What is Focalisation

Some say that focalization is the same thing as point of view. But I think it’s actually a bit more subtle than that.  

Third person limited is a really good perspective for explaining how focalisation works. Harry Potter is a classic example of third-person limited, where the world of witches and wizards is presented to us through Harry. But, we also see the other characters strictly from his perspective. This means that the audience is as ignorant about the true intentions of Snape, Dumbledore and many of the adult characters. 

The mysteries unfold in a way that’s intriguing because we only have Harry’s very limited point of view when it comes to the characters motivations and history. And the limitations of his perspective become clearer throughout the book series as we learn about the complicated past of the characters. Their pasts and reasoning don’t fit into his simple, straightforward view of people and morality in the first book.  

In contrast, third-person omniscient allows for exploration of many perspectives. The writer can look into the thoughts of any character, so the gaps in one characters knowledge and worldview, can be filled by another character. Little Women uses third-person omniscient, with Louisa May Alcott exploring the thoughts of the sisters, as well as others to tell the audience information the sisters aren’t privy to at the time. 

So, focalisation is more defined by the limitations of a character’s point of view, rather than just their point of view. 

First person can function in a similar way to third person limited, in that we have the perspective of a person, while getting through the plot that their perspective is flawed in some way. But in first person, we are even closer to the character’s thoughts. They’re the narrator, but in a plot where character complexities exist, they shouldn’t be an impartial one. In other words, they should be an unreliable narrator. 

The children’s book, Pagan’s Crusade by Catherine Jinks sees the crusades of Israel through the perspective of Pagan, a cynical, sixteen-year-old boy seeing war for the first. His reactions to the adults are meant to be humorous and rather sad in their naivety. The reader sees the war through the limited perspective of a teenage boy growing up in a hostile environment. And that’s the effect focalisation. 

Focalisation can easily be called point of view. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s what takes the story from an impartially told documentary, to a narrative exploring the flaws in the characters worldview. It allows for the progression of both character and themes. 

To me, focalisation is really just good characterisation. And good characterisation naturally fuels the themes as a result. 

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