What’s the right point-of-view for your story?

New York Binoculars. Brian → in Objects

Like characters, plot, and setting, a story’s point-of-view can go a long way. Points-of-view in literature have always fascinated me, and I’ve found that most writers tend to cling to certain perspectives. I, myself, tend to gravitate towards first person and third person limited. In fact, I’ve never attempted a multiple point-of-view story! Now I’m suddenly feeling like a novice 😦

Either way, I think certain stories lend themselves to certain points-of-view. I can’t possibly imagine a grandiose bildungsroman such as Great Expectations being told in any perspective outside first person.

I’ve written up a brief overview of each type below. This knowledge is mostly a culmination of courses I’ve attended, books I’ve read, and writing I’ve done. I’m presenting this information to you based on my own…wait for it…point-of-view! I certainly don’t claim to be an expert:

The Major Types of Point-of-View

First Person: These are stories told in the “I” voice. Many budding novelists use this perspective because it feels natural. Generally speaking, first person stories have that unmistakable ‘flow.’ This point-of-view is never to be confused with the author; in fact, the narrator is an actual character in the story.

However, there are two different kinds of first person narrators. (1) A character who is actively involved in the story. Think Jane, from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. (2) A character who is a casual observer. Think Nick Carroway from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Nick may be dictating the course of events, but the story actually focuses on Jay Gatsby (arguably, anyway). Think about how the story would change if Gatsby himself were the sole voice.

Pros:  the reader has the opportunity to become thoroughly acquainted with one of main characters. Plus, generally speaking, despite bad behavior and less than stellar moral conduct, a reader will root for the protagonist, because it is impossible to see the situations through anyone else’s eyes.
Cons: the reader may miss out on secondary characters’ points of view, thus, misinterpreting their true motives; moreover, the notion of the ‘unreliable narrator’ is most palpable here.

Best used for: Coming of age stories, or other stories where the protagonist undergoes a transformation, has an epiphany, etc.

Second Person: In some cases it is basically a first person narration talking to himself. It could also be the narrator addressing another character (perhaps a lost love?) Finally, the “You” the narrator can speak directly to the reader.

Pros: involves the reader, as if he or she is part of the action taking place in the story
Cons: hard to get involved with the characters’ thoughts, emotions, etc.

Best used: (I’ve heard) Detective or ‘crime solving’ novels, or perhaps a series of letters to another character.

Third Person: Here we have an unknown narrator who is not part of the story. This narrator can shift points-of-view from one character to another.

Pros: generally not unreliable, has multiple perspectives, and can refer to situations and instances outside one sole character’s mind.
Cons: shift from different perspectives can blur, be jarring for the reader

Best used for: Family sagas, any story with more than one main character

Third Person Limited: In some ways, this is very close to first person, because the point of view focuses solely on one character’s perspective. It is an outside force, narrator, that “knows all” without being an actual character, but really only is able to get inside the mindset of one character—nine times out of ten, the main character

Pros: reliable, slightly more open than first person, can be aware of character thoughts that character him-or herself is not aware of—more difficult to do this with first person.
Cons: limited perspective, can’t hear the one character’s voice as clearly as first person

Best used for: coming-of-age stories, short stories (which doesn’t always have time to switch character points of view)

Omniscient: This is a big, grandiose perspective. In other words, “God-like;” sees all, every encompassing move surrounding a band of characters. Does not focus on any characters’ too closely.

Pros: wide, can refer or remark on things characters can’t see, such as someone creeping up behind them in the woods, etc.
Cons: distance from characters. Can watch movements, hear things they say, speculate on them, etc, but can’t get inside any of them.

Best used for: poems, certain short stories, can be disconcerting in novel form

Please tell me…which point-of-view do you tend to write in? Which point-of-view do you enjoy to read most? Waiting for your thoughts.

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23 Comments

Filed under Books and Literature, The Writing Life, Writing Details, Writing Process

23 responses to “What’s the right point-of-view for your story?

  1. Sometimes POVs can be mixed. I read a crime novel once where the detective’s scenes were in first and the criminal’s (and one or two others) were in third. It worked! I’ve also seen first person novels with alternating character POVs (like hero and heroine in a romance). If it’s done well, it can be a good thing.

    When it comes to romance, I’m a fan of getting in the hero’s head. 😉

    • Hi Melissa, yes, I actually really like multiple points-of-view. My goal is to one day attempt to do it myself. I once read a novel about a woman whose husband had an affair, and the wife told her story from the first point-of-view, and the “other woman” was written in third person. Very telling.

  2. I’m also fascinated by POV. I love the way Barbara Kingsolver featured multiple POV (from several characters) in The Poisonwood Bible. Have you ever noticed, at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens shifts for a moment out of what seems third-person omniscient to first person then back again. It’s facinating because I think, in today’s climate, an editor would have pulled it … but it’s a beautiful passage.

    • Hi Terri, thanks for stopping by. Now that you mention it, I remember someone in one of the college classes pointing out that passage in A Tale of Two Cities. You’re absolutely right…it would’ve been edited out today. I’m glad it wasn’t back then though. Little things like that is what makes literature what it is.

  3. I write third person. Don’t know why. I guess it’s the flexibility it gives me. Thanks for the summary.

  4. I prefer writing in first person present or the near past, but reading, I’m not loyal to either. I admire authors who’ve mastered the omniscient point of view.

  5. I tend to write in first person naturally. I want to start writing in third person more often, just for a change of pace. I think the reason I can write in first person more naturally than third is because usually, when I write, I am sort of imagining that I am the character. I guess that is kind of weird.
    I don’t always like reading books where the POV switches from moment to moment. Some books go back and forth between chapters, with each entire chapter being devoted to one character’s POV. I think I like that better.

    • Hi Nicki…thanks for stopping by! I just thrown off by books that frequently shift POV as well. I agree, much better when one chapter is devoted to one character’s POV. I think first person comes most naturally to me as well. I know what you mean about imagining yourself as the character. In fact, I do it too! It’s not weird!

  6. I always enjoy your posts. 🙂
    I really struggled with point-of-view when I started writing, but am finally beginning to get it straightened out. I head-hopped like crazy and couldn’t see what was wrong with that!
    I love to write in third person limited, and do alternating chapters from different points of view, usually only the main character and one or two side characters. To me, being inside another character’s head, feeling what they feel and acting on it is what drives my stories forward.
    It would make sense that I would like first person for the same reason, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to write that way. Perhaps I’m not ready to completely surrender my perspective as the writer for that of one of my characters. It still feels like a bit of a deception to try and pass myself off as someone else.
    I do want to try it though. If things go my way, NaNoWriMo this year would be a great place to give it shot.

    • Thanks for your kind words as always 🙂 That’s interesting what you say about completely surrendering your perspective as the writer, etc. I’m reading an interesting book called “A Kite in the Wind” and it includes an essay about this very thing. It stresses the important of the author, character, narrator formula. In other words, they should separate from one another…interdependent if you will. The author is NOT the narrator, and the narrator needs to work as both the story teller AND a character in the story. It’s actually a pretty complex thing, which is likely at it’s most difficult in the first person. I think a lot of people consider first person the “easiest” to write, but if you consider all the lines that could potentially blur, it’s actually quite challenging. And just so happens to be my favorite point of view to both write and read.

  7. As always, great post, Katherine. And I’ve nominated you for the One Lovely Blog Award. Head on over to my site to find out more.:) Keep up the good work!

  8. Love this post, as correct usage of point of view ca make or break a story. Like you, I had never attempted a multi-point of view story, but am attempting it in a new piece I’m working on. Though I’d been sort of reticent about it, I’m surprised to find that I’m enjoying it immensely. I didn’t start out with a plan to do so, but the characters began taking over & each wanted their say in their own way. I guess the important lesson here is to allow your characters to guide you, rather than twisting them into the boxes you decide they should occupy…

    • Very true, Sylver. Sometimes a POV IS a story! One day I’ll be as brave as you are and go for multi-point of view story. I imagine I would like it very much as well. As always, thanks for the encouragement.

  9. I usually write in third. I write romance genre and want both my hero and heroine understood. I did write one story where I even had the bad guys pov. I just feel like this gives the reader a better chance to fall for the characters I want them to like and or hate. I never get into more then there heads though, too confusing for everyone involved-or I think anyway.

    I recently wrote a post on pov but didn’t get into details. Thanks for the summary. It’s a great overview.

  10. That’s interesting, Michelle–the antagonist’s POV. I bet he/she came across more likable than he/she would have if the POV was changed. I’m a big believer in the fact that people tend to side with the narrator…no matter how awful he or she may be.

  11. Definitely bookmarking this one–thanks!

  12. Pingback: The Art of Narrative, Part One: Introduction and POV « Eva Rieder

  13. An interesting topic that we can never know enough about. My first novel I wrote without knowledge of narrative voice, so discovered my inclination rather than making a conscious choice, it was a kind of third person omniscient point of view. I remember getting to that point and asking myself, “Who is actually telling this story?” and then worrying that I’d made a huge error by doing that. But it really made me start paying attention in my reading of other novels, especially as I started out thinking only 1st person would do and then gradually finding excellent examples of how other pov’s can and do work equally well.

    One of the most interesting references I came across was an interview with Jeffery Eugenides, discussing his writing of ‘Middlesex’. He talks about how what began as problems eventually became resolved by creating multiple perspectives, it reads like a natural process and reminded me that perseverance is such a virtue in writing, just continuing to work through it until a solution arrives.

    • That is so true, Claire…working and working until a ‘solution arrives.’ Well said. POV can be tricky, but I think should come naturally to a story that needs to be told.

      I think first person does lend itself to effective narrative voice more easily than other POVs, but it’s like you said…in writing everything is permeable and amazingly, things have a way of working out.

      Thanks for the interview. I just started reading “The Marriage Plot.” Always good to hear advice from the professionals.

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