This post is part of the Write With Me series. For more like this, check out the writing your novel page.
Selecting a point of view for our manuscripts is a critical step, one that is often overlooked when diving in to a first draft. In many cases, it’s easy to jump into the point of view that seems most natural to us as writers: the one which we read most or simply whichever felt best at the time.
Being deliberate with our POV selection is important, however, as it has possibly the greatest base-line effect on the presentation of our entire story. Our characters, the worlds in which they live, our readers’ experiences of both—all of it is viewed through the lens of POV.
So what points of view are available, and how do we pick one? Let’s tackle these topics one at a time.
The Points of View
There are four to choose from:
- First person
- Second person
- Third person limited
- Third person omniscient
Some will argue that there are only three of these—that the third person limited and third person omniscient are simply two aspects of one POV—but for the purposes of this post, let’s treat them as separate entities.
With each of these four in mind, let’s examine what defines them and explore their advantages and disadvantages.
These are narratives told from the perspective of “I.” That is to say, our main character refers to him- or herself in the first person through the narrative. Examples of books told in the first person include Room by Emma Donoghue and The Martian by Andy Weir. The latter does change POV at times, but more on that in a moment.
Advantages: If you’ve read either Room or The Martian, one of the things that likely stands out most from both titles is the strong voice of the main character. Since readers have the opportunity to experience the world (or Mars) as the main characters experience it, we have access to these characters’ hopes, fears, opinions and observations in the most direct way possible. This creates a tight sense of proximity between the reader and POV character, which indirectly strengthens a reader’s bond to the narrative itself.
It’s for these reasons that I ultimately chose to write XXX Accounting in the first person. After about 20,000 words of it written in the third person, it felt like even I as the writer couldn’t connect with the main character, something I knew was critical for the narrative I aimed to tell. With that in mind, I surged forward in the first person, which helped me get a much better feel of who Robin was as a person. I’m hoping this does the same for readers, too.
Disadvantages: The above advantages can quickly become disadvantages, however, in that stories written from the first person perspective often fail to employ dramatic irony. That is to say, there are no or few opportunities for readers to have access to information that the main character does not, which can be a storytelling asset if implemented properly. Furthermore, relying on the first person means that our readers had better love to love or love to hate being with that one character for the entire tale. If not, what I’ll call first-person fatigue might get to them, pushing them away from our character (and story!).
One way that The Martian gets around this fatigue (not that I tired of Watney’s POV in the first place), and also builds a sense of dramatic irony is by cutting away from Watney at times to be with the characters actively attempting to rescue him. In this way, the reader is privy to information that only the folks at NASA have, and also privy to information that only Watney has. The reader can then anticipate future tension points, which creates a more engrossing read.
Also, I should mention there is such a thing as a novel told from the first-person plural perspective, but the only example of this I can think of is Anthem by Ayn Rand. I have a strict “No Ayn Rand” policy around here though, so all I’ll say about the use of first-person plural (in this novel, especially) can be gimmicky and ham-fisted. Don’t be gimmicky and ham-fisted.
Note: Yes, I write in the first person plural at times on this blog, but I do it with the intent of serving a greater purpose—namely, that we’re all in this together.
Second-person narratives are the closet at the end of the hall labeled DO NOT ENTER. Most people see the sign and move along, but once in a while some folks, well, they just have to see what’s behind that door.
Stories told in the second person use “you” to relay the events of the story as though they were happening to the reader directly. One popular manifestation of this are those choose-your-own-adventure books, the kind of thing R.L. Stine put to use in the Give Yourself Goosebumps stories however many years ago.
Advantages: Things are up close and personal in the second person. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified as I read the Give Yourself Goosebumps series as a kid, as I had no choice but to imagine myself in every scene. I was the one walking around that haunted theme park. I was the one that had to deal with the dummy that came to life… or whatever it was. My memory for the actual events is hazy, but my palms still sweat at the memory of how I felt reading them.
Disadvantages: Writing “you” all the time gets old fast. So does reading it. It’s easy for it to begin to read abrasively as time goes on as well. Characterization is also difficult to pull off, because what if we tell a reader something like “You’ve always loved Almond Joys, ever since your Grandma gave one to you on your fifth birthday,” and our reader hates Almond Joys and had no surviving grandparents when they were five years old? Suspension of disbelief exists, of course, but when writing in the second person a writer runs the risk of alienating the reader in a more direct way. And in second person narratives, if we lose your reader, we lose our main character!
Third Person Limited
Third-person limited is where I butter my bread… or something. Or at least that was the case for EMPATHY, anyway. I love using it for reasons I’ll discuss in the advantages below, but first I should probably establish what it is.
Third person employs third-person pronouns, and third-person limited means that readers only have access to the thoughts and feelings of one given character at a time. That is to say, readers experience the world from the perspective of the chosen character, without being in so deep as to experience it as first person.
Advantages: An example of the third-person limited being put to fantastic use is in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Every chapter is told from a single, limited perspective, which opens open myriad opportunities for a balance of mystery, suspense, and dramatic irony in every chapter. In fact, the structure for ASOIAF inspired my approach for EMPATHY: Imminent Dawn.
Disadvantages: None. There are none.
No, that’s not true. One of the disadvantages of third-person limited is that it’s easy to create too much distance between the reader and your characters. It can also be a challenge to remain in one character’s perspective throughout the duration of the paragraph/chapter/novel. As the author, we might know how other characters are feeling, but if we’re writing from a limited perspective, we can’t telegraph all this information to readers directly. We can, however, convey it through the lens of the character whose POV we’ve decided to employ. For more on this, check out part two in these posts on point of view.
Third Person Omniscient
This is written using the same sets of pronouns as third person limited, but the primary difference is that readers, via the narrator, have access to the thoughts, motives, and feelings of any character based on the narrator’s focus at any given point in time.
Advantages: Readers know everything! They know if character A is plotting to betray character B, if character B sees it coming, and whether character C is aware and able to save the day at the last minute. Readers know when characters are lying or purposely withholding information, and they even know of secrets kept tight to the chest, secrets that could change everything if the character that kept them would just share them with the world!
Disadvantages: For all of the above reasons, third person omniscient also has disadvantageous angles. If readers expect to have access to all information all of the time, it’s hard to throw unexpected twists in there without a reader saying “Hey, narrator, you didn’t tell me that!” This can disrupt the narrative dream (especially if the narrator isn’t a character her- or himself), and be off-putting. If an allegedly omniscient narrator betrays the reader’s trust even once, how can they trust him or her going forward?
I am admittedly no expert on the omniscient point of view, mostly because of personal preference, I suspect. I feel omniscience doesn’t leave room for the same degrees of nuance that the other POVs do, especially first person and third person limited.
Having now explored each of the POVs, how do you choose one that works best for your story? Or, if you’ve already written your story, how do you ensure you made the write choice?
Choosing a Point of View
Realistically, the best way to choose a point of view is to do a series of evaluations as they relate to the story we’re trying to tell and the relationships we want our readers to have with our characters. For the below, for example, you could rate each prompt on a scale of one (strongly disagree) to five (strongly agree).
- I want readers to have an in-body relationship with my main character.
- Readers should have the closest relationship with one and exactly one character in particular.
- I want readers to see, smell, taste, hear, and touch the story’s world as closely as possible.
- It’s okay if readers don’t have access to all the facts all of the time.
- When reading characters’ thoughts, it’s important that readers access them in the voice of the person thinking them.
If your answers tend to fall closer to five, you’ll more than likely want to roll with a first-person POV. As described above, first person is the most intimate of points of view, which will let readers be up close and personal with both your chosen character and the world as he or she experiences it.
If you had more ones and twos in your responses to the above (or even if you had a number of neutral threes), then third person is probably for you. Choosing between omniscient or limited essentially then comes down to a couple of other questions.
- How often will you need to jump between different characters’ viewpoints?
- Do you want readers to have access to all information all of the time, or do you want to be able to hide some information from them?
Answers of “often” or “a lot” or “a veritable shitton” to the first question above means that omniscience is likely your thing (only literary omniscience, not the real thing. Sorry.). If you’re cool hanging with a single character’s POV for an entire chapter or first third of a book or an entire book in a series, then limited might be for you.
What we’re really doing in answering the second question is juxtaposing our story’s need for mystery and suspense against its need for dramatic irony. Those topics could warrant a blog post in and of themselves, though, so perhaps for now we can repackage the question as:
- Do you want your readers to discover things as your POV characters discover them? If so, then limited is the way to go.
- Is it better for your story if readers have access to information that your characters don’t? If so, then an omniscient POV is your date for the big dance. Or something.
Like I mentioned at the top of this post, POV is something I feel many of us take for granted as both writers and readers. Not only that, but it can get convoluted all sorts of fast, which is why I divided this topic into two separate posts.
In this follow-up, we cover how to ensure we remain consistent when writing in our choice POV, and also learn how to evaluate whether we’ve maximized our choice’s effectiveness.