Point of View – The Basics

Nat Russo Basics, How-To, Point of View, Writing 31 Comments

Choosing the right point of view (PoV) for your story is the most important—and sometimes the most challenging—decision you will make before you begin the writing process. It isn’t a decision to take lightly. Through your story’s point of view, your reader will experience your world, your story, your characters, and your very purpose for writing the story to begin with.

Point-of-View

 

It’s a good idea to become familiar with the various point-of-view options before you set about creating your masterpiece.

First Person

First person point of view places the reader squarely in the head of a single character. There’s no escape. Anytime you’ve read “I went here,” or “I did this,” etc, you’ve read first person point of view.

This point of view shows up frequently in mysteries and thrillers, because it allows the writer to keep the narrator in the dark (among other things), which increases overall tension.

Challenges

  • There’s no getting away from your narrator. Your narrative character has to be on stage all of the time. No exceptions!
  • It’s more difficult to write a scene from someone else’s point of view. Well, sure, you can do whatever you like. You’re the writer. But you’re very likely to confuse the reader by doing this. And, you’d be violating one of the purposes of choosing 1st Person PoV to begin with, which is to get as intimately acquainted with one character as is possible.
  • Your narrative character had better be a living, breathing person to you. When you choose 1st person over another point of view, you’re aiming for depth rather than breadth. You’re going to go deep into a single character and allow the reader to really get to know them. Your reader will never get to know your character if you don’t know your character. This point of view is all about attitude!

Advantages

There are numerous advantages, but chief among them are the following:

  • You can really narrow the focus and achieve a near-claustrophobic view of events. This can serve to increase overall tension and drama.
  • You can explore (in fact you must explore) your narrative character deeply.
  • You can experiment with the craft by making your narrator intrinsically unreliable, which can be used to great effect.

Second Person

Just…don’t.

I mean it.

Don’t.

Grumpy Cat Warning

Don’t piss off grumpy cat.

<sigh> I can sense you’re not satisfied with this answer. Ok. I owe it to you all to dig a little deeper, so deeper we will go.

Second Person point of view involves a liberal use of the word “you”. You’re speaking directly to the reader, breaking the 4th wall, as if your reader is the narrative character. Here’s an example:

“You walk to the corner and see the pub. You cross the street, ignoring the DON’T WALK sign. You smile as you flick your lit cigarette into the street. You’d continue the story, but there’s no point. Your readers have already stabbed themselves in the eye with a rusty, ebola-laced spoon.”

Here’s the thing. I very rarely try to discourage a writer from experimenting. But unless you’re an absolute, unequivocal master of the craft, you are going to screw this up royally. You are far more likely to alienate your readers than you are to succeed. When this point of view works, it can come across like sheer genius. In all other cases it does nothing more than draw attention to itself. It’s difficult to read, and your chance of coming across like a pretentious idiot who thinks they’re clever are very high.

And why piss off grumpy cat if you don’t have to. That guy’s nasty on a good day!

[In fairness, I know I’ve upset some of you with this take on it. That’s not my intention. Never let someone else tell you what you shouldn’t do as a writer. Just please understand the pitfalls so that you have no surprises. If you really believe your story needs Second Person perspective, then by all means write it. It’s going to be hard to get right, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. I’m a scaredy-cat, so I avoid it. I also avoid it because I’ve never read a book that successfully pulled it off. It draws me out of the story, and I don’t like that.]

Third Person Omniscient

This point of view was quite popular at one time, but has lately fallen out of favor. I’m not suggesting you should avoid it! It has it’s place, and it’s still worth looking into, as it can solve some common problems in your narrative. Let’s take a look at a [hacked-together] example:

Jack and Jill ran away from the hill when Jack saw the nasty crown thumper poking its head out of the well. He didn’t want to mess with that thing. Jill couldn’t blame him. She’d come to hate those evil creatures as well.

The crown thumper climbed back into the well. I’ll break your crown another day, Jack.

Notice how we start the section with Jack as the PoV character. Just as we’re settling into his “head space”, we dip into Jill’s mind to learn that she doesn’t blame him for running away. After Jack and Jill are safely off stage, we’re treated to a peak inside the crown thumper, where we become privy to his evil plan to break Jack’s crown.

Challenges

  • This is the farthest distance you can take your reader away from your characters, PoV-wise. It can be difficult to build a connection to your reader when they’re uncertain who they’re following (a risk inherent to botching this PoV selection).
  • The real trick (and art) is knowing what to reveal when. When you have access to all of your characters’ thoughts, and you can see around every corner, you no longer have a convenient tool with which to hide certain bits of information.
  • This PoV can be very confusing to the reader when it’s not handled well.

Advantages

  • You are quite literally unlimited in what you can reveal to the reader at any point in time. It is completely up to you when to “dip into” another character’s head, or show action/details that the main character couldn’t possibly be aware of. Just remember: with great power comes great responsibility.

Third Person Limited

This tends to be my “go to” PoV. That doesn’t make it better than the other PoVs. I’m just more comfortable here.

In Third Person Limited, you select a single PoV character per chapter/section, and stay tight on that PoV. You allow the reader to become intimately acquainted with one character, and not-so-acquainted with the others…at least not to the point of reading their thoughts and knowing their emotions (directly). However, you can change PoVs on a section or chapter break, allowing the reader to experience your world through another person’s perspective. There are some great opportunities for dramatic irony with this!

A lot of contemporary Fantasy is written from this perspective, most popular of which would be Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin, in which each chapter is written from a different character’s point of view.

Take a look at Chapter 1 of Necromancer Awakening for an example of 3rd Person Limited PoV. It won’t take very long to get the gist of it. Everything you see is from Nicolas’s perspective. You experience his emotions directly. You can even read his mind. Later in the chapter, when Kaitlyn comes on stage for the first time, you see that we never break away from Nicolas’s point of view. We’re tightly focused on him. We haven’t the foggiest idea what Kaitlyn thinks about all of this. Not really. All we can see are her reactions. Nicolas, on the other hand, is an open book. We experience his sadness, his love, his frustration, and even his insanity.

Challenges

  • PoV breaks are often subtle. A new writer may not be able to recognize these. In fact, a new writer may not even realize he/she is doing it!
  • You walk a fine line between pure narrative voice and character attitude. It can be tricky to find the proper balance.

Advantages

  • I mentioned earlier that this PoV is particularly good at setting up dramatic irony, particularly when the irony is character-driven. You accomplish this through the use of multiple PoVs, which you switch to/from at a section/chapter break. It’s fertile soil for characterization when in one scene you see how a character reacts to another, but in another scene (written from this other character’s PoV) you experience the truth of what they really think/feel about that other character. And the two may be quite different!
  • You strike a happy middle ground between pure intimacy and tunnel vision (First Person) and layer upon layer of filter coming between the character and the reader (Third Person Omniscient).

A quick word on PoV breaks

You heard me talk aobut “PoV breaks” and how subtle they are. But what are they? Here’s an example. I’m going to take some text from Chapter 1 of Necromancer Awakening and change it up a bit to inject a subtle defect. See if you can spot it before I reveal it. Keep in mind that this passage is written from Nicolas’s point of view:

The vortex of light filled him with a sense of belonging, as if his world would be complete if he stepped inside. But he refused. If it wanted him that much, it would have to take him.
 
The hand of energy lifted Nicolas several feet off the bed, as if in response to his thoughts.
 
Kaitlyn screamed and grabbed his boots, determined to pull him back down to the bed.
I’ll give you a hint: the problem is in the last sentence. Here’s how it reads in the published version:
Kaitlyn screamed and grabbed his boots, trying to pull him back down to the bed.
I told you PoV breaks could be subtle. A single word makes all the difference in the world. An objective observer can tell when someone is trying to do something. But an objective observer can never know with certainty that another person is determined to do something, unless that person tells them they are determined.
 
A single word took us from a well-preserved PoV into a PoV break.
 

Making the Decision

I know what you’re thinking. So, Mr. Smarty Pants Knowitall, how do I know which PoV to use? And how do I choose the PoV character? And Necromancer Awakening sucks, so stop quoting it. Bestseller my ass!

Jeez, mom, gosh! I told you not around my friends!

Ok. I think she’s gone.

Selecting the overall perspective (not the specific character) has a lot to do with what you’re comfortable with. Look, a lot of this is trial and error at first. Hell, a lot of it is trial and error after you’ve been doing it for a while! Pick one you’re comfortable with and go. If the story would be better suited for another PoV, you’ll know…because until you select it, it won’t work very well. So try. Try anything. Just write. If you’re unsure, share your work with someone else who knows a thing or two about creative writing. More often than not, they’ll steer you in the right direction. 

Now, when it comes to selecting the specific PoV character, I’ve always thought it’s relatively simple: under most circumstances, choose the character who has the most to lose. That’s where your drama will be.

Above all else, just write. The rest will sort itself out eventually. Every story you write will teach you something about the craft, and those lessons are invaluable.

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing/gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 31

  1. Nicely put, a great basic guide to the choice. Especially that one-word example of what to watch out for– I see that so often.

    Of course, the juiciest part is the 2nd Person, just the thing for people who wonder why we count “1, 3…”

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  2. About the only time I’ve seen second person used well is in the old Infocom-style interactive fiction games. In that case, since the user is playing the role of a character in the story, it’s sort of necessary. And then you have the “Choose your Own Adventure” books — same general concept. But traditional fiction? That would be hard. The biggest danger, in my mind, is that you’re essentially telling the reader what he’s thinking, feeling, or doing. It would be exceedingly difficult to do that without making the reader feel manipulated, henpecked, nagged, or otherwise told what to do. I can sort of imagine how it might work, but I don’t think I’d ever dare attempt it.

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      Those are exactly my reservations, Brandon. Like you, I can imagine how it might work if done well. I just think it would be exceedingly difficult to pull off. I wouldn’t even attempt it until I had absolutely mastered the craft.

  3. Thanks for putting it together in such a concise and accessible way!

    In Pearseus, I use a variation on the third Person; every chapter is from the point of view of each character. So, you start from the point of view of David, then move on to Croix etc. In each chapter, we learn we only share that character’s experience, but – and here is the trick – I never change PoV without changing the chapter, too. Having a plethora of characters, I find this technique makes it easier on the reader.

    A side-effect is that most chapters end up being pretty short. This gives the book a staccato rhythm I find appealing, and allows me to build up tension.

    What’s particularly interesting is how my choice of PoV ended up influencing my pacing, thus proving that a book cannot be broken down to individual parts (pacing, writing etc), but can only be conceived as a multi-faceted unit.

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      So true, Nicholas!

      I had a conversation with an aspiring writer a while ago. She was having pacing issues and so asked how I “plan” or “outline” pacing.

      When I told her that pacing wasn’t something I paid explicit attention to until I was actually reading through a 1st draft, I could see a light bulb go on over her head 🙂

  4. Pingback: Finding your Voice: the Whole Works | Nicholas C. Rossis

  5. Loved the post Nat! I think third person is my preference but, for whatever reason, tend to revert to first person for short stories. I think its due to the low amount of characters in a short story, and the sense of immediacy first person offers, it can be great for that medium. Not to say others don’t work equally as well, though.

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  6. Pingback: Nat Russo: Author, Blogger and Dowright Friendly

  7. I’m with you – third person limited is my happy place. It’s especially useful in creating dramatic irony, which I LOVE.
    I’m in an online writing critique group, and I often see POV slips because like you said, they can easily go undetected. For some reason, even subtle slips jump out at me. I’d like to add a link to this post to critiques if the writer is really struggling with POV.
    I laughed at your second person description. 🙂

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      Haha! Thanks, Allison. 🙂

      And thank you for sharing the link! This is a subject near to my heart because I struggled with it for some time as a new writer. Fortunately, I had a wonderful beta reader who took the time to explain where I had gone wrong, and I learned some invaluable lessons.

    2. Hi Nat,

      I also struggled with POV’s. However, I am happiest in 3rd person unlimited. It’s a bit more difficult as I have to go back and make sure there is only one POV. Yet, with suspense/mystery writing, I find it necessary. Good subject. Thanks, Gippy

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  8. Great post. I did not really think abou this when I started writing my novel. I just did limited 3rd person. Didn’t stop. It works well for me especially since I have many characters. Head hopping isn’t a problem because I love method writing.( my own made up term reffering to method acting.)

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  9. Nat,
    I love your blog and your tweets!
    I’ve made the decision to participate in #NaNoWriMo this year, and woke up last night in a total panic, second-guessing myself on the POV choice I thought I had already made for my story.
    By sunrise, I was ready to toss the story, delete my twitter account (@CristolKlear) and disappear in shame and failure.
    I’ve just re-read your blogs about POV, and have decided, as I initially intended, to go with 3rd person Limited, which is the way I naturally write.
    Thank you for helping a struggling writer make a most important decision this morning.
    You are the best!
    Scarlett

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  10. Pingback: POV: How Your Readers Experience Your Story World – So Yeah, It Matters | Allison Maruska

  11. You are right about addressing you the reader. It’s doomed, unless you’re writing a how-to book! However, there is another type of narrative that uses “you” — first person/second person address POV. Two excellent examples are ” Bright Lights, Big City” by Jay McInerney and “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson. The narrator isn’t addressing you the reader, but rather a specific you (technically, McInerney’s narrator is addressing a split self). Used this way, it creates an intimate and compelling narrative. If I may, I’d like to share a blog post I wrote on this subject. http://lindaksienkiewicz.com/2014/04/21/second-person-narratives-you-in-fiction/

    My novel, due in July 2015, is a love story that uses this type of narrative.

    See you on Twitter! Thanks for all your write tips!

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  12. Well, I use third person omnis-whatever a great deal. I didn’t even know it had a name! Glad to hear my writing style is not in line with current trends, but I get far more good reviews than bad so I’m not too fussed! I’m sure Dostoyevsky and Kerouac (and Douglas Kennedy and Jackie Collins) really sweat about what’s the current thing people are complaining about in reviews – not!!!! I think one of the best bits of advice a writer can have is to stop worrying about what people say is right and wrong – if it works, it works. Reviewing goes in trends too – two years ago everyone was moaning about exposition, then it was ‘telling not showing’, now it’s – oh, I don’t know, except that suddenly everyone is writing ‘flawed characters.’ !!

    I can see you know what you’re talking about and work hard to produce informative articles to help others, Nat. That’s really commendable, and it’s great that so many people are benefiting from what you’ve learned.

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      Doh! My long reply was eaten by the ether! Thanks for stopping by, Terry.

      Much of what we do is subjective, and one person’s “this was phenomenal” is another person’s “that was garbage!” As in all aspects of the craft, whichever PoV a writer selects, They’d best do it well. 🙂 There’s no such thing as a “bad” PoV or part of speech. And there’s a time and place for telling, passive voice, sentence fragments, adverbs, and dialect-heavy dialogue.

      That’s why it’s important to surround yourself with trusted readers…readers who are critical and aren’t afraid of telling you the truth. Collectively, they’re almost never wrong. When I send a work out to 10 trusted beta readers, if two or more people identify the same problem, then it’s a problem (in my opinion).

      You’re right about reviewing. I know many professional writers who live by the rule “never read your reviews.”

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  14. I stumbled across this because of those auto-tweets you mentioned. As a writer, my primary voice tends to head towards Third Person Limited. When I was younger, it was mostly Third Person Omniscient. I’ve ascertained that it’s because my choice of characters, and my muses have changed. For example, I currently write stories that function best using either the main character’s perspective, or his/her partner’s perspective. To accommodate the loss of having the omniscient voice, I use insets/interludes to provide important information that I want my audience to know, but not necessarily my characters. Doing so has allowed me to round out emotional moments, and make supposedly cruel/villainous characters more relatable. None of this would have happened, had I not stumbled upon fanfiction. The very nature of fanfiction, often dictates that we have multiple character perspectives, especially if the original work of fiction comes from visual media. It’s allowed for useful exercises in understanding the basic nature of all the characters you’re required to write for, and deciding what perspective to settle for.

    I can’t say I don’t miss Third Person Omniscient, though. It was the perspective I read the most when I was younger, and that voice influenced a great deal of my writing as I aged to my not-so old or young 20 year old self. Choosing the perspective simply comes back to what effect you want your story to leave, and whether or not your character dictates you tell it with an “I”, “You”, “They” or “She”. My ramblings aside, thank you for highlighting the “case of the subtle perspective shift.” It can be jarring, and utterly distracting as a reader. Often, I’ve found myself saying things like, “This is Jo’s perspective! How the bats’ wings do we know Bot felt hurt? Just show us his eyes flashing, or a sudden blink, and turn of the head, or something! Urgh.”

    Thank you for your insights! Your blog has been very helpful in narrowing down the “do’s”, and “don’t’s” of writing.

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  16. Personally, I prefer 3rd limited, but use 1st for about half of my shorts. And even with 3rd, I like to treat each POV as it’s own 1st–only showing the reader what that POV character can see or feel at that point in time in that section. If I need a shift for the sake of the story, I’ll write a new scene, sometimes with another–distantly related–scene in between.

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      I’m with you on that one, Clancy. I prefer 3rd person limited as well.

      I recently picked up a book that was written in 3rd person omniscient, and it was a difficult read. 🙂

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