Point of view is one of the most important decisions you make before you begin writing your first chapter. Whose perspective will you choose–yours, one of your characters, or multiple points of view?
This is the second post in the four-part series about Your First Chapter. Please see the other posts at the end of this article.
Point of View (POV)
Point of view (POV, for short) is one of the most important decisions to make before you begin writing your first chapter. Narrative point of view is simply whose perspective the story is told from. It could be your perspective or the point of view of one of your characters, or you could choose to tell your story from multiple points of view.
The point of view matters because your reader must bond with the storyteller. Even if the point of view character is generally insufferable, they must be relatable enough to keep the reader engaged.
I have a confession to make. I have never finished Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I have never finished the book or the movie. Why?
Simple. I cannot stand the main character, Scarlett O’Hara. My chief reaction to her is an overwhelming desire to shake some sense into her empty little head.
Obviously, I am not a good person. There is something deeply wrong with me. I apologize.
BUT this is a good example of why an author must choose their point of view character or characters carefully. I mean, I don’t give a rip about what happens to Scarlett because I don’t like her.
That says something about me, I am sure. Again, I apologize. Readers who don’t like the point of view characters will often put a book down, unfinished and unloved.
In case you are wondering, Gone with the Wind is told from a third person omniscient point of view. It is possible I would like Scarlett more if her story had been told to me from her point of view. That leads us to our first question.
What are the types of point of view?
For fiction, there are three main types of point of view: first, second, and third person.
There are three kinds of third person point of view: omniscient, objective, and limited.
Let’s start with the third person objective point of view. This is a neutral voice reporting the facts, and the narrator is not privy to anyone’s thoughts or feelings. It lacks intimacy, but one advantage of third person objective is the way it forces the author to show instead of tell, to indicate emotion and beliefs through the actions and lines of the characters.
In third person omniscient POV, the narrator knows all and sees all, including the thoughts and feelings for all of the characters. Let’s go back to Gone with the Wind for a moment while I quote a paragraph from the first chapter. Notice how the narrator knows the thoughts and desires of the twins, Brent and Stuart, but also those of Scarlett O’Hara.
“It was a memorable day in the life of the twins. Thereafter, when they talked it over, they always wondered just why they had failed to notice Scarlett’s charms before. They never arrived at the correct answer, which was that Scarlett on that day had decided to make them notice. She was constitutionally unable to endure any man being in love with any woman not herself, and the sight of India Wilkes and Stuart at the speaking had been too much for her predatory nature. Not content with Stuart alone, she had set her cap for Brent as well, and with a thoroughness that overwhelmed the two of them.”—Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, 1936
In third person limited, also known as “close third,” the author sticks with one character at a time and limits their observations and knowledge to what that character can see, know, and sense.
The following is a passage from my novella, Pirate’s Wager:
“Samazor trudged down the cobbled street leading past the shipyard. His hands were numb. The pirates had tied them behind his back, and his struggles had only made the situation worse. At least he still had his pack, as pitiful as it was. Its comforting weight rested between his shoulder blades. Five bells tolled, echoing across the bay. His entire life had changed in one hour.
“Ahead, Captain Rozar strolled along as though he hadn’t just enslaved a thirteen-year-old Norlan boy. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t how things were supposed to work. But nobody interfered. Nobody cared.”—Kathrese McKee, Pirate’s Wager, 2018
Notice how we only see and feel and hear the things Samazor does. We hear only his thoughts. The reader is limited to Samazor’s point of view as he loses his freedom to a pirate.
Third person point of view is marked by using the third-person pronouns “he,” “she,” “it,” and “they.”
Second person point of view is rarely used in fiction because this point of view features the reader as the main character. For example, in directions: “You take a left and head north.”
Second person point of view is the most common point of view for non-fiction; its predominant feature is addressing the reader as “you.”
However, just for fun, here is the beginning of my flash fiction piece, “Cat Got Your Tongue?”, which is included in the Havok Prismatic anthology:
“You receive notice of your next evaluation at Culebra Research Institute one hour before the top boss arrives. You are today-years-old when you discover Dr. M. Roswell is a cat. “She pounces atop the papers on your desk. ‘Dr. Jonas, your most important project is behind schedule.’”—Kathrese McKee, “Cat Got Your Tongue?, 2021
The reader becomes Dr. Jonas, the main character, and I deliberately omitted mention of the main character’s gender so that anyone could be the star. It was a fun experiment for everyone involved. Second person point of view is rare in fiction, but it isn’t impossible.
First person point of view is when one character narrates the story. For example: “I was about to give up when my mom came home.” The pronouns most frequently used in first person POV are “I” and “we.”
The first-person narrator is strictly limited to what they know, see, and sense. And they are often wrong, which is great for your story.
Is omniscient point of view a good choice?
If you choose to write in omniscient point of view, then you are the storyteller. It is your voice the reader hears. I know, I know! The author’s voice is always what the reader hears, regardless of which type of point of view you choose; however, in omniscient point of view, your voice is front and center. Also, your biases are on full display, so you have no one else to blame for what appears on the page.
You must be engaging in what you focus on during each scene. Knowing everything does not mean that everything you know is interesting to the reader. Rather, you must reveal to the reader only what they need to know, when they need to know it. And you must be purposeful with every word you write.
Omniscient point of view is as valid as any other. Many critics say it is old fashioned, but a lot depends on how well you handle the details. Remember, you are not getting paid by the word, so avoid lengthy descriptions of setting and loads of backstory. Get to the point.
Most “rules” for other points of view apply to omniscient POV too. Although you certainly can switch from one character’s thoughts to another character’s thoughts, you should have a good reason before you make the leap.
The most common point of view these days is third person past tense, based on a cursory, non-scientific survey of the fiction books in my house. Let us leave tense out of the equation for now.
First person is more common than it was when I was a kid. Again, that assertion is based on personal experience, not scientific inquiry. First person is popular in but not limited to Young Adult fiction, though it is by no means new. There are many other examples of first person point of view in the classics.
How can you use point of view for characterization? What are some tips to nail point of view? Those answers in a minute.
Best Practices for Point of View
The best practice is to choose the kind of point of view based on the needs of your story and your audience. Also, stick with the type of point of view–first, second, or third person POV–throughout a scene. No fair switching within a scene.
You could write your villain’s scenes in third person past tense and your protagonist’s POV in first person present tense. But stay consistent.
Who is the main character?
Regardless of which type of point of view you choose, communicate who the main character is to the reader. The main character should be the person who has the biggest growth arc. If you have two or more point-of-view characters, then make sure they are adequately introduced.
There is no rule that you must tell a story with multiple main characters from multiple points of view. It is possible to have two main characters, as in a typical romance, and tell the entire story from a single point of view.
For multiple points of view within a single book, take care to make their voices easily distinguishable to your readers.
Point of view is a characterization tool.
Most of the time, the point-of-view character is the protagonist. If you choose to tell the story from more than one character’s POV, then establish a unique inner voice for each. Otherwise, your readers will struggle to identify who is telling the story.
In Jeff Gerke’s book, The First 50 Pages, he encourages authors to spend enough time in one character’s point of view to establish empathy with that character before introducing the second character’s point of view. It is easy to lose the reader’s engagement in the story by switching point of view too soon. Voice matters. This is accomplished by word choice and what the character notices and what they think. The protagonist can sound educated, morose, privileged, wistful, basic, or anxious. You are in their head, so communicate who they are inside.
In the previous examples, each POV character’s voice is different: Lady Elilan sounds educated and morose; Miska sounds privileged and wistful; and Katniss sounds deprived and apprehensive.
Use these tips to nail point of view.
- Experiment. If you are not sure what type of point of view to write your story in, write a scene or two from different points of view. You can try a different character’s point of view or switch from third person limited, past tense to first person, present tense. If you are telling too much, then write the scene in third person objective to get in touch with how to show the scene. One of my protagonists is really hard to read because she is a private person; sometimes, I have to try the scene in first person before I rewrite it in third person limited. Invariably, the scene becomes richer and more satisfying.
- Establish POV for each scene. At the beginning of any scene, establish the point of view immediately. Do not make your reader work to figure out whose perspective they are in. Provide a clue. For example: “The alarm clock went off like a sonic boom, and Tony knocked it off the bedside table. Why did Sarah insist on setting it at one hundred percent?”
- Avoid unnecessary head hopping. If more than one point-of-view character is in the scene, choose Rick’s POV and stick with him all the way to the end of the scene without switching to Jerry’s POV halfway through. Even in omniscient, be choosy about whose perspective you are relaying during a given scene. There is more leniency here but also plenty of scope for unintended hilarity. Just be careful.
- Limitations matter. A character can only know what they know. They can only sense what their body permits them to sense. They can only see, smell, touch, taste, or feel what is physically possible. Well, unless we are talking about fantasy. Many authors mistakenly give a character credit for seeing their own face without the use of a reflective surface. If you are in Sally’s POV, she cannot see her own eyes flash with anger. These physical, mental, and spiritual limitations are fodder for your story.
- Master deep point of view and know when to use it. Deep point of view is a topic outside the scope of this document today’s episode, but it is an important skill to master. In summary, stay inside the head of your point-of-view character and try not to name emotions. Avoid the following phrases most of the time, and you will be halfway there: she thought/wondered, she heard, she saw, she tasted, she smelled, and she felt. Just say what was. Okay? Just blurt it out. Today, we have discussed the types of point of view and tips for choosing the right one. We have also discussed ways to nail point of view. Point of view sets the course for your storytelling, and it directly affects the reader experience.