POV | Karen Kao

I’m turning into a craft-obsessed monster. Everywhere I look, I see POV, narrator, mood, tone and voice. I blame this hideous transformation on my writing workshop. Each week, our teacher gives us a new set of craft techniques to apply to our writing. I’ve been using this opportunity to overhaul my many failed short stories, looking for a new way into the narrative.

POV or point of view is one of those life-and-death decisions a writer must make. Changing that perspective can give a dead-in-the-water story a new lease on life. But how to choose?

Shall I tell my story of an adulterous love affair from the perspective of the straying wife, the cuckolded husband, the lover or an all-knowing bystander? Whatever choice I make will, inevitably, influence the reader’s sympathies. To feel pity for poor old Charles Bovary, exasperation with the flighty Emma or disdain for her many lovers.

POV options

There’s a famous writer who writes his novel from the perspective of each character until he finds the right POV. Of course, I can’t remember who the author was but I like to think it’s Daniel Woodrell. The voices in Winter’s Bone are so distinct, individual and authentic, they must come from some deep place.

Or maybe the man just knows his stuff. John Gardner tells us:
The choice of point of view will largely determine all other choices with regard to style: vulgar, colloquial, or formal diction, the length and characteristic speed of sentences, and so on.
So here are the options:

1. First person POV

tells the story from inside the head of one of the characters. This point of view creates intimacy and immediacy. Take, for example, these random lines from A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride:
I open my eyes. Do you know how to fuck? What? His red face.
There is also a second person point of view that my writing workshop calls the “I in disguise”. I don’t understand that perspective.

2. third person “close” or “limited”

is a POV that also comes from inside the head of a character though not in her voice. “She opens her eyes.” There is now a distance between narrator and character, however slight. We continue to see the world through her eyes.

3. third person omniscient

is narration from God’s point of view. The narrator has access to the thoughts, desires and secrets of all the characters. It’s the wide screen version of the action, suitable for epics, casts of thousands, and war. Tolstoy used it.

4. none of the above

You can, of course, break the rules. Shift POV from one character to another in a style that’s called free indirect. But don’t do it by accident (like I have) or you’ll be accused of head-hopping.

You can also stick with one form of third person POV and modulate the psychic distance between narrator and character. Like the camera panning out for the establishing shot or diving in for the close-up.

The point is to do whatever you like, as long as you have a reason for it. Like Akutagawa Ryunosuke and his short story masterpiece “In a Grove”. The story consists of testimony given to an unseen, unnamed investigator. Each witness tells of a crime that takes place at a lonely mountain pass in a grove.

We hear from the woodcutter who found the body, a Buddhist priest passing by, even the murdered man himself “as Told Through a Medium”. None of these eyewitness accounts line up. “In a Grove” is my gold standard on how (and why) to shift POV.

but it’s true!

Jenny Zhang is the author of Sour Heart. Her short stories depict young Chinese girls growing up in abject poverty inside New York’s Chinatown. Many readers assume Zhang is writing memoir. This, of course, deeply offends her family. Because if this is all true, they don’t like the way Zhang has painted them.

Zhang also manages to offend her fellow MFA students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. They say these stories can’t be true. Zhang doesn’t look poor or downtrodden enough to match her fiction.

Zhang will neither admit nor deny the autobiographical nature of her fiction.
I don’t think the question of autobiography will be resolved in my work so long as women and people of color are seen as memoirists no matter what kind of writing they may be doing and white men are seen [as] innovative experimentalists no matter how explicitly they’ve mined their personal lives.


The first thing my mother asked about my debut novel was whether there was anything I wanted to tell her. This is both funny and deeply sad as my main character Song Anyi is a rape victim. I tell Anyi’s story in the first person, alternating with the third person perspectives of those around her. It’s my way of forcing the reader into the deep dive of trauma and then up every now and again for a breath of air.

All fiction, of course, is to some extent autobiographical and many authors will freely admit to that fact. But the label of autofiction sits uneasily on works written by people of color. There are racial politics at play here. The role of the author as racial representative. The biases within the US publishing industry. Questions of authenticity. This debate makes me feel uncomfortable, placed as I am as both object and subject.

So while I recognize Zhang’s autofiction complaint, I also wonder whether she might be exaggerating. Possibly a bit thin-skinned or beating the drum of discrimination too loudly.


sexual subversion

Then I read an essay by Jamie Quatro. She is the author of some seriously good short fiction. Like her first collection, I Want to Show You More. In that collection, most of the protagonists are female. Some of the stories center on an erotic though unconsummated affair.

An all-men’s book club invites Quatro to speak. She reads from her collection and then opens the floor to questions. One of the men takes the challenge.
I’ll just say it, because we’re all wondering the same thing: What in the hell does your husband think about your work?
Quatro doesn’t write this off as a mere sign of our times (the book came out in 2013). It’s not a male-only phenomenon either. Quatro gets the question from female readers and, perhaps more alarmingly, female writers, too.

Her conclusion is that her readers conflate her with her characters. It doesn’t matter whether she tells her story in first, second or third person. Because Quatro paints a picture the reader recognizes as real, her readers believe that all of it must be true.

But the truly insidious question behind the question – what did your husband think – is this. Did you, Jamie Quatro, commit the subversive sexual acts you describe so well?

Here’s her answer:
Men, women: let’s assume the female writer needn’t have lived out the narrative to write it. Let’s assume that she can have an imagination that is subversive and sexually transgressive.
And let’s assume the artist’s husband feels pretty fucking badass to be married to her.
 Note: POV was first published by Karen Kao on her blog Shanghai Noir.


Bill Kirton said…
Fascinating, Karen, and an excellent analysis of the sort of irritating questions/complaints/observations/wise-ass comments that often come from people desperate for something to say or people who should know better. All the narrative perspectives you identify are valid and have clear imperatives which suit (or don't suit) the writer's intentions. I find objections to (well-handled) 'omniscient' narrations particularly annoying. If the writer chooses that route, it's because he/she IS omniscient. The only place the characters exist and the events which their interactions trigger unfold are in his/her imagination. As long as he/she doesn't make it disorientating for the reader by making unprepared shifts in the narrative voice, it's an entirely legitimate (and indeed, logical) technique.
But the fact that these 'arguments' endure in writing groups and elsewhere suggests that there's still an actual problem here. Either that, or I know far less about writing than I suppose.
Umberto Tosi said…
"The would-be writer..." That is how he saw himself - in the third person, the odd man out, an intruder - in the hall mirror as he entered this strange work, glancing to and fro without much attention to where he was going. He mulled over the blogger - Ms. Kao's - instructive words from many points of view. He wondered whether he should turn back and choose another entrance - a door marked "me" or "you," "she," or "he," "it, perhaps "they," past or present. Lost in thought, he tripped on a worn spot in the long, Persian peony-patterned runner leading into the novel's main hall. Catching his balance on a coat rack, he let out an embarassed, "oops!" Busted. The other characters waiting in the parlor - the fuzzy, not-hims - must have heard. Committed now, he proceeded, but with deliberatness gained from the illusion of having chosen his path, a foolish assumption, he knew, but something, anyway - as palpable as that polished brass coat rack. It would have to do.
Griselda Heppel said…
Aargh the POV question. It never goes away. New writers are always strongly advised to stick to one POV in their main character's head, either First or Third Person. It does stop you jumping around and losing pace, so it's good advice on the whole - but leaves you with the problem that no event can happen without your MC being there. I've seen really good, experienced writers cheat on this one when crucial plot points happen 'offstage', either by having their MC 'imagine' them happening, or by the MC remembering things they can't possibly remember e.g. being born (which is quite sweet). In both cases the writers got away with it because their stories were so good but it feels pretty high risk to me!

And your mother taking your fiction for real - YES THEY DO THAT. I have the same problem. It's both touching and, um, undermining because the implication is that we can't possibly have made up something that comes across so realistically. On the other hand you always worry about your children and I suppose I might well have the same fears if my children take up writing fiction...

Great post, much to chew over!

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