Choosing a Point of View

Point of view is one of those things that seems fairly straightforward – who’s telling the story? – but the more you look at it, the more complicated and interesting it all gets. There’s a very wide range of ways to handle it, and each one has its pros and cons.

POV has several factors. The first is person – who is telling the story. There are three options:

  • First person – one of the characters. ‘I did this.’

  • Second person – ‘You did this.’

  • Third person – a non-character narrator. ‘They did this.’

The second major factor is access – what the narrator can see and know, how many minds they can access. The three basic options are:

  • Omniscient – potentially knows everything and can report anyone’s thoughts and feelings.

  • Limited – limited to the knowledge and experience of one character.

  • Dramatic – like a camera showing action, dialogue and setting, without direct reporting of thoughts and experiences.

There are other things to consider: is your 3rd person narrator neutral, or do they take stances and have a distinct voice? Is your 1st person narrator the centre of the story, or a peripheral lens on someone else like Nick Carraway is to Gatsby? Is the POV ‘distant’ or ‘close’? There are things like frame narratives, and stream-of-consciousness, and other tools associated with POV.

The standard options

The most common choices are 1st person, limited 3rd person, and omniscient 3rd person.

A first person POV gives a very strong narrative voice, and lets you get very deep into this character. They’re the one telling the story, so the reader can get to know them intimately.

The narrator can’t access others (or can they?…), but they can often dip toward omniscience in the sense of accessing another to character to say ‘Jane was angry’, in the way people can tell these things about each other. They can sometimes tell stories about another person’s life as though they had omniscience, like Carraway does with Gatsby. Whether or not they’re right is another thing, and you can have an unreliable narrator with wild or deceitful speculations.

For the most part, though, if you choose first person you’re stuck inside one mind for a while. The advantages of deep access there correspond with the disadvantages of lack of access to anyone else. The narrator has to be interesting enough to spend the whole time with. If writing in the past tense it can be natural for them to reflect on past events or foreshadow future ones (before the time of writing); but flashbacks can be a crutch.

The narrator has to get information without it being a deus ex machina. Detective fiction is often first person so that the detective can find clues as we do, but readers feel cheated if the detective solves the case not because of being smart with the clues, but because some information materialises at the end.

Limited third person is similar to first person in that we’re getting the story through one person’s eyes, but it’s filtered through a separate narrator. This makes it easier to withhold information the character knows to generate tension or surprise (like in my story Earth’s Invasion), and also allows the narrator to give information the character knows but might not be inclined to say. It’s useful for showing where they’re lying or deluded, because the narration can contrast with the character.

LTP is something of a compromise between first person and omniscient third, giving other ways to manipulate the flow of information while restricting access to the main character.

A risk is accidentally veering into omniscience. As Michael James says: ‘You’re going to screw up and write something about your secondary characters that your MC has no way of knowing.’

That leaves omniscient third person. You can go anywhere, read any mind, know anything. This has the obvious advantages of being able to do those things. However, you have to be careful not to reveal too much or too little, and it’s important to have a handle on the narrative voice. If the narrator has their own distinct voice, then it has to be written well to be engaging, like in first person. You have to avoid the temptation to use the narrator as your mouthpiece, relying too heavily on telling rather than showing. If the narrator doesn’t have a distinct voice, otherwise emotional scenes can risk being blunted by the neutral camera. Also, a camera flitting from one place to another constantly can be jarring.

Out of the box

Second person tends to be awkward. It’s a bad idea for a novel, and even in a short story it’s weird for the reader to be told they did this and that as though they’re someone else. It could be interesting in something meta-fictional or dealing with memory, identity weirdness, etc, but it’s rarely used for good reason. I can’t think of any examples of second person really working, though perhaps it could if:

  • The word ‘you’ isn’t overused.

  • It really makes sense for this thing to be written to ‘you’, perhaps in a letter or as a note to yourself.

In practice, it’s rare to stick with one POV approach through a whole novel. It’s normal for the level of access, the distance between narrators and characters, and other factors to shift, although this needs to be handled smoothly. Person should generally stay the same. But it isn’t necessarily impossible to change person with good effect, so long as there are consistent rules.

I’ve occasionally used first person with more access than normal, such as telepathic narrators. A first person narrator with unlimited and constant omniscience would present problems: it’s important to keep consistent limits so the narrator can’t insta-win and you don’t give them a deus ex machina. You can have unique interactions between characters, switch neatly between first and third person, and other neat things it’s hard to do otherwise.

Dramatic third person POV is something I’ve found helpful as an exercise in show>tell. It can be limiting, or it can be a way to present strong, atmospheric feelings without the melodrama that depicting mental states directly sometimes risks.

First person dramatic is impossible as first person inherently accesses the narrator’s mind, but aside from that there’s a great deal of scope to experiment with applying different techniques and combinations.