Selecting a point-of-view (POV) for your novel and a POV character for individual scenes in you novel are decisions that require careful thought. Before we get into what considerations you should weigh, let’s cover the basic point-of-view options:
First person. This is the “I” POV. It has both advantages and disadvantages. The major advantage is that it lends an intimacy and immediacy to each scene. It also provides a consistent voice in the narration. It’s easier for the writer to write from one character’s perspective, rather than writing from the POV of multiple characters. The disadvantage is that the writer is limited to what the main character knows and sees. This restricts the author from developing subplots because the main character must be involved in all scenes.
Second person. This is the “You” POV. It is extremely rare in fiction. A scene written in the second person would go like this:
You woke up in a cold sweat. You knew something was wrong, even before you noticed your wife wasn’t in the bed next to you.
Among the problems with second person is that if the reader doesn’t identify with “you,” it takes her right out of the story.
Third person/objective: The writer is not in any of the characters’ heads. This POV requires the writer to write in precise detail. The writer must show and not tell. The disadvantage of this style is that it lacks intimacy.
Third person/omniscient. This is the “he” or “she” POV. The writer knows everything and can describe a scene from any character’s POV. The writer can even shift POV in the middle of a scene, something I don’t recommend. This is most effective when a writer seeks an authoritative voice.
Third person/limited omniscient. This similar to the omniscient POV with one important difference: each scene is told from a particular character’s POV. This is the most popular POV technique in fiction and the one with which most writers (myself included) feel the most
comfortable. The writer can place the reader in all of the characters’ heads. The reader knows more than any of the characters.
Those are the basics. Here are some POV tips.
- In selecting a POV for a novel, a writer must consider who can bring the most to the story and who the reader feels most strongly about. Sometimes it’s a bystander. I blogged about this recently, using the examples of Stingo in William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice,” and Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
- The POV character should deliver the greatest emotional power and maximize the inner and outer conflicts of the story.
- In writing a scene, my rule of thumb is to select a POV character based on who is most affected by the scene. A useful technique if you’re stuck is to write the same scene from multiple POVs and see which one works best. Or, maybe you want to keep them all. Tom Wolfe did this with one scene in The Bonfire of the Vanities, when the detective interviews Sherman. The scene is told first from Sherman’s POV and then from the detective’s POV. Why? I believe Wolfe was making the point about the disconnect between Sherman’s world of opulence and
the way it was perceived by the common man (the detective).
- One way to maintain the intimacy of first person POV, while avoiding some of its limitations is to use multiple first person POV characters. This is a difficult technique for the author, who still must keep straight what each character
knows. It can also be confusing for the reader. The writer should clearly demarcate each scene or chapter to make it clear who is the first person POV character.
- The third person/limited omniscient POV offers enormous flexibility to the writer. That’s why so many writers use it.
Steve Almond, writing in Writer’s Digest, cited several works using different POVs and posed this question: “In each of these works, the authors have used the same essential criterion: Does the chosen POV bring us closer to the turmoil of the fictional world in question? That’s really the only question that matters.
“Let me go a step further. What matters when it comes to POV isn’t what pronouns are being used, but what emotional posture the author has taken toward his characters, and what sort of narrative latitude the author desires,” Almond wrote.
He continued: “The trick to finding the right POV is striking this balance between intimacy and perspective. You want readers to care about your characters and understand how they experience the world. At the same time, authors have to present their own insights, either through direct exposition, ironic revelation or by shaping the story in such a way that the protagonist is forced to confront the truth as the world imposes it.”
It is a challenge for every writer, but the right POV can make the difference between a riveting story and a snoozer.
What is your favorite point-of-view? Do you use different POVs for each novel?