How often do you consider the point of view in your writing? In my case, hardly ever. Maybe that’s because I instinctively write in one particular point of view or maybe it’s because I just do not understand the subject very well. It’s probably a little of both, to be honest. So, while I was doing my research for this post, my eyes were opened to a whole new world and aspect of creative writing. The point of view you choose for your story can have a dramatic effect on how the story plays out, is understood by the reader, and how you plot and plan.
As you can see, the point of view affects many aspects of your writing. Within the following articles, you will find the basic yet most essential facets of the point of view and how its usage can transform your work. There is also a short video on the point of view concerning how to utilize it and how to understand the different types. I hope you enjoy and use what you learn to sell more books😉
Why Point of View is So Important for Novel Writers
By: Joseph Bates
The narrator’s relationship to the story is determined by point of view. Each viewpoint allows certain freedoms in narration while limiting or denying others. Your goal in selecting a point of view is not simply finding a way to convey information, but telling it the right way—making the world you create understandable and believable.
The following is a brief rundown of the three most common POVs and the advantages and disadvantages of each.
This POV reveals an individual’s experience directly through the narration. A single character tells a personal story, and the information is limited to the first-person narrator’s direct experience (what she sees, hears, does, feels, says, etc.). First person gives readers a sense of immediacy regarding the character’s experiences, as well as a sense of intimacy and connection with the character’s mindset, emotional state and subjective reading of the events described.
Consider the closeness the reader feels to the character, action, physical setting and emotion in the first paragraph of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, via protagonist Katniss’ first-person narration:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
Pros: The first-person POV can make for an intimate and effective narrative voice—almost as if the narrator is speaking directly to the reader, sharing something private. This is a good choice for a novel that is primarily character-driven, in which the individual’s personal state of mind and development are the main interests of the book.
Cons: Because the POV is limited to the narrator’s knowledge and experiences, any events that take place outside the narrator’s observation have to come to her attention in order to be used in the story. A novel with a large cast of characters might be difficult to manage from a first-person viewpoint.
Third-person limited spends the entirety of the story in only one character’s perspective, sometimes looking over that character’s shoulder, and other times entering the character’s mind, filtering the events through his perception. Thus, third-person limited has some of the closeness of first person, letting us know a particular character’s thoughts, feelings and attitudes on the events being narrated. This POV also has the ability to pull back from the character to offer a wider perspective or view not bound by the protagonist’s opinions or biases: It can call out and reveal those biases (in often subtle ways) and show the reader a clearer understanding of the character than the character himself would allow.
Saul Bellow’s Herzog exemplifies the balance in third-person limited between closeness to a character’s mind and the ability of the narrator to maintain a level of removal. The novel’s protagonist, Moses Herzog, has fallen on hard times personally and professionally, and has perhaps begun to lose his grip on reality, as the novel’s famous opening line tells us. Using third-person limited allows Bellow to clearly convey Herzog’s state of mind and make us feel close to him, while employing narrative distance to give us perspective on the character.
If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.
Some people thought he was cracked and for a time he himself had doubted that he was all there. But now, though he still behaved oddly, he felt confident, cheerful, clairvoyant and strong. He had fallen under a spell and was writing letters to everyone under the sun. … [H]e wrote endlessly, fanatically, to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead.
Pros: This POV offers the closeness of first person while maintaining the distance and authority of third, and allows the author to explore a character’s perceptions while providing perspective on the character or events that the character himself doesn’t have. It also allows the author to tell an individual’s story closely without being bound to that person’s voice and its limitations.
Cons: Because all of the events narrated are filtered through a single character’s perceptions, only what that character experiences directly or indirectly can be used in the story (as is the case with first-person singular).
Similar to third-person limited, the third-person omniscient employs the pronouns he or she, but it is further characterized by its godlike abilities. This POV is able to go into any character’s perspective or consciousness and reveal her thoughts; able to go to any time, place or setting; privy to information the characters themselves don’t have; and able to comment on events that have happened, are happening or will happen. The third-person omniscient voice is really a narrating personality unto itself, a disembodied character in its own right—though the degree to which the narrator wants to be seen as a distinct personality, or wants to seem objective or impartial (and thus somewhat invisible as a separate personality), is up to your particular needs and style.
The third-person omniscient is a popular choice for novelists who have big casts and complex plots, as it allows the author to move about in time, space and character as needed. But it carries an important caveat: Too much freedom can lead to a lack of focus if the narrative spends too many brief moments in too many characters’ heads and never allows readers to ground themselves in any one particular experience, perspective or arc.
The novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke uses an omniscient narrator to manage a large cast. Here you’ll note some hallmarks of omniscient narration, notably a wide view of a particular time and place, freed from the restraints of one character’s perspective. It certainly evidences a strong aspect of storytelling voice, the “narrating personality” of third omniscient that acts almost as another character in the book (and will help maintain book cohesion across a number of characters and events):
Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.
Pros: You have the storytelling powers of a god. You’re able to go anywhere and dip into anyone’s consciousness. This is particularly useful for novels with large casts, and/or with events or characters spread out over, and separated by, time or space. A narrative personality emerges from third-person omniscience, becoming a character in its own right through the ability to offer information and perspective not available to the main characters of the book.
Cons: Jumping from consciousness to consciousness can fatigue a reader with continuous shifting in focus and perspective. Remember to center each scene on a particular character and question, and consider how the personality that comes through the third-person omniscient narrative voice helps unify the disparate action.
Oftentimes we don’t really choose a POV for our project; our project chooses a POV for us. A sprawling epic, for example, would not call for a first-person singular POV, with your main character constantly wondering what everyone back on Darvon-5 is doing. A whodunit wouldn’t warrant an omniscient narrator who jumps into the butler’s head in Chapter 1 and has him think, I dunnit.
Often, stories tell us how they should be told—and once you find the right POV for yours, you’ll likely realize the story couldn’t have been told any other way.
Budding writers often ask me:
“How do I master Point of View?”
The inability to grasp this concept is the most common problem I see in aspiring novelists.
Veteran editor Dave Lambert says, “No decision you make will impact the shape and texture of your story more than your choice of Point of View.”
So let’s straighten it out, shall we?
After you read this post, you’ll know the crucial POV rules and techniques professional writers use (and publishers look for)—and how to apply them to your story.
Need help fine-tuning your writing? Click here to download my free self-editing checklist.
What is Point of View?
Things to understand about Point of View before we break it down:
- Point of View is really two things:
- The Voice with which you tell your story.
Not to be confused with the tone or sound of your writing (think of that Voice as your writing attitude), this is your choice to tell it in First Person (I), Second Person (you), or Third Person (he, she, or it).
- Your Perspective Character.
Basically, that answers “Whose story is this?”
- The cardinal rule of Point of View:
Limit yourself to one Perspective Character per scene, preferably per chapter, ideally per book.
That means no switching POV characters within the same scene, let alone within the same paragraph or sentence.
(Yes, that’s a common amateur mistake, and it results in head-hopping—a giant Point of View no-no I cover in more detail below.)
Point of View is worth stressing over, it’s that important.
Even pros have to remind themselves to avoid sliding into an Omniscient viewpoint.
I avoid that by imagining my Point of View or Perspective Character as my camera—I’m limited to writing only what my character “camera” sees, hears, and knows.
In essence, I’m limited to his or her perspective.
Breaking Down the Point of View Voices
While POV is limited to one perspective character at a time, each of the three primary voices may be written in the present or past tense.
First Person Point of View
In this POV, the perspective character tells the story.
First Person is the second most common voice in fiction, but I recommend it for many beginning novelists, because it forces you to limit your viewpoint to one Perspective Character—which you should do with all POVs except Omniscient.
My first 13 novels (The Margo Mysteries) were written in first-person past tense.
First Person Examples
The most common use of first-person is past tense.
Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick begins in present tense but immediately switches to past:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago, never mind how long precisely, having little or no money in my purse and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.
While I recommend first-person, I think you’d find present tense awkward and difficult to sustain.
On the other hand, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is rendered that way and has become one of the most successful novel series ever.
If you have colossal writing talent and an idea as cosmic as hers, feel free to ignore my counsel and go for it. ???? Here’s how hers begins:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of reaping.
Second Person Point of View
This point of view uses “you, your” construction, and the narrator makes “you,” the reader, become the protagonist.
Though rare in fiction and far more popular in non-fiction, it’s been said that because it plunges the reader into the action of the story, second person can bring a sense of immediacy to a novel.
I wouldn’t dare attempt it and don’t recommend it.
Second Person Examples
Jay McInerney used second-person present tense in Bright Lights, Big City this way:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head.
You can see how this method forces the reader, in essence, to become a character and how difficult that might be for the writer to sustain for 300 or 400 pages.
Third Person Point of View
Finally, we’ve come to the most commonly used point of view in storytelling— third-person.
Third Person Limited
When written in third-person limited, the story is about he or she/him or her, or the character is mentioned by name.
As with all other POVs besides Omniscient, the writer is limited to one perspective character—your camera.
Everything you write must be seen through that camera: your perspective character’s eyes, ears, and mind.
Third Person Omniscient
Here the story is still about he or she, but the narrator writes from the all-knowing, all-seeing perspective and is not even limited by time.
Because so many of us were raised on the classics with their Omniscient author/narrator, it seems ingrained in us to want to know and tell all about every character onstage and off.
We even want to tell unseen things and things yet unseen. Such miraculous foretellings were often worded like: “Little did our hero know that 20 miles away, what would happen to him the next day was already being planned.”
Writing from that perspective might sound like an advantage, but fiction from an Omniscient viewpoint rarely succeeds in the traditional or indie markets today.
In non-fiction, the Omniscient narrator is common and makes sense, because you’re an expert trying to teach or persuade, and so you adopt a posture of knowing everything and telling everything.
Third Person Examples
Because many readers find third-person present tense weird, you won’t find it in many novels.
It would sound something like this:
Fritz skips out to the garage, fishing in his pocket for his keys. He slips behind the wheel and starts the car.
You can imagine how distracting that would be to the reader if maintained throughout.
By far, the most common choice for modern fiction is third-person past tense.
My perspective character at the start of Left Behind is an airline pilot.
I write it in third-person limited, past tense:
Rayford Steele’s mind was on a woman he had never touched. With his fully loaded 747 on autopilot above the Atlantic en route to a 6 a.m. landing at Heathrow, Rayford had pushed from his mind thoughts of his family.
As I mentioned above, the cardinal rule of POV is to limit yourself to one perspective character per scene, preferably per chapter, ideally per book.
If you’re J.K. Rowling, however, whose bestselling Harry Potter series gloriously breaks this rule, you have my wholehearted permission to ignore this advice.
Head-hopping is the problem.
Here’s an example of what it would have looked like, had I forgotten to limit myself to a single camera (Rayford) as the Perspective Character in Left Behind:
Rayford Steele’s mind was on a woman he had never touched. Meanwhile, his co-pilot was wondering what Rayford was thinking as he gazed out the cockpit window.
See how I slipped out of Rayford’s perspective and into the copilot’s from one sentence to the next?
That’s head hopping—hopping in and out of various characters’ heads.
That takes me from Third Person Limited to Omniscient. And Omniscient narrators are decades out of fashion.
The Secret to Using Multiple Points of View in the Same Story
In the Left Behind novel series (Tyndale House Publishers), I alternated between as many as five perspective characters per book, but never within the same scene. And I made it crystal clear every time I switched.
I would add an extra space between paragraphs, insert what’s called a typographical dingbat—like this: ###—and fully introduce the new POV character:
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Buck Williams sat hunched over his laptop…
In my novel The Valley of the Dry Bones (Worthy Publishing), I employ a single Perspective Character for the entire book.
Employing The Most Popular Point of View
If you’re a beginning writer, you might assume you must write in the first person, your Perspective Character referring to himself or herself as I.
But third-person limited is the most common choice for contemporary fiction.
Following is an example of how to effectively employ that voice.
A writer asked how he could better describe his character to portray her legalism and self-righteousness.
You can see how this would be easy if written in first person from her standpoint.
But how do we do it in third person limited?
Mother Clotilde sat at an ornate desk absentmindedly fingering a string of beads encircling her waist as she leafed through a thick leather-bound Bible. She looked like something unearthed at a dig.
Did you catch the POV violation?
Mother Clotilde is the perspective character, but because she’s alone, we can’t really say she “looked like something unearthed at a dig.”
Another character could say that or think that, if we were in that character’s POV. Needless to say, Mother Clotilde would not describe herself that way.
Which POV Will You Choose?
Choose wisely, because the decision could make the difference between your manuscript landing a contract or being rejected.
Our job as novelists is to pull our readers so deeply into our story that they even forget they’re turning the pages.
Your Point of View choices can make that happen.