A writer’s guide to point of view
We all have our preferences for what point of view (PoV) we like to write and read. The important thing to get straight right now is that no point of view is bad. People can have their opinions, but there is no superior PoV.
The key to writing good PoV is choice, consistency and clarity. Decide which perspective works for your story, stick with it, and do it clearly.
Each point of view has its rules, and while some rules are made to be broken you have to at least know them first. Besides, you shouldn’t really be breaking the rules without good reason. Readers expect certain things from, say, a first-person narrative so if you subvert it too much without a purpose you risk losing them.
So, without further ado, here is my quick and easy guide to choosing the right point of view for your novel.
With first person point of view, the reader is inside the main character’s head. They only know and see what the character knows and sees.
High intimacy. The reader gets to feel close to the character as they experience the story with them.
Strong voice. When you’re writing from the character’s PoV, you can create a stronger sense of voice.
Freedom to play. When the reader only gets to see the world from the MC’s perspective, it’s much easier to play tricks and create an unreliable narrator.
Claustrophobic. In first person, the reader is stuck with this character for the duration. If they don’t like them, it can get uncomfortable very quickly.
Plotting. The character has to be present at every key plot moment for the reader to see what happens. This can lead to some awkward forced narratives.
Limited world view. You have to describe your world from the main character’s point of view, which can limit your options somewhat depending on the character
Second person point of view is good for short stories but it can be a little intense for a full-length novel. Some have done it well, but it’s a very acquired taste.
Extreme intimacy. Second person goes one step further than first and puts the reader in the story. In the right narrative, this can be brilliant and evocative.
Reader autonomy. This PoV works great for choose-your-own-adventure books as it gives the reader freedom to pick their own narrative (to a degree).
Very difficult. Second person is hard to pull off and it takes exactly the right story to be successful.
Too intimate. We looked at extreme intimacy as a pro but it can also work against this PoV. If the reader can’t relate to the scene being described it will pull them right out of the story.
There are a couple of different ways to work with third person and to understand them it helps to consider the narrator as a separate character – it's not the author telling the story, it's the narrator.
Third-person omniscient is when the narrator knows everything about everyone, and can move in and out of every character's head. Third-person limited/close is when the narrator sticks to looking over one character's shoulder at a time. Third-person objective is when the narrator is more neutral and distanced, without the ability to relay a character's thoughts beyond what we can interpret from their actions and dialogue.
Low intimacy. This can be a pro if you want to keep the reader more detached from the main character, or if you want to explore parts of the plot that don’t involve them.
More choice. With third person, you get more choice over who your protagonist can be as they don’t always have to be present in the scene.
Bigger story. Particularly in third person unlimited, you can tell a much bigger story that goes beyond the character/s we’re following.
Low intimacy. Yes, this is also a con. Why? Because lower intimacy often leads to more ‘telling’ rather than showing. Not always a crime, but it’s something to be aware of.
Weaker voice. I use the word ‘weaker’ here delicately because what I mean is that it’s more challenging to show a character’s voice than in, say, first person.
Things to watch out for
This is when the writer jumps from one character to another in the same scene. It’s usually done when the writer wants to show another character’s thoughts even though they aren’t part of the first-person narrative, so they try to bend the rules.
Remember – if the main character couldn’t possibly know something, don’t make out that they have mind-reading powers. Describe the scene from the protagonist’s point of view and trust that the reader will understand the limitations.
You can have different PoVs in the same story. You can overlap first and third person narratives if that’s what the story needs. The one thing you have to make sure is that these PoVs are consistent and clear from the start. The reader needs to know what they are getting into early on. That means you can’t suddenly introduce a third-person PoV into your first-person story three-quarters of the way through.
Confusing multiple PoVs
There are many successful stories out there that follow three, four, five different characters, possibly even switching the PoV style for each one. The trick when doing this is not to cram them all in to the same scene.
For maximum clarity, it’s best to give each character’s PoV its own chapter. If you really need to use multiple perspectives mid-scene, try to make it as clear as possible what you are doing.
Choosing the best point of view
As I said before, there is no ‘correct’ point of view to use in your writing. And the best point of view is likely to vary for each story that you write. When starting a new project, a writer should ask:
Which PoV is best for this story?
Which PoV am I most comfortable with?
As I’ve outlined, each one has its benefits and its challenges. Different points of view suit different kinds of stories or genres or styles. You may even find that the PoV you started out using is actually not the best one for your current WIP. If you’re unsure (and even if you’re not, because it’s worth experimenting), try rewriting one of your scenes from a different point of view. See how it changes the narrative. See if it makes improvements or if you lose something important.
Ultimately, there is no wrong answer when it comes to point of view. It is your decision. You get to decide what works for your story. You can tell it how you want to tell it.