Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
I’ve seen all sorts of definitions and advice for point of view (POV)—some great, some contradictory, and some unusual.
Terms have old names, new names, confusing names. But it’s not the names that are important—it’s how point of view is used and maintained in stories that’s important for a writer. You’re not (necessarily) going to be quizzed on the names of the different points of view. You could, however, lose readers if you don’t use POV correctly or if you switch between different POVs without need or without warning.
My intent is to show you options for point of view, to make you aware that you do need to choose one, or a combination of them, and not just let a story develop without a plan. While we could limit the basic POV options to three or four, there are shadings to be aware of as well.
And while I could simply name the options, give an example of each, that’s not useful enough for a writer struggling with a story or scene that needs something more than the basics. If you need only the basics, that’s covered here. But there’s also more.
You do have options, even within a single point of view. Let’s explore some of those options and the nuances in point of view.
I’m going to try to make this both clear and exhaustive; please excuse the length. I’ve split this into several articles to make the read a bit easier.
To start, let’s keep in mind what point of view is. While sometimes used interchangeably with the phrase viewpoint character, the two are not the same.
The viewpoint character is the one whose eyes see a story, the particular character whose viewpoint a story is told from. Think who when talking of viewpoint character. Who is telling a particular story? Through whose eyes is a scene unfolding? What’s the name of the character?
The viewpoint character can and may change from scene to scene or chapter to chapter. The recommendation is to use the character with the most at stake as the viewpoint character in a scene. This may be protagonist or antagonist. In romance it may be the hero in one scene, the heroine in the next. So in one scene that may mean Miss Scarlett, and in another, Colonel Mustard.
The confusion between viewpoint character and point of view comes in the use of the terminology. We often ask whose point of view is this scene being told in or by when what we mean is who is the viewpoint character in this scene. Most people understand what is being asked, so you don’t need to be a stickler when it comes to asking or answering the question. Just understand that viewpoint character and point of view are different terms.
For point of view think how rather than who. How is the story being presented? The accent is not on a particular character but on a presentation or narration style—first person, second person, or third person.
In simple terms, POV tells the reader than an I, a you, or a he or she is telling the story or lending his or her experiences and senses to share the story. While it eventually matters which I, which you, or which he or she is doing the presenting, for definition’s sake, you just need to know the options. (Could a novel be told from a plural viewpoint, using we or they? Of course, though it would be more than unusual. Use the same options as for the singular viewpoints.)
What’s important for point of view and viewpoint character is making choices that best fit the story.
For the reader’s sake, make the point of view clear from a story’s first words.
Examples of different points of view—
I woke with a lizard on my shoulder. He wasn’t a normal lizard; he spoke to me in French. What was even more unusual, since my French didn’t reach beyond Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, was that I understood his words and his jokes. (First person)
You woke with a lizard on your shoulder. The lizard wasn’t a normal lizard; he spoke to you in French. What was more unusual was that you understood his words and his jokes; you’ve never spoken a word of French in your life. (Second Person)
Chester woke with a lizard on his shoulder. The lizard wasn’t a normal lizard; he spoke to Chester in French. What was more unusual was that Chester understood his words and his jokes; Chester didn’t speak a word of French himself. (Omniscient or third-person objective)
He woke with a lizard on his shoulder. What the hell? And the squirmy reptile was speaking. In French. Chester jumped out of bed and rubbed at his ear. He couldn’t be hearing right; he didn’t even understand that inane Frère Jacques nursery rhyme. And then he laughed. Well, the lizard’s joke was funny. (Third-person subjective with deep POV)
A few quick details
Some genres favor one POV over another. And some POV options are better, or worse, because of the distance created, or erased, by the choice of POV. The first person point of view definitely allows readers to get up close and personal with a character.
Modern detective stories, chick-lit, coming-of-age novels, a lot of Y/A, some sci-fi and some literary novels favor the first-person point of view. Can you use other POVs in these styles of stories? Of course. You may hit on the perfect combination or balance with a different POV. But first-person POV does work successfully for these.
Epic adventures (with large casts or stories that stretch over long time periods), political thrillers, and heavily plot-driven adventure stories that criss-cross the world often use third-person omniscient. These stories can be objective—showing events but not dipping into the hearts and heads of characters—or they can be subjective—showing character thoughts and feelings as well as events.
Omniscient can show a viewpoint character’s face from the outside—first person and the other third-person narrations can’t do that unless the character is looking into a mirror. So if you’re relying on a viewpoint character’s facial expressions to convey emotion, you’re not going to be conveying too many emotions in first- or third-person points of view. The viewpoint character can see the faces of other characters—but he can only feel his own, not see it. (I mention this because it’s something I see quite often in manuscripts, a viewpoint character reporting something about himself that he couldn’t possibly know.)
Second person is still considered experimental. It’s also stylized. And it’s not used often for novels. A few often mentioned second-person stories are Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney, Diary by Chuck Palahniuk, and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino.
If you want to try something different, if you want to cast the reader as a character, second person allows for that.
Third-person POV is found in every genre for every age reader. Romance, mystery, literary, sci-fi, Y/A, literary, western, and suspense and thriller and horror can all use third-person POV. It’s the most flexible and it’s used most often for today’s fiction.
The choice of POV can make or break your novel: third-person omniscient may be too distancing for your coming of age story; first person may be too close for your horror story; third-person subjective with deep POV for your epic may not allow readers to see the panoramic sweep of the narrative.
The good news is that you can try different points of view for the same story. If your story stalls out or doesn’t feel right, rewrite a couple of chapters in a different point of view. There is no law that says you must stick to the point of view you started with, and it would be foolish to do so if it isn’t working. (Not every foundational problem can be corrected through a change in POV, but it is one element to consider.)
Keep in mind genre allowances and expectations when you write. While many romances use third person, some are being told via first person. Most mysteries are told in first-person narration by characters with vivid personalities.
You can write counter to expectations, and that might be a plus for your novel, but readers often come to novels, especially genre novels, expecting certain consistencies. That’s something every writer should be aware of.
Now that we’ve got the topic introduced, let’s look at each POV option in depth.