choosing a POV for your story

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.

First Person 

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

  • 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.

19 thoughts on “choosing a POV for your story

  1. I found this a very well presented lesson. In my first novel, I used Third person omniscient. During editing I was questioned about “head jumping,” with rapid movements from one POV to another. Are there hard a fast rules here? I read many novels that head jump quite a bit. In your opinion what is TOO MUCH and what pointers can you give to help the transitions…. Thank you!

    • Hi Rick!

      Okay, head jumping is one of those writing issues that not everyone will agree on. I have no doubt that you have read lots of novels that head jump. The question you want to ask yourself is whether that worked or not, how did that novel do in your estimation? Were you ever confused about who was talking when? Did you ever have to pause to figure out whose scene it is?

      For some readers head jumping can be confusing. Personally, I am against head jumping. The thing is, each character is going to have his/her own voice in your novel. They are also going to carry scenes in different ways. Their view of the world is different from each other and their responses, behavior, actions are all different. That’s why it’s important that each of your characters is given center stage when it is their turn to narrate or act in your novel. They must be individual enough that your reader will always know who is speaking without the tags (he said, she yelled). When you start head jumping the characters bump into each other because they’re all trying to carry the scene. Does that make sense?

      As far as transitions, you can do a couple of things. You can use space breaks to show that you’re changing from one scene to the next, or from one character’s POV to another character’s POV, time changes, setting changes, etc. You can also chapter breaks. Each character gets his own chapter to speak. But my advice to you is not to use more than one character’s POV in any one scene.

      If you feel like you still want to do multiple POVs in one scene, just try to make sure everything is straightforward, concise, and that there are good reasons why they all have to take part in the same scene.

      Thanks for a great question! Feel free to keep in touch with any other questions or musings! :)

      Kate

      • I like your viewpoint… And yes I know (looking back) I need to make sure I never confuse the reader. In looking at my work, it’s not the jumping that is a problem a the reasoning behind it. I see that I was (am) doing it for NO GOOD REASON. The comment(s) or views given can expressed differently and maybe even skipped. If needed a POV change later can sum up the thoughts of that character and the point can be made then. Thanks for teh sounding — I really like this blog!

      • Hi Rick,

        You had me laughing when I read “I am doing it for no good reason.” That’s usually a pretty strong indicator that it might not be the best tactic. For me, a key rule of thumb is consistency. Once you lay down the groundwork with POV, it’s best to stick with it for your readers’ sake as well as your own!

        Thanks for commenting.

  2. I think it all depends on what you feel most comfortable with and what works for you. I find first person quite tricky to do and I think there is a lot more skill involved. This is because it’s hard to do things that are not directly seen by the protag. However, I enjoy reading these because you can feel a stronger attachment to them.

    For my NaNo novel I used a bit of a weird mixture, I wouldn’t know how to describe it. It’s more omniscient because you peek into different lives, but some things you find out at the same time as the protag. Confusing.

    Like I mentioned to you before, I’ve chosen to do the flashback sequences in mine in 1st person. I’m not even completely sure if this works (maybe I’ll have to get you to have a look when it’s done). I just found it added a different dimension to my story. As my main character is meant to feel the memories as if they are the person, it seemed to ‘fit’ to use 1st person.

    Yes, I can see what you mean with making the character like you. I actually found that I deliberately chose things I didn’t like as her ‘favourite’, as I was paranoid about making us similar!

    It’s strange you say that you found first person easier for urgency as I actually found third person easier for this very reason! Ohh set out to destroy her… intriguing! I really like the sound of your novel and I can’t wait to read more!

    • Hey Beth!

      Yes, 1st-person is tricky, esp. because it’s quite easy to head-hop without even realizing it, or to explain something that your protag couldn’t possibly know.

      I love how you are upping the ante with your point-of-view choice. Your novel sounds complex, so I think you are wise to make the POV complex also.

      I would absolutely love to look at it when it’s done. Thanks!

      Isn’t it funny how different POV’s get us, as authors, to write differently?

      Yes, someone has set out to destroy her…it’s delicious stuff!! :)

      Thanks for commenting!

      PS-love the new logo. It’s so cool! Tell your friend he did a most excellent job!!

      • Yes definitely and I’m not really a big fan of the head hop!

        Well, I’m not sure if it completely works yet, but we will see! Haha. Awesome, I would really appreciate your opinion as I trust it!

        Ohh, I’m excited to read more of your story! When will my prying eyes be able to see more?

        I know I love it! Thank you I will. He’s actually our web designer at work so he knows what he’s doing! I think it makes us look much more professional. Ohh I need to send you an email actually. Keep your eyes peeled!

        Bx

  3. My four novels have all been written from the relative security and modest freedom of limited omniscience, which makes sense for the kind of contemporary thrillers that are my forte. I did shade over into some head jumping in the first, Bashert, but that was divided into three parts, each with a focus on a different POV character in an extremely unusual love triangle. I think I would find it hard to do an entire novel in the first person, but several of the stories in my collected short fiction, Requisite Variety, are written in the first person. Sustaining the immersion for 3-10,000 words strikes me as easier–for writer and reader alike–than over 80-100,000 words.

    –Larry Constantine (pen name, Lior Samson)

    • Hi Larry,

      Wow, I really like the sound of Bashert! I think “an extremely unusual love triangle” sounds quite intriguing.

      You bring up a really interesting point in that staying with a 1st-person POV would be difficult for an entire novel. As my attempts at 1st-person POV have been in short stories or, more recently, in my NaNoWriMo novel (which I stopped writing at 50,000 words so it’s not yet a full novel), I wouldn’t know whether it is more difficult or not. But you definitely have me thinking…! ;)

      I will definitely agree that there is more freedom with the limited omniscience than in first-person. I think you can go farther and deeper with literary devices, as well as provide a broader survey of setting and character.

      Thanks so much for commenting!

  4. I have heard, and it’s mentioned here, that 1st person is more difficult to write in. But, as we all know, everyone is different. For me, 1st person is a lot easier to write in than 3rd person.

    When I write in 3rd person, I find myself making some mistakes that irritate me. I want to write limited, but I jump into omniscient (because, let’s face it, it’s my world, I’m creating it, I basically AM God with these characters and this world). I find myself doing the head-jumping thing at times, which I don’t much like. And, there is SO much potential freedom, and SO many possibilities, I can get off track.

    With first person, I can focus much easier. I only have one character (at a time) whose perspective I have to worry about. Because it is so limited, I’m like an actor playing a part. I simply have to get into the head of this one person and, since I’m writing from first person POV, once I get into that character’s head, I have no problem staying there.

    It also forces me to be instantly more creative and strengthens my writing, specifically because it is so limited.

    • Hi A.W.,

      You’re absolutely right. Everyone is different, and I know a few people who prefer 1st-person as well. Yup, it’s much easier to head-jump when you’re writing in third, and in some cases, it is a fine line as to what kinds of thoughts and observations should be kept to a limited POV.

      I enjoyed my experience with 1st-person so much so that I am likely to write using that POV again. I think it’s like you say, I was able to focus much easier and not have to worry about picking up on the observations/thoughts of any other characters.

      One point you bring up that wasn’t the case for me, was being forced to be instantly creative. I found my writing stlye became much simpler, and I didn’t use any literary devices (metaphors, etc). Probably because my character would not view the world in that way.

      Thanks for commenting!

  5. I call it the art of the Unlimited POV rather than ‘head-jumping.’ It’s slightly different but if done well, works. UPOV is when one character observes something about another but doesn’t necessarily understand its significance. The reader understands it & knows that the narrator has offered the information for a reason. UPOV is a useful device & means we don’t have to limit ourselves.

    IMV UPOV works if it’s controlled & subtle. It has to be part of the story’s structure.

    • Hi Carol!

      I like that, the art of the Unlimited POV.

      I can see your point, that if it’s done well, it works.

      There are no hard and fast rules in writing, are there? Other than that very one you mention: If it’s done well, it works.

      You definitely have my curiosity up! :) Can you give any examples of written works that use this particular POV? I’d be interested in checking them out and seeing how the author applies it. Maybe one day I can try it, too!

      Thank you so much for commenting!

  6. You’re welcome. I like connecting with writers who are at the revision/polishing/querying stage.

    Probably best to direct you to Nicola Morgan’s blog & this post: http://helpineedapublisher.blogspot.com/2011/12/unlimited-limited-single-pov.html.

    I like a bit of serendipity – I’ve been working with UPOV for some time & didn’t realise it had a name! I read Nicola fairly regularly – it was one of those ‘Oh yes, I do that’ moments. (Or at least I try to do that.)

    She gives a good example of UPOV in the post. To be honest, I see examples of it all the time – they’re random & because the good ones are subtle, the reader rolls with it & hardly notices it’s a device.

    Good writing is like that & what we all strive for. At present, I’m wrestling with a major revision.

    Onward & sideways.

    • Great! Thanks for the information. I will follow up on it.

      Yes, I do know what you mean by stumbling across something and realizing that is what you do as well. In some ways, it is heartening to know you’re not completely out in left field!! Or, at least, to know you have company in left field.

      Good luck with your revision!

      • It feels important to remember that while we aren’t mainstream published (I have one self-published novel out there) it doesn’t mean that we lack talent. It’s easy to believe other people’s hype. And to feel diminished or overwhelmed by those who have made it.

        I can do left field – some of the most interesting experiences of my life came out of it!

        We need to know our own worth. And never stop working toward making what we have written so far, even better.

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