Most of us, when writing our first stories, just sit down and write the thing. We’re seized by an amazing idea, and surf off on a wave of creativity.
And sometimes it turns out pretty well.
More often, however, it turns out like a dog’s breakfast, because we didn’t know enough about the craft of writing. (That’s exactly what happened to me with my first novel, Sins of the Father, which is currently being sacrificed over at the Murder Your Darlings site.)
One of the things a writer should give serious thought to is choosing her Point of View (POV). Mostly we just go with whichever POV feels right to us – and often that’s the best choice. But if we want to write the Best Book we can, we have to really understand our chosen POV. Like the YouTube Double Rainbow Guy, we have to ask: What does it mean? And Is it really the best choice?
So, let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). The most commonly-used POVs are First Person POV (using “I”) and Third Person POV (using “he” “she” and the character’s names). Occasionally used is Second Person (the character is referred to as “you”).
1. First person POV
What is it? This is writing using “I” for the POV of the protagonist. The story is told through the eyes of the protagonist, and the narrative is limited to that character’s experience.
Advantages? First-person POV gives the reader an intimate view of thoughts and emotions of the POV character – the reader feels they are “inside the head” of the character.
It is really useful for stories where the emotional responses of a particular person are highlighted, for example, Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes, where the protagonist struggles through her recovery from alcoholism:
They said I was a drug addict. I found that hard to come to terms with – I was a middle-class, convent-educated girl whose drug use was strictly recreational. And surely drug addicts were thinner?
And here Keyes uses first-person in conversation:
“I spoke to them at your work,” repeated Dad in the same level tone of voice.I swallowed. “To who?”“Eric,” said Dad. “He said he was your boss.”“Oh God,” I said.
First Person POV is also useful where the author wants to keep secrets from the reader. Because the information that the reader gets is filtered through the senses of a single character, it is easier to drip-feed important information; to drop hints but not reveal all. This is particularly handy in suspense, crime and mystery novels. First-Person POV was used to great effect in the book Fight Club, so that the author Chuck Palahniuk could conceal the truth about the characters until the momentous end.
Disadvantages? As mentioned above, using First-Person POV means you are limited to what your character can see, hear, smell, touch and taste. This has its disadvantages: if your character isn’t in a particular room, you can’t tell your reader what is going on in that room. If your character is young or has a reduced mental age, there will be things that s/he doesn’t understand or nuances s/he doesn’t pick up on (having said this, such innocence can be used to great effect because the reader does understand the nuances even if the POV character doesn’t: think of Daniel Keyes' classic short story Flowers for Algernon or the well-known Forrest Gump from Winston Groom).
One issue, related to getting your work published, is that First Person POV is sometimes seen as an unsophisticated writing style. This may be because many writers’ first attempts are written in First Person (my own theory is that new writers choose First Person POV because we are so used to speaking in First Person POV, and feel that it flows more naturally). So, because many first-attempt flops are written in First Person, the reputation of First Person POV novels suffer.
At least one agent I have seen will not accept manuscripts written in First Person POV; saying that (to paraphrase) if a writer can’t write well in third person, she or he is not ready to query yet. Thankfully this is not a wide-spread attitude, as far as I can tell, but be aware that it does exist.
2. Second person POV
I won’t spend much time on this because it is so rarely-used. In Second Person POV, the POV character is described as “you”, so for example:
You walk into the drug store. Tinny music and a bored clerk are your only companions. Walking towards the clerk, you touch the bulge at your side.The weight of the gun feels good.Today is going to be a good day.
You may recall Second Person POV children’s books called Pick-A-Path, where the reader is the hero of the story, and every page or so choose the way the story will continue (boy, I used to love those – perhaps they were what prompted my desire to write my own stories!). I don’t think I’ve ever read a full-length novel in the Second Person POV, but a well-known example is Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City.
This example comes from Lorrie Moore's short story How to Become a Writer:
Decide that you like college life. In your dorm you meet many nice people. Some are smarter than you. And some, you notice, are dumber than you. You will continue, unfortunately, to view the world in exactly these terms for the rest of your life.
As you can see, Second Person POV is stylistically unusual! Like all POVs, though, if it’s done well it can be very compelling. One advantage is that the reader feels pulled into the story by the use of “you” – it creates a sense of immediacy and intimacy. Furthermore, the reader is powerless to stop the action unfolding, even though it is happening “to him” – so it’s a good technique to enhance a gritty narrative.
3. Third Person POV
What is it: The POV character(s) are described in third person: Anna said, Tom makes a rude gesture, the cowboy sang. Third person has become the most often used POV. We can break Third Person POV down into three different styles: Third Person Limited, Third Person Objective, and the Omniscient Narrator.
Third Person Limited: From a story-telling perspective, this is a lot like First Person POV: Again, the reader feels they are “inside the head” of the character, and the reader’s experience is limited to what the POV character experiences and thinks.
Third Person Limited POV has been described as peering over the shoulder of the POV character – you see the world as s/he sees it, but there is a slight bit of distance, in that you aren’t made to believe that you are him or her.
Switching POV characters in Third Person Limited POV
As a writer, you may find it convenient to switch the Third Person Limited POV from one character to another: for example, one chapter is seen from Anna’s point of view, the next from Zelda’s, the next again from Anna’s.
This is useful in that it can give the reader a better overview of what is happening, and can reveal different perspectives of the same situation. In a romantic plot, for example, it can be more interesting to see the relationships from the differing POVs of both parties – especially if they see the thing quite differently from one another.
However, a word of warning: switching Third Person Limited POV must be done very carefully. Most writers agree you can only switch at the end of a scene – some say at the end of a chapter. It is generally agreed, however, that switching POV in the middle of a scene is a mistake. This is called Head-Hopping, and it tends to annoy the reader, who likes to know where s/he is!
Here is an example of head-hopping:
“This bus is taking forever,” Ellen commented to the woman next to her.The woman, well muffled in wool coat and thick scarf, shrugged. “Number Seven never runs on time,” she replied.Ellen eyed her closely. There was something oddly familiar about the woman. Perhaps the scarf was half-way covering her face for a reason, she thought. “Do I know you?” she asked.The woman blinked. Had Ellen recognised her? “I shouldn’t think so,” she replied stiffly.Huddled in the corner of the bus stop, an old man looked on. Something’s not right here, he thought to himself. He resolved to keep an eye on Ellen and the woman in the wool coat.
Rather inelegantly done, but hopefully you get the idea. In the example above, I have started in Ellen’s POV (There was something oddly familiar about the woman... perhaps the scarf was half-way covering her face for a reason, she thought), hopped to the woman’s POV (Had Ellen recognised her?) and then further hopped to the old man’s POV (Something’s not right here, he thought to himself. He resolved to keep an eye on Ellen and the woman in the wool coat.)
If you have written scenes like this, or have gotten feedback that you’re “Head-Hopping”, the key is to look at each scene with a critical eye. Ask yourself: if I’m limited to Ellen’s experience/viewpoint, how much can I know about the scene around me? You certainly can’t know, for example, what the woman in the wool coat is thinking. And from the sounds of it, Ellen’s not even looking at the old man in the corner, so you probably can’t see him – and you certainly can’t know what he’s thinking about the scene.
I’ve rewritten the scene in a non-Hopping way:
“This bus is taking forever,” Ellen commented to the woman next to her.The woman, well muffled in wool coat and thick scarf, shrugged. “Number Seven never runs on time,” she replied.Ellen eyed her closely. There was something oddly familiar about the woman. Perhaps the scarf was half-way covering her face for a reason, she thought. “Do I know you?” she asked.The woman blinked. “I shouldn’t think so,” she replied stiffly.In the corner of the bus stop, someone shifted. Ellen threw a glance at the old man huddled there. He gave her a kindly nod; looked away.
You’ll notice that nothing is included unless Ellen would be able to perceive it herself. Of course, Ellen might have mistaken the woman’s stiff nod, or the old man’s ‘kindly’ nod – but nevertheless we see these things from her perspective, so that is all we have to go on.
Also note that this second scene has completely lost the details about the old man resolving to follow Ellen. That is a limitation of third person Limited POV. But, if it’s important enough, I could write the next scene or chapter in the old man’s POV.
Third Person Objective: This is the classic fly-on-the-wall POV. You get to see and hear all that is going on, but you are not inside the character’s head. Because this POV does not relate internal emotions, it has a more detached, journalistic style. Note, however, that emotions can still be portrayed, but only as they are shown by the characters.
So, while in Third Person Limited POV you’d see:
Bert clenched his fists. This time, he thought. This time I’m really going to kill him.“What’s wrong, Bert?” Andy said, his voice sounding strangled.He’s scared, alright – probably knows he’s gone too far. But Bert didn’t care. “You know exactly what’s wrong.”
In Third Person Objective POV you’d have:
Bert clenched his fists. The tension in the room was palpable.“What’s wrong, Bert?” Andy said, his voice sounding strangled.Bert glared at him. “You know exactly what’s wrong.”
An advantage of this is that you see the action and story unfold in a factual way, without the distorting lens effect of seeing it through a character’s eyes. A disadvantage is that it’s harder for the reader to become emotionally invested in the main character(s), because the story tends to maintain a distance between the reader and the characters.
Omniscient Narrator: This is a kind of Third Person POV, in which the author takes on a god-like role, playing no part in the story, but knowing all the facts, and even able to report on the characters' thoughts. This POV is often used when telling, sweeping, epic stories which span a good deal of time or many characters. (You can see why; if you have a cast of thousands spread over, let’s say, the Indian Subcontinent, then Third Person Limited POV is just not going to cut it).
The style has been more popular in the past, and readers may recognise it from 19th century novels such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. A modern – and extremely popular – version of Omniscient Narrator is the Lemony Snicket series.
An advantage to the Omniscient Narrator POV is that there is no distortion by characters telling the story, so there is a feeling of truthfulness and accuracy to the story. The narrator is also able to reveal information unknown to the characters – often referred to as the “Little Did He Know” device: Little did he know, within a year he’d be sharing the same prison cell as his father.
Be aware that the Omniscient Narrator is considered one of the hardest POVs to pull off; often writers end up with what seems more like a head-hoppy Third Person Limited POV (as in the bus-stop example above). Further, Omniscient Narrator voice can stray into a didactic, “teachy” tone, which can be unpopular with modern readers.
That’s all for now, Gentle Reader. Please feel free to add any points I've missed in the comments below. In the meantime, I'll leave you with the words of Demetri Martin:
Some authors write in first person and others write in third person. I'm writing my book in fifth person. So every sentence starts with "I heard from this guy who told somebody..."
Looking out from A Room With A (Point Of) View,