Writing Tips: Breaking Down the Basics of Point-of-View

The Basics of Point-of-ViewA few weeks ago, I did a post on choosing the right point-of-view for your novel. Why I choose to write that post first instead of doing a POV basics post, I really couldn’t tell you, but I did. So, now I’m going to tackle the basics of point-of-view that I probably should have written a while ago. (But better late than never, right?🙃)

Anyway, like I mentioned in the previous post, point-of-view dictates who your narrator is, how close your reader is to your story, and how much information your reader has access to. There are three basic points-of-view: first person, second person, and third person. This post is going to break them all down and hopefully give you a good basic understanding each.

First Person

First person is when you have your character narrating the story. It puts your reader closest to the story and right inside your character’s head. It’s characterized by using “I” in the narrative.

Here’s an example from my book, Crossing the Line:

He wouldn’t be the first enemy agent I’d killed, and the fact that he had started backing away told me he knew that. I didn’t want to kill him, but I pulled the trigger anyway–I had to.

Personally, first person is my favorite point of view. As a writer, I love to get inside my characters’ heads and experience their stories with them. And I love it just as much as a reader. The major advantage of first person is that it puts you right in the story with your characters. It’s basically as close as you can possibly get to your story. The downside is, it can really limit your access to information. Your readers can’t know anything your character doesn’t know, which is why it might not be best for every writer and story.

Second Person

You’re really only going to see second person in choose-your-own-adventure type books. This is when you narrator is essentially including the reader as a character. It’s characterized by using “you” in the narrative where the reader is expected to be an active participant in the story.

Here’s an example from Love of the Lifts by Jill Santopolo:

You shake your head. “Not going,” you tell her. “I’m not skiing until I know you’re completely okay.”

Second person is fairly unconventional, and really only belongs in these types of books. Additionally, this is the only instance I consider to be truly “second person.” I’ve seen books where “you” is used in the narrative labeled as second person, but often times I wouldn’t consider them to be. Typically that “you” is coming from a first person narrator who is either talking to another character (as if the story they’re telling is to that character) or their audience in an attempt to be more informal or conversational.

Here’s an example of one of those from Ivory and Bone by Julie Eshbaugh:

Distracted by my task, I almost forget the question I asked you. I’m not sure how long you’ve been silent. “Mya?”

Hopefully, you can see the difference here. “You” is definitely used in Ivory and Bone, but it’s coming from a first person narrator who is talking to a specific character–Mya. Whereas in the first example, the “you” is referring to you the reader. When you read a choose-your-own-adventure book, “I” is never used by the narrator, which is what makes it a true second person POV.

Third Person

There are two main types of third person: Limited and Omniscient. Each of them is characterized by the use of “she,” “he,” and “they” when referring to any character, including the main character of the story. This point-of-view makes readers feel more like audience members compared to the other two.

Limited

For limited third person, you mostly follow the main character of the story. This makes it similar to first person. However, the biggest difference is that you have a more objective narrator. There’s also a little more distance between the reader and your story. Your reader isn’t going to get quite as many of your characters thoughts and your narrator will most likely have more information about what’s going on around the character. The voice is also very different. In first person, we’re going to get more of the narrating character’s voice and style, compared to the more neutral voice in third person.

A good example of limited third person is in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Here’s an example from The Half-Blood Prince:

Harry did not think much of this idea; he had been intending to visit Madam Pomfrey, the matron, in whom he had a little more confidence when it came to Healing Spells, but it seemed rude to say this, so he stayed stock-still and closed his eyes.

As you can see, this point-of-view doesn’t have quite as much of the character’s voice in the narration, but it does give you a more unbiased perspective of what’s going on in the scene.

Omniscient

Omniscient is the all-knowing narrator. This is the farthest you can get from a story. This narrator knows what’s going on with everyone and shares it as needed. The biggest advantage is your reader can be as informed as possible. The biggest disadvantage is that your audience is taking in the story from a greater distance.

Here’s an example from A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket:

Klaus took Violet’s other hand, and Sunny took Klaus’s other hand, and in that manner the three Baudelaire children–the Baudelaire orphans, now–were led away from the beach and from their previous lives.

As you can see, this narrator seems to know everything about this story, but as readers, we’re kept at arm’s length compared to the earlier points of view. We don’t know too much about what the characters are feeling, but we have the facts of what is going on. This means we have access to information that the characters in the story don’t at the time, however, we also aren’t experiencing the story with them quite like we would be in another point-of-view.

I hope this gives you a good idea about the basics of point-of-view!

Now it’s your turn: What’s your favorite POV and why? Is there one you particularly dislike? Tell me about it in the comments!

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How to Choose the Right Point-of-View: 6 Writing Tips

Choosing the Right Point-of-view for your NovelChoosing a point-of-view of your novel is one of the most fundamental decisions you will make. This choice will be the bridge between your readers and your story and dictate how your book sounds and feels to your reader. But it’s not always an easy decision. This post isn’t a break down of each type of point-of-view. (Though, you can find that post here.) It’s meant for those of you who have a basic understanding of POV and need a guide to help you select the one that will be best for your story.

Without further ado, here are six things to consider when deciding on your point-of-view.

1) The reader’s proximity to the story

The deeper you are inside a character’s mind, the closer your reader will feel to the story. If you write your story in first person, your reader will often feel like they’re in your character’s head and experiencing the story with them. Second person is mostly reserved for choose-your-own-adventure books and can make a reader feel like they are apart of the story as their own character. However, they’re not experiencing another fictional character’s story, which is why there’s a degree of distance. Third person limited lets your reader feel close to the character, though not necessarily in the character’s head, while third person omniscient has the reader assume the role of an audience member in a theater who is watching the book play out. First person puts your readers closest to the story while third person omniscient holds them farthest away. Everything else falls in between.

2) How much of the story you want the reader to know

The more limited you want your reader to be, the more limited you’ll want the point of view to be. If you want your reader only to know what your main character knows and discover information with them, then first person may be the best option. If you want to keep your point of view pretty limited, but still have the flexibility to occasionally interject information outside of your central character as needed, a limited third person would probably be the best fit. This will give your narrator the ability to add extra information from time to time, but keep the focus on the primary character. If you want your audience to know a lot more than any single character, third person omniscient might be for you. First person is the most limited, while third person omniscient is the most freeing.

3) Tense

This isn’t exactly point-of-view, but it goes hand in hand, so I wanted to mention it here. Tense dictates how immediate your story feels. If your character/narrator is speaking in present tense, it gives your reader more immediacy and it makes them feel like the story is happening right now. If your character/narrator is speaking in past tense, it feels like something that’s already happened. Both can be exciting and interesting. I like to think of it as the difference between reading or hearing about a historic event and experiencing a historic event as it happens–if that makes sense.

4) Your narrator’s reliability

Is your narrator someone we can trust? Or do they have honesty issues? Is there a reason for your readers to doubt what your character is saying? If you’re writing a book where you want to keep your readers on their toes, you might want to consider using an unreliable narrator. If you want your reader to be able to trust your narrator, then you want to make sure they are either seen as honest or have no reason to lie about what’s going on.

This doesn’t mean your narrator won’t be biased in some way, however, that’s not the same as having an unreliable narrator. A biased character might tell you about an event that happened, but they might remember things differently because the human memory is imperfect and our thoughts, opinions, and emotional states color our perception. However, we’d have no reason to question that the event itself happened and that it occurred to the best of that character’s recollection.  An unreliable narrator will get significant facts wrong on a regular basis. The character might be doing this on purpose or compulsively. Either way, we can’t fully trust them. Both types of narrators can be useful, depending on the situation.

5) It’s okay to change it up!

If you’ve chosen first person or close/limited third person, it’s okay to alternate between a few characters. You might have two first person narrators sharing a story and alternating every chapter. An example of this is Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun. Or you might have one character that you focus on in limited third person, but switch to another character from time to time. A good example of this is Harry Potter. Most of the time, we’re with Harry, but other times we follow side (or even new) characters as needed to get information about the story that Harry doesn’t have access to. Just be careful not to jump around too much or you may risk confusing your reader.

6) But don’t switch POVs entirely

As much as it’s okay to switch up your narrator/featured character, it’s best to avoid changing points of view entirely. So if you decide to write your book in first person, you should avoid changing to third person and vice versa. It will be very jarring for your reader to have to adjust to a different point of view/distance from your story as move along.

I hope that helps you choose the best point-of-view for your novel!

Now it’s your turn: Is choosing the right point-of-view a challenge? If yes, what do you think makes it so hard? If no, are there any tips you can share? Tell me about it in the comments!

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