How do I know which point-of-view (POV) to use when writing my story? It’s a question I’ve heard over and over again in workshops and/or critique groups I’ve participated in. And yes, I’ve raised my hand alongside everyone else in hopes that someday a profound, no-fail formula will sprout up to demystify it for us all. Sad to say, I haven’t come across one yet. In the meantime, here a few things to consider when making the choice of who can best tell your story:
Point-of-View centers around two decisions one must make up-front:
- Whose story is this? From whose perspective will the story be told?
- How much distance will the POV character/reader have from the events of the story?
Point-of-View can be broken down into four categories:
Seems pretty obvious, but in first-person the main character is referred to as “I.” The character can either be the protagonist, a participant, or if it suits your fancy, a disinterested observer.
Most times the first-person POV is written in the past tense, simply because the narrator must know how the story will end, which means he/she can never die in the story—that is, unless the narrator is a ghost or some other-worldly being.
The main advantage to writing in first-person is the intimacy it provides the reader. The story unfolds simultaneously for both character and reader, thus allowing the reader to personally invest in the story.
This, however, can also be considered a disadvantage, since the reader is then restricted to only the knowledge and/or information the POV already possesses and makes the character unreliable at best.
There are a few other things to consider when you choose first-person. The POV character must be in every scene; otherwise, there’s no story. Also, the POV character can never physically describe him/herself from the outside. Everything must rely on introspection—that is, unless there’s a mirror or shiny surface nearby.
Still, if you ask me, the intimacy and the degree of emotional resonance the first-person can create for the reader–well, it might be worth giving it a try.
In second-person, the POV character is referred to as “you” or “your.”
The one main advantage to the second-person POV is that it allows the reader to totally immerse and become a participant in the story. This works well for shorter pieces, such as flash fiction, but can be difficult to maintain over, say, 300-pages.
Second-person can also be used to step in for a first-person narrator who feels alienated from him/herself. Many of the stories in Lorrie Moore’s collection, Self-Help fall into this category. Check them out and see how they make you feel as a reader. What do you notice?
The third-person limited character is referred to as “he” or “she.”
Third-person limited allows the reader to focus more on the story at hand rather than on the specific worldview of the narrator. You also have the ability to withhold information to maintain suspense.
One disadvantage, of course, is the perceived distance between the narrator and reader. Yet, there are different lens at the author’s disposal:
- Close Third-Person, which resembles first-person in that the events are narrated from a point closely related to that of one character but told in plain English instead of in the character’s own diction. To read an example of close third-person, try Mary Gaitskill’s “Tiny Smiling Daddy.”
- Third-person Objective, which uses a cinematic approach, describing the events from a camera-like perspective where the reader is limited to what can be seen and/or heard without going into the consciousness of any of the characters. A good example of third-person objective is Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”
You’ll find that most contemporary literature is written in third-person. It could be because it’s the most forgiving.
The third-person omniscient narrator is not a character in the story, but simply the all-knowing presence telling the story as it plays out. The reader has the ability to observe the story from many angles and perspectives at once. There are zero restrictions.
This POV is probably most associated with classic literature. Think Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. There aren’t too many writers who use this today, even though it sounds fabulous to have the ability to know and see everything taking place. Who doesn’t want to be a god, right?
So, there you go—point-of-view in a nutshell. Still, unsure which is the best fit for your story? As an exercise, try taking a piece of your own writing and rewrite it in a different viewpoint. How does it change the story? How does it relate to your reader? After doing this a few times, one will begin to grow on you. Trust me.
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Thanks for this detailed breakdown of the POVs.
You’re welcome. I’m glad you found the information helpful.
Thought-provoking! Thanks. It seems as though an over-arching rule is to intrigue the reader without confusing them too much. Of course, there are many ways to intrigue readers without experimenting with POV. There are ways to get around some of the “restrictions” on POV, right? The first person narrator could be magic, or have lived other lives, or have ESP. Beyond that of course, we can allow the first person narrator to discover information by finding the suicide note, getting email, reading an article in the paper, etc. I also wonder how vital it is to be consistent in POV. In some movies, for instance, the viewer sometimes seems to be able to know what is going on in the heads of numerous people AND have shots that are more from an omniscient viewpoint. I think a move can get away with this because it causes no confusion for the viewer. At one level, it’s all second person in that the viewer is seeing snippets of life as they generally do. So, unless the cinematographer is intentionally misleading the audience or introducing ambiguity, there doesn’t seem to be such insistence on consistency. Here’s a story you might like. I don’t *think* POV is confusing, but being the writer, I wouldn’t be. LOL. I try to make it clear to the reader when I am going inside Henry’s head explicitly and also with the typography. This story is fiction but based on two real historical characters. https://petersironwood.wordpress.com/2017/07/28/if-only/
Thank you for reading the blog, Peter, and for your comments about P.O.V. Yes, I agree. The overarching rule is to write a story which resonates with the reader while not getting too lost in the weeds. Also, it was a pleasure to read your story. Thank you for sharing it.