What Is Your Point-of-View?

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?

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “What Is Your Point-of-View?

  1. certainly something i needed to read today.. thank you.. c

    • Cecilia,
      Thanks. Choosing a POV is a major decision. I wrote my first novel in the first person. I probably wouldn’t use it again, but it was a great experience. What are you working on now? What sort of POV issues are challenging to you as a writer?

      Regards,
      Chris

    • Cecilia,
      Thanks. Choosing a POV is a major decision. I wrote my first novel in the first person. I probably wouldn’t use it again, but it was a great experience. What are you working on now? What sort of POV issues are challenging to you as a writer?

      Regards,
      Chris

  2. Another informative post, Chris. I look forward to reading your weekly columns. For me they are a functioning check list which reminds me of basic writing tools I need to remember and use. You are helping me to do that. Thank you.

    I am drawn toward first person more than third. I find that staying inside the head of one character allows me more range of emotional nuances. This is probably a limitation with me as a writer. Or maybe, I just like living in one head more than jumping from character to character. It’s an issue of intimacy. BEING the character, telling the story through focused emotions, LIVING the story scene by scene, bonding with the reader as if he/she were my friend and secret confidant, makes the writing of the tale easier.

    I am polishing a novella where I became a 21 year old college girl needing money fast. In this story, my only option, was becoming a mistress to a wealthy benefactor. Today they call that a sugar baby – sugar daddy “arrangement.” It was quite an interesting psychological exercise to become this character. But this is what actors do all the time. As writers, we become actors on the page, playing all the parts. And taking their POV, EXPANDS the time to examine moments of cause and effect. Writing a time expanded point-of-view, is equivalent to pushing into a CLOSE SHOT in cinema, and holding on that frame. It tells the reader, this idea is important, for the character and for you. Think about it. Remember it. This information will tie-in later.

    Irv

    • Irv,
      Thanks for those kind words. I’m glad my posts are helpful. I wrote my first novel, Small Change, in first person. I was very much in synch with the main character (though it wasn’t really me). It was a great experience, but I probably wouldn’t do it again, at least not a single-character first-person POV. I found it difficult to keep track of what the main character knew and what he didn’t. There were some major plot developments the main character didn’t find out about until years later. That’s the downside of first person. I do like the intimacy it lends to the narrative.

      I also liked tour comment about the cinematic aspects of POV–grist for another post on POV.

      Regards,
      Chris

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