When we begin to write a story one of the first decisions we make is to choose from whose point of view our story will be told. That point of view can significantly affect our description. It can change what we describe and how we explain it based on whose head we are in.
Who tells the story determines everything about how and what is told.
Let’s review our choices in point of view.
Limited Point of View – The story filters through the viewpoint ancestor, and it is coloured by who they are as a person. That means that all the description will be seen through their eyes only and is painted by who they are as a person.
Omniscient Point of View – story is told by an all-knowing narrator who is not an ancestor in the story. This is a popular point of view for family history narratives. The narrator can tell the reader what any of the ancestors are thinking or feeling. They can describe things that the other ancestors don’t know about. In omniscient POV you only have one point of view, and it’s that of the omniscient narrator. The reader hears only one voice in the narrative, that of the omniscient narrator, you.
Second Person Point of view
In second-person point of view, the writer uses you in the story rather than he or she. It places the reader in the position of the narrator.
First Person Point of View
The first person point of view uses pronouns like I, me we, us. In first person, the narrator is a character within the story. The first person narrator can only share information and experiences that they are aware of. They can’t share things outside of their perspective. The story is told in the voice of the viewpoint character narrator. This point of view is used if you are writing a memoir, life-story, or the tales of your family history research.
Third Person Point of View
Third person perspective is told from the viewpoint of a single ancestor but it uses he/she instead of I. The balance between the author’s voice, and the viewpoint ancestor’s voice depends on how close or deep we choose to go into the viewpoint ancestor. In deep POV, the author disappears, and the reader hears the viewpoint ancestor’s voice, just as they would in a first person story.
You most likely will be choosing third person point of view or third person omniscient point of view to write your family history story, unless you are writing a memoir or an account of your research. So, let’s take a closer look at the difference between the two.
Third person limited is, well, limited. The perspective is exclusively grounded to one ancestor.
Third person omniscient is a bit more freeing because you aren’t limited to a single ancestor’s view. However, it can be difficult to write from the perspective of several ancestors, in particular for a new writer. Have you ever read a book and were confused as to whose thoughts you were reading? You didn’t know whose head you were in, often the cause of not handling head hopping well.
Family historians struggle when choosing a viewpoint. They are conflicted with who should be the main ancestor of the story, whose view they should tell the story from and often results in attempting to tell a family history from several perspectives. This usually ends up in a mess. Be careful in choosing your point of view.
How does this all matter to the description?
Second person, first person and third person are all considered limited points of view because the reader will receive the story from a single ancestor, the same way we experience our lives. Everything you put on the page must be something that the viewpoint ancestor would have known, thought, or experienced. That limits what we can describe. It also influences how and when we describe it and what we describe. We can only describe things they notice and what they see will be primarily affected by their circumstances.
What we describe
We should be explaining things that are part of our viewpoint ancestor’s world, what in their world do they care about and therefore would notice. Think about how your ancestor’s personality or background would influence what they would see and what they would ignore.
How We Describe It
Voice is a term that gets thrown around a lot in writing. It means how the personality and individual perspective influences the way in which something is said. When we’re writing a description, we have to consider the voice of the viewpoint ancestor. Consider how your viewpoint ancestor’s background and how it would influence their voice.
Emotions It Mirrors
A viewpoint ancestor’s emotions about a particular situation, person or thing would affect how we describe it. Consider an ancestor visiting their childhood home after years of being away, if they had a happy childhood that will colour the description of the setting. If they had a terrible upbringing that would be reflected in the description. Description can be a mirror of your ancestor’s emotions.
If your ancestor is noticing something that description will influence not only what they see but how they feel about it. Small luncheon sandwiches will be seen differently at an afternoon tea then on a refreshment table after a funeral.
Knowledge and Education
How does our viewpoint character’s knowledge affect their description?
Education and life experience will also play a role in the words our ancestor uses. A peasant ancestor might think nothing when he hears his father coughing, but the town doctor would hear something different and thus react differently.
It’s important to keep in mind that our viewpoint ancestor shouldn’t just be cataloguing the world around them, our viewpoint ancestor’s voice colours the description. They should be interpreting it through the unique lens of who they are. Point of view and description is the lens through which the story is told. Keep this in mind as we continue our work on description throughout the month of February.