Writing Craft 101: Point of View
The character perspective your story is told from greatly influences how the work is crafted. A tale told from the first person is written vastly different than one from the omniscient perspective, affecting everything from voice and tone, to reader knowledge and engagement.
Choosing what POV your story will be written from is one of the most important steps in the writing process, often coming even before creating your characters. You should establish what POV your tale will be told from in the first two paragraphs of your opening scene, and stick with that perspective through the entirety of the scene, and perhaps the whole of the book itself, depending on style and tone.
Consistency in your POV is also extremely important. Head hopping (fluctuating between character perspectives in a single scene) jars the reader out of the story, losing the momentum and reader engagement you’ve painstakingly built throughout the narrative. It also disrupts pacing and tone, making the story feel like a roller coaster in all the wrong ways. You lose the trust of your reader, who may consider your narrative now unreliable and disjointed, or abandon the story altogether. While head hopping can be a sign of poor writing, it is often caused by a writer being unsure who should be telling the story and what exactly it is they want the reader to be privy to.
To help you choose what perspective would best fit your story, let’s examine the different types of narrative POVs and how they are used.
Told from the “I” perspective. The narrative is written as if the character is directly relating the story as it is happening. The perspective allows for a close emotional bond between the reader and character, and the reader feels they are inside the character’s head, experiencing the journey as them. Uses the pronouns I, Me, and My.
This is the most common POV used in fiction writing, and it provides an interesting challenge. Because everything that happens is filtered through the perspective of the POV character, events are explained in their own unique voice, full of attitude and personality. This makes the narrative both incomplete (as the reader is given no information the character doesn’t know), and biased, reflecting only a single character’s thoughts and reactions.
The character is telling their story, but not necessarily the story. The reader cries with the character as they shuffle through the rubble of their home after a devastating war, but not the reasons why the war happened or what led to the decision for their neighborhood to be destroyed. We get to feel the pain of being fired from their job, but not always told why they were fired. Pieces of the puzzle are missing.
Some first person narrators are also unreliable, holding a contrary or even false view of the world around them. This is used to surprise the reader with the truth, such as finding out in Fight Club that Tyler Durden existed only as a personality within the main character, or when an antagonist turns out to really be the only true ally in the end. The narrator is the reader’s only guide. If they say up is down, the reader has no one else to fall back on for truth until the narrator is also forced to face the truth.
The story is told to a “you”, in which “you” is the protagonist and the center of the plot. This perspective is rarely used in fiction, but is common in nonfiction such as journalistic articles, autobiographies, and memoirs. Uses You and Your.
As the narrator seems to make the reader a character in the story by talking directly to them, this perspective pulls the reader in and makes the story personal, but is also very challenging to write. Choose Your Own Adventure novels is an example of this POV. Some books, especially those with a humorous bent, will slip into 2nd Person as an aside to Break the Fourth Wall (when characters speak directly to the audience and are self-aware of being in a story). The Deadpool comics used this technique frequently and to great effect.
Third Person Omniscient
The narration is told from the perspective of all the characters, as if the reader is watching the action on a screen or from above. A bird’s eye view of the journey, where the narrator is not actually in this story, but merely telling it. This perspective lets the reader in on all the action happening both to and around the characters, but keeps them at arm’s distance emotionally. The reader is still aware of what the characters are going through internally, but not on an intimate level. This POV works best for plot-driven novels, where there is little focus on a character’s personal journey. Uses the pronouns he/his, she/hers, they/them.
Third Person Limited
The narration is told from a single character’s perspective only, allowing the reader to gauge their emotions and reactions from an internal perspective, but only a limited, if any, insight into the other characters present. The story is not told from their direct POV, but more as if the reader was looking over their shoulder, giving them a type of “tunnel vision” as to what is happening in the story. An example of this would be the Harry Potter series, where the main character is still referred to as he/his, but the reader is only privy to Harry’s emotions and sees/hears only what Harry sees/hears. Uses pronouns he/his, she/hers, they/them.
Third Person is very useful when the writer is trying to tell a large-scale story with many different characters, across a long space of time, or a very complex story where a single POV may leave the reader with too many questions. The risk of alienating or not keeping your reader invested with this POV is higher than First Person, but it can be done very well if proper attention is given to character arcs and erratic head-hopping is avoided. Game of Thrones is an excellent example of using Third Person effectively to tell a sweeping and very involved epic and still engaging the reader’s interest.
I hope you found these explanations helpful and will join me next week as I cover another aspect of creative writing. Until next time,