Which point of view produces the greatest intimacy between the reader and the character? Watching this debate between two writing friends led me to ask what they meant by intimacy. I propose (invoking the liberty of blogging) that there are at least three modes of intimacy between reader and character: avatar, friend, and shrink. There may be more, but these will do for now.
I should stress from the beginning that I see these as reader modes. They are the ways that readers seek or choose to engage with a character. Writers can write with one mode of intimacy in mind, but the reader still decides how they want to read. Some books will lend themselves to be read in more than one mode, while others are likely to work in only one.
Avatar: In avatar mode, the reader seeks to inhabit the character, to see the story unfold through their eyes. The character becomes a way for the reader to enter the world of the story and inhabit its action.
Friend: In friend mode, the reader meets the character as they would meet a person in real life. They don’t become the character, but they go on the adventure with them, imaginatively.
Shrink: In shrink mode, the reader examines the character seeking to understand them and what makes them tick. They don’t become or befriend the character. They watch their adventures with analytical detachment.
Some readers may prefer only one mode of engagement. Personally, I have a strong preference for friend mode. Others may be interested and capable of engaging in different modes at different times. But this is not just a simple choice. Different stories lend themselves to different modes of engagement, either because of the way they are written or because of the story they tell.
Let’s look at each mode in turn.
The cultural popularity of avatar mode is evident from the fact that the video-game industry is four times bigger than the movie industry and three times bigger than the music industry. (I dare not even search for how much bigger it is than the publishing industry!) And much of the video game experience is about projecting your avatar into the game world.
The desire to imagine yourself the hero of a story is a very old one. It is certainly not limited to stories told in any one point of view. The reader can do all the imaginative work themselves to hop into the skin of Sam Spade, Horatio Hornblower, Anne Shirley, or even Elizabeth Bennet. Nonetheless, contemporary authors frequently do more, and are encouraged to do more, to make it easier to put on the skin of the character. The most extreme form of this is writing in the second person:
You walk down the hall. You see a light under the door of a room on the right. You press your ear against the door, and hear raised voices. …
Some early computer games, before modern computer graphics were available, were actually presented in text just like this. Some novels have been published in this format, and I think it makes engagement with the reader in anything other than avatar mode virtually impossible. But it is extraordinarily hard to pull off this style for an entire novel, so it is not common. More common is the use of a first-person narrative present style. An example of this is Katherine Clements’ The Silvered Heart. A short excerpt shows the behind-the-eyes effect that this style can achieve:
I see the barrel of a pistol before I see the man, its round, black mouth no bigger than a penny. Then the leather flap at the window is torn aside and a face appears in its place. A filthy brown kerchief covers the man’s nose, mouth and chin. His hat is pulled low, leaving only squinting dark eyes and heavy brows in view.
Here we are, through the character’s eyes, staring into the mouth of a pistol, and then into the face of the man holding it. You can read Chapter One on Clements’ website to get a fuller sense of the effect. A reader wishing to engage with the character in avatar mode is given every assistance here. Indeed, this passage could be changed to second person merely by substituting “You” for “I” in two places, though the transformation would doubtless be more complicated for the work as a whole.
The question is whether a style that is so conducive to engagement in avatar mode limits the appeal of a work to people who prefer to read in other modes. I suspect it must. Personally, I find this style hard going. But that may not simply be because I prefer to engage in friend mode. It may also be that the avatar character here is a woman and I am a man. Would the story of a male character told in the same style be more appealing to me?
One reference point for me here is Craig Johnson’s Longmire books, all of which are written in the first person in the voice of Sheriff Longmire. I like this series a lot, though I have grown less fond of it over time as it has gone the route of many hard-man series, becoming more brutal with each book. It would certainly be easier for me to imagine myself as a laconic Wyoming sheriff than as the heroine of The Silvered Heart. But the Longmire books are not written in the narrative present, and the one thing I have wished about the series from the beginning is that it should have been written in third person. (Longmire, is, after all, laconic. Laconic people don’t narrate books.) So I think I can say that I read those books in friend mode, and am somewhat vexed by their attempt to engage me in avatar mode.
The issue of whether one can comfortably take on an avatar unlike oneself is an important one, though. I suppose, ideally, that we should be able to adopt any character as an avatar. But in most cases, people will prefer avatars who are either like themselves, or are some idealized version of themselves – the person they imagine themselves to be. Thus a man reading about James Bond or Richard Sharpe may imagine himself more handsome, more brave, more forceful, and more successful with women than he really is. Thus a woman reading The Silvered Heart may imagine herself bold and daring enough to become a robber on the coach roads of old England. Thus there is so much demand at the moment for books featuring “strong women characters” – for what woman (or man) would want to choose for their avatar a weak and foolish woman.
Which is to say that few people are likely to want to choose the foolish and immoral Emma Bovary for their avatar, and that readers who read exclusively in avatar mode are therefore unlikely to pull Madame Bovary off the shelf.
So, if many readers want to engage with the character in avatar mode, it follows that different readers will want books featuring protagonists similar to themselves, which would lead to a demographically segregated publishing market. And that is indeed what we see, with demographic categories such as middle-grade, YA, new adult, LGBTQ, and woman’s fiction increasingly defining the market.
This preference for an avatar who is a stronger brighter version of oneself also highlights the current push for increased diversity in publishing. Every reader who reads in avatar mode naturally desires an avatar like themselves and traditionally there have not been a lot of such avatar characters for people in minority groups. (Friend mode is much more about meeting the other, rather than the self, but even there, readers will naturally want to meet more people like themselves. No one wants to be the stranger in every room, even if the room is full of fascinating people. On the other hand, one might feel comfortable meeting them more often than one would feel comfortable being them.)
Still, this means that there is a limit to the kinds of stories that can be told – or, rather, can be enjoyed – in avatar mode. The traditional argument for reading was that it was a way to meet other people, people unlike yourself. For that kind of engagement, we must turn to friend mode.
I take friend mode to be the default of the western tradition. The reader is introduced into the company of one or more characters and joins them (as an observer) on their adventures. Friend might be an overly specific term here. You don’t necessarily want to make friends with all of the characters in a book. Rather, one meets them and gets to know them in much the same way as one does in real life. Still, I think the term fits. One is limited in the number of people one can befriend in real life, if nothing else by their willingness to make friends with you. But a literary character cannot refuse your advances. The mode of engagement is the same, even if you befriend characters you would not befriend, or would not befriend you, in real life. And there is another kind of friend you have in books designed to be read in this mode: the narrator.
When one goes into society in real life, it is enormously useful to go with a friend who knows all the people you are going to meet. If you walk into a room cold, knowing no one, it can take quite a while to decide who you want to meet and quite a while to form any impression of them, to engage them, and to find a topic of conversation that you have in common. Go in with a common friend, however and they can immediately introduce you to someone you are likely to be interested in, and can inform both of you that you have a common interest in stamp collecting, motorcycle racing, or dental hygiene.
The presence of your friend the narrator makes it possible to get the story going and establish its direction much more quickly and surely. And this speaks to that old bugaboo question about show vs. tell. While it is wonderful to be introduced to the only other stamp collector in the room (telling) you then want to spend time with them and discuss each other’s collections (showing). The showing – the conversation with your fellow collector – is undoubtedly the fun part of the evening. But without the telling – the introduction – the showing can’t happen. The art is not to always show and never tell, but to tell when it creates the opportunity for more engaging showing. The presence of the narrator thus solves all kinds of storytelling problem that can be quite knotty in other modes. (How, in avatar mode, do you describe what the protagonist looks like? “I look in the mirror and brush back my auburn hair that has fallen across my piercing green eyes and pale cheeks…”)
There are two ways that the writer can provide the narrator friend. One is through what is misleadingly called “omniscient third person” and the other is through a first-person narrator. But this style of first-person narrative is very different from a first-person narrative in the avatar mode. Often the narrator is not the main character, but a secondary character who, though they may have their own arc, serves primarily to introduce us to more important characters. Thus the first-person narrator in The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway, writes:
When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and a sort of moral attention for ever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction – Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have unaffected scorn.
This is first person narration again, but no staring down the barrels of pistols here. Nick Carraway tells us straight out that he is writing a book (a cardinal sin in avatar mode) and that that book is about Gatsby. Nick Carraway is our friend who is going to guide us through the society of Gatsby and his circle. We will learn of them in part through what he tells us of them, and in part through what we see of them in his company.
Would it be desirable, or even possible, to find an avatar character in The Great Gatsby? Nick is a secondary character, mostly narrating, often put upon. Gatsby and Daisy alike are remote, flawed, doomed. Would you really want to imagine yourself either one of them?
But, on the other hand, wouldn’t it be fascinating to meet them? The world is full of people that it would be fascinating to meet, for one reason or another, but whom you would never want to become or imagine yourself becoming.
But a narrator does not have to be a character to clearly announce themselves. They can be present in a straightforward third-person narrative as well:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
Whose voice is this? Whose thoughts are they? Certainly not Mrs. Bennet, who they chiefly satirize. But not Mr. Bennet or Elizabeth or D’Arcy either. This is Miss Austen speaking to the reader, introducing herself and her style to us as she takes us in hand and guides us through the life and times of her characters.
This is what is often called “omniscient point of view,” a term which I called misleading above, and which many writers have trouble grappling with. Whatever the history of the term, it is mostly talked about today as the kind of ugly elderly relative of the two popular kids: first person and close third person. Its characteristics are all described negatively. We are not following any one person. To some, the logic of it seems to presume that we cannot go into the heads of any character, while to other it means you can go into the heads of all – but you shouldn’t, because that would be the dreaded “head hopping.”
In avatar mode, head hopping is an obvious deadly sin. The whole of the reader’s pleasure consists in being in one head and seeing the world through the eyes in that head. To hop for a moment from one head to another breaks the spell. Many avatar-mode books do change point of view from time to time, but they are scrupulous to do it only at a chapter or scene break. The reader must be allowed a single avatar for a scene or a chapter at least.
But in friend mode, there is nothing unnatural about being told what more than one person is thinking. Indeed, if you go to a party with a friend – a gossipy friend, at least – they are likely to do just this.
That’s Marigold. Reginald is madly in love with her, but she thinks he is in love with Maude. But Reginald, my Dear, he thinks Marigold is carrying a torch for Timothy.
Similarly, our friend the narrator is free to tell us what two characters in a scene are thinking, and certain literary effects cannot be achieved in any other way. Here is a scene from my own novel, The Peaceweaver.
“I think I remember holding you, all swaddled up and sleeping, and being told, ‘This is the girl you will marry, Dreffy,’ and kissing you on the forehead. But maybe I don’t really remember it. Maybe I have just been told about it so often by soft-hearted women that I think I remember it.”
“You never told me that before,” she said, laughing at the thought of it. “It’s sweet. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I wanted you to think me the great warrior, a captain of men.”
“Well I do! So why tell me now?”
“I want you to know that I shall love our children.”
He could not have said anything that would have pleased her more, and if he had kissed her then, and begun to undress her, all would have been as they had both anticipated. But he was still shy. He still felt the need to prove his worthiness to her, to prove that she was his choice, not merely his father’s.
Here we have two young lovers – or would-be lovers – both of whom are ready for this moment, but neither of whom understands the other – or, perhaps, themselves – well enough to quite get in sync with each other. This cannot readily be made apparent from the point of view of either – neither of them understands enough about what they or the other is feeling. But your friend the narrator knows them both well enough to explain. Yes, if you are a reader who habitually reads in avatar mode and, despite my best efforts, you have manage to insert yourself behind my heroine’s eyes here, this last paragraph is going to break the spell for you. Sorry, but I had other fish to fry.
But this is not a case of the narrator having godlike powers, nor godlike indifference. This is a case of the narrator being a friend to both characters – a better friend to her perhaps, than to him, but close enough to know them both better than they know themselves. Not omniscient then, merely independent and informed.
This capacity of friend mode to deal with more than one character at a time comes in useful in telling all kinds of stories. A writing friend recently asked about point of view and head hopping in a passage from Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. The whole passage he cited is too long to quote here, but the point is made by considering just the first lines of several paragraphs in succession:
Call felt his impatience rising. …
Allen O’Brien was looking dejectedly at the few buildings that make up Lonesome Dove. …
To the embarrassment of everyone, Sean O’Brien began to cry. …
His brother Allen was so embarrassed by the sight of Sean’s tears that he walked straight into the house and sat down at the table. …
Dish concluded that the young Irishman was probably crazy. …
Augustus saved the day by going over and taking Sean by the arm. …
Here, our friend the narrator takes us systematically through the whole cowboy crew, showing us how each of the cowboys reacts to the situation at hand. Is it head hopping? If you are trying to read in avatar mode, it doubtless feels like it. But if you read in friend mode, as the narrator clearly intended, it all makes perfect sense. Part of being a member of a group, after all, is being aware of how every other member of the group is feeling. It is how you fit in. How you maintain your welcome. How you do your part to maintain the cohesion of the group. Perceiving and dealing with the emotions of several members of a group at once is a fundamental human need and experience, and one that literature correspondingly needs to portray. One of the great properties of friend mode is that you can have more than one friend at a time and care about what more than one of them thinks and feels at a time.
And there are books that rely on this property absolutely. The hero’s journey model encourages us to think of a novel as always being about a single main character. But there are lots of novels that are about communities, families, or friends.
Take, for instance, The Lord of the Rings. Who is the main character? You might say Frodo, though I would argue that if you are going that route, Sam would be a better answer. (Note that it is with Sam’s return home to his family that the book ends – and in the hero’s journey, it is the hero who returns home at the end.) But if either Sam or Frodo is the main character, what are we to make of the fact that the question is even debatable, and what are we to make of the fact that the book abandons both of them for hundreds of pages to follow other characters, notably Merry and Pippin, but several others as well. And no, I don’t think the notion of plot and subplot gets us off the hook here.
To take another example, what are we to make of Pickwick Papers? Or Hard Times? Or The Old Curiosity Shop? Or half of the Dickens canon, for that matter?
What about Brideshead Revisited? Is it simply Charles Ryder’s story? His arc is there, but it is relatively minor compared to the arcs of Sebastian and Julia. And yet Sebastian disappears after the first half of the book while Julia is barely present until the second half. It is the novel not of one person, but of a family.
And what about The Great Gatsby for that matter? Is this Nick Carraway’s story? Gatsby’s? Daisy’s? Or is it again the story of a group? The same question for On the Road: Sal Paradise (the narrator) and Dean Moriarty dominate the book, but it is really the story of a whole group of men and women wandering aimlessly across the country and through life.
Avatar mode, then, really only supports the story of an individual. Friend mode can tell the story either of an individual or of a group, or of a principle individual in relationship with an extended and also important group.
Friend mode can also introduce you to characters you might find fascinating but would never want to inhabit. Uriah Heep is one of the most memorable characters in all of fiction, but I doubt you would want to adopt a Heep’s-eve-view of the world for many pages. The people you can meet don’t have to be like you, or idealized versions of you. They can be anyone you would be interested to meet – or even to observe from a safe distance. You can tell far more stories, and far more complex stories, in friend mode than you can in avatar mode – if your reader will consent to read in that mode.
You can also write a story with appeal to a far wider audience. The demographic segmentation that applies to works in avatar mode do not limit friend mode stories. And indeed, while the demand for avatar mode stories is clearly very high, many of the books on the best seller lists are friend-mode books – books capable of appealing to a wide variety of demographics.
Shrink mode I take to be largely a modern phenomenon. Prior to the rise of psychiatry, people used to view each other’s behavior largely in moral terms. This is not to suggest that there was no theory of personality. The theory of the four temperaments is as old as western civilization. But complex psychological analysis or exploration of a subject is not typical of the literature in earlier periods. (Those better read than I may disagree. That is what the comments section below is for. To improve my education.)
If the avatar mode seems to dominate popular fiction today, literary fiction has become largely the domain of shrink mode. This is more commonly expressed as the difference between plot driven and character driven fiction. But that distinction, even if valid, does not cut as fine as I am attempting to do here.
Fiction designed for avatar mode does not really favor complex character drawing. The point, after all, is that the character should act as an avatar for the reader. The basic requirement is that the character should be one that the reader feels comfortable inhabiting. This is not to say that the reader could not be invited to inhabit a complex damaged character, of the sort favored by literary fiction, but it is certain to be harder work, and you will probably find fewer readers willing to make the effort. But the pleasure of shrink mode is not the pleasure of being there, of loving as the character loves, fighting as the character fights, winning as the character wins. It is the pleasure of knowingness, of feeling that one has understood what makes another person tick.
This pleasure in knowingness is not the same as the pleasure of knowing someone. We don’t have to psychoanalyze our friends to know we like them, or psychoanalyze eccentrics in order to be fascinated by them, or psychoanalyze monsters in order to be horrified by them. The pleasures of a slasher movie do not depend on knowing why the killer does it. They depend on the adrenaline rush of being – if only imaginatively – in danger of being slashed and of escaping. The pleasure of knowingness, on the other hand, can be enjoyed without any adrenaline at all.
If my interest in avatar mode fiction is limited, my interest in shrink mode fiction is close to zero. I just find knowing people to be more interesting than understanding them. Or perhaps I should phrase that as that I prefer to understand people by knowing them than by analyzing them. Because one does understand one’s friends and family in an intuitive way that has nothing to do with analysis and everything to do with long acquaintance. But this is a preference, not a criticism of those who prefer a more detached and analytical form of knowing.
My distaste for shrink mode is perhaps a pity because it cuts me off from much of what is considered literary art today. I do force myself occasionally. Recently I have been trying to fill some of the gaps in my knowledge of Catholic authors and this led me to Georges Bernanos The Diary of a Country Priest. This book is considered a literary classic, but without my specific purpose in mind I would not have got through it. The limitation is mine, no doubt. But in persevering, I did at least gain an example for this essay.
The Diary of a Country Priest is a psychological study of the physical and mental disintegration of a young priest assigned to a remote rural parish. No one would want the poor priest for their avatar, and it would be hard to feel one is meeting him as friend. Indeed, the fact that the story is told through a diary discovered after his death makes that kind of engagement virtually impossible.
The story is told in first person through diary entries, but this is a very different use of the first person from what we saw in avatar mode and friend mode. There is no invitation for avatar engagement. Nor is the priest proposing himself as your friend to guide you through a story. Rather, it is a private diary, never meant for publication. This is not a narrative the priest is sharing with us, but one he is hiding from the world. We are spying on him through his diaries. And as if to emphasize this point, Bernanos at several points tells us that pages of the diary have been torn out or erased. We are spying here. We are the shrink.
In this case we are invited to read in shrink mode simply by having the psychological evidence laid out before us. The work or analysis is entirely our own (though the evidence is presented selectively, guiding us toward particular conclusions). But a shrink mode novel can also involve the writer inserting psychological analysis directly into the text.
This can seem curiously similar to avatar mode. Both are a matter of close third person point of view. The difference is, in avatar mode the point of view is inside the head looking out. In shrink mode it is outside the head looking in.
Some writers, I think, fall into this mode of writing accidentally. They want the reader to know why a character is behaving in a particular way, but this can be difficult to elucidate in avatar mode. And so they take the shortcut of simply inserting the analysis into the text themselves.
There are two weaknesses with this approach, I feel. The first is that it can be used to paper over the fact that the character has not been fully imagined or the plot not sufficiently refined, that the author needs to cheat to get the story to stay on track. The second is one of the inherent difficulties of avatar mode, which is that human self-awareness is not constant. In moments of danger and excitement, we are focused outward. We are not pausing to reflect; we are acting. Inserting thought and analysis into an active scene misrepresents how the human mind works in those situations, and tends to rob the scene of its immediacy and drama. Still, novelists do sometimes have to cheat a bit. The key thing is not to get caught doing it.
You can, of course, read any book in shrink mode, no matter the intention of the author. (Another common trick of the literary critic is to read to psychoanalyze the author rather than the character.) But there are lots of books sold as literary fiction which don’t seem to provide for any other mode of intimacy with the character. More to the point, they don’t provide an adventure to go on, either in avatar mode or friend mode.
I’m not suggesting, though, that we should identify literary fiction with shrink mode engagement. To me, being literary is about being beautiful and being truthful. Avatar-mode fiction is mostly spinning a fantasy, of course – life as we would wish it to be rather than life as it is – and much of friend-mode is the same. But both are capable of being both beautiful and truthful. Indeed, I would suggest that the great classic novels of the literary canon are mostly written to be read in friend mode. The current fashion for shrink mode in literary fiction is of recent origin.
Intimacy and Point of View
Where does that leave us on my friends’ debate about which point of view provides the most intimacy for the reader. I have argued that it is more complicated than simply picking between first and close third. First person can provide the kind of intimacy we are looking for in each of the three modes. In avatar mode it can provide a direct path to behind the eyes of the character, particularly if told in the narrative present. In friend mode, the first-person narrator can be the friend who introduces you to the society in which the story takes place and fill you in on the background of its one or more protagonists. In shrink mode it can present the voice of a character to the reader as evidence for analysis.
Third person also works for avatar mode, but it usually works better if it is so-called “close third person”. In avatar mode the narration must necessarily be close to the character since the reader is seeing out of the character’s eye sockets.
Third person also works for friend mode. As I noted above, it is something of a misnomer to say that this is omniscient point of view. It is simply the point of view of a well-informed friend. Considerable confusion can arise from trying to fit these point of view categories to a friend-mode book. The Harry Potter series is written in friend-mode. There is very clearly a narrator friend here who is guiding us through the wizarding world. Harry himself does not even show up for several pages as the narrator guides us, hilariously, through the muggle world of Privet Lane and its obsession with drills. All the same, Harry Potter is a book that many people like to read in avatar mode – putting on Harry like a cloak of invisibility – or perhaps Hermione, at least some of the time. They like it so much they actually dress up as the characters.
This ends up with people seeing the point of view in the Harry Potter books as inconsistent. Thus Diane Callahan in the article The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction in Third Person says:
Harry Potter isn’t only written in third-person limited; it slips into moments that feel more like third-person omniscient.
The magical atmosphere of the Harry Potter series is due in part to the third-person perspective, which blends both limited and omniscient styles. We feel connected to Harry because we’re occasionally told what he’s thinking, yet we’re privy to all the magical details beyond what Harry himself might describe.
But I see no blending of styles here. Our narrator friend, like a friend in real life, will sometimes introduce us to one person with whom we spend a significant period of time, and then take us somewhere else where we interact with a group, or pull us aside to explain what is going on of point out something that we might not learn from anyone else in the room. This is not slipping between narrative styles; it is simply moving through the landscape of the story with the liberty that friend-mode allows. All this is perfectly natural and easy if we are reading in friend-mode. It could, however, be jolting and uncomfortable if we are trying to read in avatar mode.
So, overall I would suggest that there may be more profit in deciding what mode of reader intimacy you want to support (and the related question of what kind of story you are trying to tell) rather than worrying about how much intimacy is provided by first vs. third person. It is not the degree of intimacy that differs so much as the mode of intimacy, and point of view does not map particularly closely to one mode of intimacy or another, though it does map to how each point of view is used.
That, at least, is my current though. If you have questions or objections, please comment below. If you are interested in more in the same vein, please subscribe to the blog (to the right or below) and/or sign up for my newsletter (right or below, once again).