Writing is not just sitting, typing everything on your mind. Before you set out to your work, you ought to know a bit of theory, including the concept of focalization.

Focalization is one of those concepts that every writer should be aware of, though it’s quite convoluted.

Focalization refers to the perspective from which a narrative is presented. Different characters have their own perspectives of story events, and readers’ perceptions of events in the story are limited to those of the focalizer. Thus, focalization is used to provide the perspective on a story.

This term was introduced by Gérard Genette, a French literary theorist, in order not confuse it with another literary term: narration. There’s an easy way to tell one term from the other: Narration is what’s told, and focalization is what’s seen.

According to, Genette, there are three types of focalization:

1. Zero, the one who knows more than any of the characters; use it to provide readers with as much information as possible.

2. Internal, which can be of three types:

  • Fixed, restricted to one character; use it to show experiences of a certain character.
  • Variable, changes between several characters; use it to show different perspective of different characters.
  • Multiple, character has several points of view regarding what is observed; use it if you want to show how thoughts of your characters race through his/her mind.

3. External, readers don’t have access to the character’s thoughts; use it to intrigue readers and make them suspect your characters of something.

Narrators can be of the following types

  • Homodiegetic, a character in the story.
  • Heterodiegetic, not a character, but knows a lot about the story.
  • Autodiegetic, homodiegetic narrator who is also the protagonist.

Unreliable narrator

Readers easily get used to the idea that everything told in the story is credible and trustworthy. And yet that’s not always the case because there can be a tricky type of narrator, the unreliable one. There are different reasons why an author might make a narrator misleading. Some characters are villains, who do their best to fool readers and lead them down a false trail. However, characters can also just be unable to provide readers with objective information because they are naive, insane, unaware, or mistaken. Or they just can be show-offs and pretenders who exaggerate their merits and want to be better than they are in reality.

A narrator’s unreliability is sometimes obvious, but can also be largely hidden, with only slight hints that there’s something amiss.

If you’re writing crime fiction or suspense, unreliable narrators are useful tools to intrigue readers. They can ensure that readers stay intensely involved in a story so that at the end, when they finally learn how the narrator deceived them, they will likely say “Wow! I wasn’t expecting that!” This is why readers are justified in being skeptical towards narrators.

A few examples of unreliable narrators:

  • Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye)
  • The Narrator (Fight Club)
  • Humbert Humbert (Lolita)
  • Alex (A Clockwork Orange)
  • Chief Bromden (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
  • Nick Carraway (The Great Gatsby)

I came across the chart below at Screenplayology, and have used it to demonstrate the difference between narration and focalization and the way they interplay.

First column. Readers can see thoughts of the homodiegetic narrator.
Second column. A heterodiegetic narrator has no access to characters thoughts.
Third column. A heterodiegetic narrator has access to thoughts of one character
Fourth column. A heterodiegetic narrator has access to thoughts of both characters.

focalization chart

Genette is not the only writer to address focalization; many modern scholars pay heed to this notion as well, though, they mostly base their studies upon Genette’s theory. Neil Randal, an Associate Professor at the University of Waterloo, presented his article “Shifting Focalization and the Strategy of Delay: The Narrative Weaving of ‘The Fionavar Tapestry’“, where he wrote:

Focalization, furthermore, has an advantage over focus (which carries similar photographic connotations) because focus is usually followed by the preposition upon while focalization, at least as Genette has established, normally takes the preposition through. When we write of a narrator focalizing through a character, we clearly distinguish who sees from who speaks. Of course, the term focalization does not adequately address the problem in narratology of the visual metaphor, but even in this regard it out-performs both point of view and perspective.

Seymour Chatman, a film and literary critic and professor of rhetoric at the University of California in Berkeley, also mentions Genette in his work Characters and Narrators: Filter, Center, Slant, and Interest-Focus:

Genette has always seemed to mean more by focalization than the mere power of sight. He obviously refers to the whole spectrum of perception: hearing, tasting, smelling, and so on. What is not so clear is the extent to which he means it to refer to other mental activity, like cognition, and to functions other than mental.

Image via ShutterStock.com.

 

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Rose Scott

About Rose Scott

Rose Scott has written 1 posts in this blog.

Rose Scott is a private literature teacher, a freelance writer, and was an independent adviser at Unplag. A lifelong reader, Rose believes a good book helps to find the inspiration. You can reach her on LinkedIn.

12 thoughts on “Focalization: Smart Writers Never Ignore It

  1. Literary Dreamer says:

    Genette is a person worthy of the name. It was so hard to find his works on the web, thank you for this thorough interpretation!

  2. Shadeburst says:

    I wouldn’t call Holden Caulfield an unreliable narrator. Being a narcissist he simply puts his own favorable gloss on everything that happens and that tells you more about him than if he’d simply said it about himself.

    1. Cheryl says:

      But isn’t that exactly what makes him an unreliable narrator? In the text above,

      “However, characters can also just be unable to provide readers with objective information because they are naive, insane, unaware, or mistaken.”

      and surely narcissism put him firmly into this category.

  3. Managing the fine differences between not only point of view, but whose eyes see it makes a big difference in the reader’s experience. Well put, Rose. Thanks.

  4. BK says:

    Not to be rude, but I would point out that if you’re going to post blogs about writing you may want to check your work first; “in order not confuse it with another literary term”. I may be wrong, but that passage does not seem to be written correctly.

    Very interesting, I’m going to research this more. Thank you!
    BK

  5. Albert says:

    I am somewhat confused as to how Focalization differs from Point of View.

    1. Richenda says:

      I also would like to know the difference. It seems all these facets can be communicated through terminology related to POV.

  6. Patricia says:

    It took me a minute to grasp it as well, but here is my understanding…

    Point of View addresses whether you use: I or he/she

    Focalization addresses how much the narrator is aware of…
    the first column is – 1st person: inside his head (he is aware of all his thoughts, but no one else’s)
    the second column is – 3rd person: inside his head (an outside narrator who is still aware of all his thoughts, but no one else’s)
    the third column is – 3rd person:inside no one’s head (an outside narrator who knows nothing except what they specifically see or hear)
    and the fourth column is – 3rd person:inside everyone’s heads (an outside narrator with omniscient powers-they know all and see all! Nothing is secret or hidden from them.)

  7. Different “name tags,” same concepts. Volumes have been written about point-of-view–or perspective–in fiction. Many how-to books contain simpler terms than these and are not as complicated to understand. Writers must study viewpoint and master the various techniques. If not, their fiction will be a hodgepodge of disorganized thought and “head-hopping.”

    Interesting chart, though. Thanks for sharing, Rose.

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