enjoyable or not is a perfect example of some people being jealous of others’ success and actively looking to find some small piece of fault. Interestingly, this very theme of gratuitous criticism comes up often within the books as well.
The book I’m writing right now uses first person. Since this is my first novel, I wanted to go with something a little easier for me.
I’m no J.K. Rowling but I will be (if I follow the tips given here at this site 😉 )
Thanks for the validation up front. First person is easier for me to manage, especially since I write/speak from a deeply personal and emotional place.
Who know…I may graduate to using third person omniscient one day.
i’m writing my first book and im going to try to do a mix of 1st and 3rd. it will be interesting if i can pull it off. the way im going to do is, some of the chapters will be in 1st and the majority of it will be in 3rd. i may just go to 3rd person tho. hopefully with the help of my wife i’ll be able to pull it off.
One of my old mentors used to get really angry whenever one of us showed him a story written in first person. He’d say it was the writing equivalent of crawling like a baby rather than walking. He’d also berate us for using such a personal style when 99% of the time we had nothing truly personal to say. He’d then make us rewrite the story with a Third person limited POV.
Thing is: he was mostly right.
Whereas our narrators had more or less all sounded the same in first person, they took on much more distinction in third person. The stories had richer imagery, and had even developped new plots as a result of the broadened perspective.They stopped sounding like bad diary entries.
Only a rare few stories were judged (by all of us) to be better in first person, and nearly all of them had been based on real and extremely personal experiences to the writers.
Those of us unable to master third person generally didn’t have strong writing skills in other domains either (poor structure, exposition, descriptions etc), so I tended to side with him on this.
He was a bit cruel in that he’d say first person narratives, for young writers, were works of laziness and over-indulgence in our bigger-than-life sense of selves. Some of my colleagues found him stifling, but those of us who’d manage to pass the third person test ended up developing unlike anything we’d done in other workshops.
I guess some writers thrive on cuddling mentors. I don’t trust’em. I needed a bastard to give me a challenge.
I think I have finally grasped how it works now and I also realize that how I enjoy writing is in first person or third, deep pov. I feel quite comfortable either way. The novelette I’m finishing just now is however some kind of second person deep pov. I think that perspective is fun, even if readers don’t much appreciate it. It feels natural to me as I’ve written quite a lot of interactive fiction where “You shiver in revulsion as the troll nibbles on what was supposed to be your supper. Unfortunately there is no more food and you starve to death. Game over.”, is almost my favorite way to write. I’ve learned that it’s not easy to pull off in a novel so I just better restrict that little hobby and use it only in IF games from now on. 🙂
I notice that the Harry Potter passage and lots of third person narratives write in a past tense, “he sat up and examined,” doesn’t that give the writing a passive feel? Should writers mostly use a present tense for an active voice( He sits up and examines) or am I mistaken? Any opinions would help me a lot. Thanks!
@ Aaron – Past tense is actually more common in novels than present tense, I believe, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing. When told in the past tense, a story has a sense of completion from the start, which I like, but it’s all really up to the author. The choice of language is important, too. Never use “was” or “ing verbs” and the story shouldn’t be too passive.
On topic several years late, I always really liked Rowling’s choice of limiting the story to Harry’s POV, although that did make the opening to book 4 and the 2 chapters at the beginning of book 6 a bit jarring. If I were writing HP, I definitely would’ve cut the latter…
When writing in the limited third person, I get confused on when I can say “her” verses “she”.
I’m sure it is fine to say, “She took a deep breath as she stepped onto the curb.”
But what about those involuntary movements. Can I say, “Her eyebrows pulled together,” since she cannot see it but may feel it? Or would it be, “She felt her eyebrows pull together.”