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.
It’s a good idea to become familiar with the various point-of-view options before you set about creating your masterpiece.
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.
- 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!
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.
I mean it.
<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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 about “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.
Kaitlyn screamed and grabbed his boots, trying to pull him back down to the bed.
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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