How do you know which point of view to choose in your story? Is one better than the other? Do you have a favorite? What are the differences?
Well, for starters, here is a quick rundown of some of the various points of views you can use in fiction.
The hero/heroine narrates in first person. He’ll narrate the same way he talks, but with more description. The reader is privy to all his thoughts and opinions, which means we get to know the hero faster, and often relate to him more easily. This is also a more immediate POV, where you feel like you’re right there with the protag.
- Third person omniscient
This narrator knows everything, peeking into the lives of major and minor characters, reading everyone’s thoughts. This POV enables the writer to explore multiple facets of the story in depth.
- Third person limited
This type knows only what the main character, or characters, know. This is more restrictive, but increases suspense and intrigue, because the reader only solves the mystery at the same time the characters do.
This is a very basic list. There are about a half-dozen POVs like detached observer, interviewer, and commentator, but they are extensions of first-person or third-person and are more role-specific.
Point of view is a huge choice that you need to make before you even start writing. Some people say that you can switch POV, even after you’ve written your story, if you don’t like the voice. Ugh. What a horrible chore. Not only that, but changing POV will alter your story in ways you might not expect. It is better if you play around with POV in a couple of scenes that you already have in mind and see what works best. Then begin writing.
For years I have always written in third-person limited. I like how you have more freedom in narrative regarding description. You can use literary devices such as metaphors and similes. I like that you don’t know what all characters are thinking, so you have to do a lot of showing and reflection; this also allows for fun plot twists.
While I like the immediacy of 1st-person POV, I found it hard to write about a character who kept saying “I” and not transferring me into her. In other words, I kept making the character just like me. After I took a course on POV, I discovered a trick with first-person, and that is to build your character first–before you even write your story. Use 1-, 2-, or 3-word descriptions. For example: disagreeable teenaged girl; competitive in tennis; illiterate, five-feet tall; allergic to milk; afraid of dogs; terrible driver; aggressive.
Using this trick helped me create an individual enough character who had her own reactions and behavior and habits. Once I got a solid picture of this protag, I was able to write some scenes using the “I” POV and voila! There was none of me lurking in her behavior or actions.
When I participated in NaNoWriMo last month, I automatically began writing in the first-person POV. I chose this POV because I was in the mindset of urgency. I needed to get the story down. I couldn’t mess around with a lot of symbolism, or metaphors, or other figures of speech. I simply had to write the story and be careful not to corner myself. My hope was that the first-person POV would help keep me moving the story forward, and prevent me from getting stuck with the ancillary aspects of storytelling.
When I finished my NaNo novel, I was pleasantly surprised with how the POV choice helped tell the story. My protag is easily distracted by an ex-boyfriend, a dead mother, a failing career, and an unknown father. Because of this she is unaware that someone is out to destroy her. The 1st-person POV helped me stay directly in her self-centered thoughts, which enabled me to set up the act of sabotage behind her back. When she’s betrayed we watch her change from that point on. Being right in her thoughts allows for that surprise and directness and reflection.
When I compare this novel to the novel I am querying to literary agents (Spark of Madness), I notice the difference between the protagonists. I wrote “Spark of Madness” in 3rd-person limited because my protagonists (brother and sister) are victims of abuse. They are naturally wary, secretive, and not in tune with their emotions. They are in the process of learning to trust outsiders and they are not forthcoming. I wanted distance between my protags and the audience because that is how it is in real life: People can’t easily get close to victims of abuse. So, I don’t think 1st-person POV would have been a good choice in this type of story with this type of protag.
When you go about choosing a POV, ask yourself some key questions about your protagonist and how you want his/her story to be narrated. What is the atmosphere of your story? Do you want there to be some intrigue, or do you want everything out in the open? How close do you want your readers to be to your protag? How open or how friendly is your protag? Is your protag reliable?
Once you meet and connect with your protagonist, you will discover the best way to tell his story.