Deciding on a Point of View for Your Story
You might not have realized it yet, but today is an exciting day. For today is the day that you are officially ready to move beyond the planning process and begin growing the word count of your novel at a rapid pace. At long last, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and begin drafting the bulk of your book, transforming the hearty pile of characters, settings, and events you have constructed into complete sentences and chapters. Additionally, although you may have already sketched out some early scenes, the time has come to make some concrete choices regarding the structure and style of your words themselves.
Over the course of this section, you are going to make some important decisions. Decisions that will help to shape the reader’s experience of your story in a number of critical ways. The first task that lies before you is picking which point of view style and character(s) you want to use, as well as the tense of your prose.
Writing is a diverse art form and as such, you have a number of options to choose from when considering the best point of view for your narrative. In today’s entry on viewpoint, I will help you to unpack and ponder each of these options, explain how each operates in the context of storytelling, and then help you to decide which approach is the best fit for the novel you are writing.
What is a point of view in writing?
The definition of point of view (PoV) in literature is: “the position of the narrator in relation to the story, as indicated by the narrator’s outlook, how events are depicted, and by their attitude toward the characters.” Or put another way, the point of view is where the “camera” is placed within a given scene, filtering the meaning and immediacy of the events contained within.
Why picking the right point of view is vital to the success of your novel
The point of view you select will have a major impact on the drafting of your novel. In fact, you can’t do much drafting at all without first committing to a style that you will be using throughout the entirety of your story. Fortunately, most novels tend to lend themselves naturally to one of these formats, so by the time you arrive at the end of this section, you will likely have a good idea which option is right for you.
A word of warning is warranted here however, as changing tense or narration style once you have already drafted a large number of words is a huge chore and an easy way to lose momentum, so try not to change them once you start without a compelling reason to do so.
The PoV you settle on will have a considerable impact on your reader’s experience as well, filtering how much and what kind of information they receive regarding your world and characters.
What is the first person, second person, and third person point of view?
Before we cover each PoV style in depth, here is an overview of the four types of viewpoints commonly used in writing:
- First person point of view: The 1st person point of view is the “I” of storytelling. The character is telling his or her own story, conveying these experiences directly to the reader.
- Second person point of view: In the 2nd person point of view, the story is addressed to “you” (the reader). This PoV is not commonly used in fiction (as opposed to say letter, essay, or blog writing), but it is still useful to understand how it works.
- Limited third person point of view: In the limited 3rd person point of view, events happen to “she” and “he.” Limited third person is by far the most common PoV used in fiction. In the limited format, the narrator or “camera” is usually placed in or near the characters’ heads, allowing you to convey their thoughts and emotions directly.
- Omniscient third person point of view: In the omniscient 3rd person point of view, the narrator knows whatever the writer wishes, including the thoughts of the characters alongside information regarding events they know nothing about.
We will cover each of these viewpoint styles in greater detail in just a moment, but before we do, here are some general questions to consider while you think things through:
- Which of my character’s eyes do I want my reader to be looking through?
- Do I want to share their thoughts and feelings directly?
- How closely do I want my narration and description to match my characters’ manner of thinking and speaking?
Two key choices for deciding on a point of view
Single vs. multiple PoV novels
Regardless of your preferred style, the first PoV you chose will usually be the story’s protagonist. Assuming that you follow this convention, you now have to decide whether to use this single PoV for the entire novel, or if you want to use additional members of your cast as viewpoint characters as events progress.
As I said, for single point of view story, the protagonist will almost always be the chosen PoV. However, as with any rule, there are many successful stories that break it. One famous exception is with Watson being the PoV for Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Even if you do decide to use multiple PoV characters, one (likely your protagonist) is going to be used first and (at least a bit) more often than the rest.
So here comes your first major set of choices, namely:
- Which character will you use as your primary PoV?
- Will you stick with this PoV for the entire novel, or will you utilize multiple viewpoints?
- Which members of your cast are best suited to be your viewpoint characters?
Here are some ideas to consider while thinking it over:
Reasons to use a single point of view
- To build a powerful bond between the reader and main character.
- To limit what the reader knows.
- To create a sense of intimacy and immediacy.
- The narrator is the main character (first person).
Reasons to use multiple points of view
- To control what information the reader has access to at given points throughout a story.
- To build suspense by cutting away at key moments (cliffhangers).
- To add breadth and continuity to longer stories.
- To divide a longer story or chapter into more easily digestible portions.
- To provide multiple interpretations of events.
Writing a story with multiple viewpoints
A multi-PoV story includes a narrative in which more than one central character is used as the story’s viewpoint. In each case, the “camera” of the narrative is placed over the shoulder or behind the eyes of a given character, relaying their thoughts, feelings, and knowledge directly (or implicitly in some cases) to the reader.
The main differences between writing a novel with multiple PoVs and a singular one include:
- In multi-PoV stories, the viewpoint changes at key moments (usually after chapters or subchapters).
- Multi-PoV stories tend to include more subplots, as each viewpoint character comes with their own goals and obstacles.
- In a single PoV novel, the reader spends all of their time with a single character, while in multi-PoV stories the narrative is dispersed across several members of your cast. This allows you to cast a wider net at the cost of some depth.
- Multiple point of view stories are a bit trickier to structure and balance, but it’s not that bad.
So then, how do you come to a decision if one approach doesn’t leap out at you right from the start? It really comes down to asking yourself the following question: “Can I tell this story the way I want using a single point of view, or does it feel too limiting?” Or put another way, don’t use multiple points of view unless it adds to the reader’s experience.
Here are some additional considerations if you are leaning towards a multiple point of view novel:
Dividing the page count between your cast
In some multi-PoV stories, each viewpoint character is allocated roughly the same number of pages. While in others, one or two will dominate the stage and the rest are treated as garnish and filigree. There is no right or best way to divide up the screen time for your PoV characters, but I recommend that the PoV you plan on using first be one of the ones that will be used for a fair portion of your book (unless you include a prologue before your first chapter).
You don’t want to give the reader whiplash by head-hopping during the early parts of your story, so it’s better to add to the PoV count slowly, returning to familiar individuals and events frequently until the new characters don’t feel like strangers anymore.
Managing viewpoint changes
Regardless of the total number of viewpoint characters, whenever you change who the camera is following, you will want to make the transition as clear and painless for your reader as possible. This means that it should be obvious almost immediately which character is being used for the present PoV, preferably from the first sentence of a new chapter or scene.
This is important for a number of reasons, chief among them being that whenever a reader thinks are reading about one character, only to discover three pages in that action was really following another, it is an incredibly frustrating and immersion breaking experience.
The easiest way to switch up the point of view is to either start a new chapter or to use a full page break to indicate a new subchapter. However you decide to manage PoV changes, keep the format consistent throughout your novel and your readers will thank you for it. Finally, whenever you do change a PoV, remember to try to frame what is happening from the perspective and life experience of the present character.
Exercise: Deciding which member(s) of your cast will become viewpoint characters
Your first big choice in the drafting process is to decide whether you want to use a single or multiple points of view. Making this decision involves asking yourself some of the same questions that you will need to ponder when deciding which of your central characters to use when writing a multi-PoV novel.
So how do you begin to decide which of your central characters to use as viewpoint characters? Start by asking yourself the following questions when considering each option:
- Does this character add a unique and valuable perspective to my story?
- Could another character relate these events equally powerfully?
- Does this character have a vibrant subplot to add to my overall narrative?
- Would my story be weaker or unchanged by eliminating this PoV?
When deciding between two or more promising contenders, ask yourself:
- Which character tells the main story best?
- Which allows me to be as creative as I want?
- Which PoV feels more natural to me as a writer?
- Which feels more fun to read?
- Whose voice sounds the most authentic and powerful?
- Who possesses the most compelling subplots and character arc?
- Does this character’s journey resonate with my novel’s theme?
Ultimately, you should decide on a selection of viewpoint characters who each offer a unique voice, as well as a perspective no other character can provide. You will also want to make sure that when placed side by side in the overall narrative, these voices come together to strike a tone that feels balanced and authentic for the story you are trying to tell.
In general, you want your reader to develop a bond to each of your viewpoint characters, so if you do decide to use more than a handful, start with a small cast of and expand the total gradually over time. Another good option is to just pick two or three PoV characters and then stick with that initial bunch the entire way through.
Using minor characters as PoV characters
One variation in multiple viewpoint novels is to use the viewpoint of minor characters for brief sections. This can be an interesting way to offer new information to your reader, but should be used sparingly for the same reasons that you don’t want to dilute your narrative with too many PoVs in general. When using this technique, try to keep these sections short, so that the reader doesn’t begin to treat the PoV character as a main character in their mind.
Reasons to use a minor character’s PoV include:
- When important action takes place somewhere none of the main characters are.
- To show the impact of a situation on the everyday people who live there.
- When someone needs to die, but not have it be a central moment in the story.
A few additional suggestions for writing multi-PoV novels
1: Take the time to fully develop each viewpoint character before writing from their perspective
This is where all of the work you did back in planning stage really begins to pay off. Because you are going to need to possess a strong grasp of your characters’ life histories and worldviews, as well as the values and goals that are important to them, before you can write convincingly from their perspectives. This means that you need to have a good idea of how each viewpoint character thinks and processes the world around them, their core personality, what they tend to pay attention to, habitual responses, etc.
2: Attempt to develop a unique voice for each viewpoint
One reason why developing your characters’ perspectives is so important is that it enables you to grant each of them a unique voice when they take their turn as a viewpoint character. Giving your viewpoint characters their own voice means that when you write from their perspective, the narrative will shift to reflect their present thoughts and feelings, as well as how they view the world in general. This helps to ensure that each PoV sounds and feels different from one another to your reader, allowing each to contribute to the story in different ways.
Writing from a character’s unique voice will also help the reader to more readily identify who the camera is following. After all, the entire reason you chose to tell a part of the story from their perspective was due to the unique qualities, outlook, and worldview of that character. A well-developed voice shines through in dialogue and inner monologue, character interaction, as well as in what aspects of a situation or environment a given character focus on.
3: Have a clear purpose for each viewpoint choice when constructing a scene
When drafting a scene, sometimes only one character’s voice will fit, making the selection for that section easy. However, other times a scene could potentially be drafted from more than one viewpoint character’s eyes, meaning that you have to decide which possibility is best for your story.
Reasons to choose one character over another might include:
- One character possesses critical information the others do not.
- One character has more to gain or lose.
- One character’s viewpoint best reinforces the atmosphere of the scene.
- One character feels the same emotions that you want your readers to experience.
4: Cut down on excessive head-hopping
In multiple viewpoint novels it is important not to dilute your narrative with frequent or unnecessary perspective changes, as well as not to confuse your audience as to who the camera is following. Head-hopping occurs when changing the PoV is distracting or ambiguous to your reader, damaging immersion and their connection to your characters. It is almost always best to keep each chapter or subchapter in the perspective of a single character.
5: Avoid redundancy
No one likes to read the same information over and over during the course a story. This means that you should generally avoid revisiting the same scene using multiple viewpoints. This also means that you should avoid telling your reader the same information more than once or twice, even if each character is learning it for the first time. Utilize tools such as exposition and summary to compress these moments, as this will help to keep your story fresh and the reader turning those pages.
Second choice: First vs. third person
Once you have your first big decision out of the way, it’s time for another major choice, namely whether to use the first or third person for your narrative, as well as the present or past tense. If your novel will feature multiple PoVs, then at least one choice is easy, as you will almost certainly be using the third person (using the first person doesn’t really work in this case, although some stories do mange to mix a bit of third and first person together in their narrative without any problems).
For a single PoV story, the decision may be less obvious, as each option offers advantages over one another in certain contexts. As with so many other things in writing, there is no wrong choice, but it is still important to pick the option that best suits the story you are trying to tell. Let’s take a closer look at each option and their variants, as well as the advantages and limitations of each approach.
First person point of view
The first person viewpoint is unique to the written word, rising to popularity as the autobiographical story format began to sell. The first person is an intimate, limited format, allowing the writer to focus on telling a story from a single perspective the entire way through. When reading a story in the first person, it feels like the viewpoint character is speaking directly to you, relaying their experiences as if they were sitting down beside you.
The first person is an inherently limited format, as the narrator only has access to their own thoughts and feelings, meaning that there are many aspects of the larger situation unfolding around them that they know nothing about (or even have a completely wrong understanding of). However, this restricted, biased telling of a story can also be a powerful way of conveying a narrative, one in which a reader can easily form a connection to the protagonist and their journey, as they have full access to their private, inner world.
Strengths: Using the first person can be a powerful format for novels featuring a person vs. self central conflict, as the protagonist’s inner world is already the central focus of the story. It can also be useful when the story relies on the character not knowing the full truth, such as in mysteries and horror novels.
Weaknesses: As the narrative consists of only those events that the PoV character experiences firsthand, it can be difficult to convey information regarding events beyond their knowledge. A first person story is also rather restrictive as to the number and nature of subplots contained, as your reader gains considerably less access to the wants and needs of other people than they would using a multi-PoV format.
Third person point of view
As I mentioned above, the overwhelming majority of stories involving multiple viewpoints are written in the third person, as the first person “I” doesn’t really make sense in this format. Furthermore, the third person grants a reader access to the thoughts and feelings of multiple individuals and diving into a variety of viewpoints will feel completely natural to your audience when using it.
When using a single PoV, the third person can still offer some advantages. While it may not feel quite as intimate as the first person, it gives an author an opportunity to occasionally set the camera in places other than behind the protagonist’s eyes. One common way of doing this is to position the camera somewhere in the scene before the protagonist arrives. Another it to leave it behind for a few paragraphs in order to show what happens after the viewpoint character’s exit.
You can also increase the “distance” of the camera at will when using the third person, zooming all the way into the protagonist’s heart and brain, or out to watch events progress from several feet away (or even further). In general, using the third person grants an author more freedom, as you can still provide information to the reader that the viewpoint character is not aware of.
One unique option when using the third person in a single PoV novel is setting the scene with what I call the “wide angle shot.” An example might go something like this:
The main character is about to enter a deserted mansion as the sun sets. The scene begins from a hundred feel up in the air, describing the manor grounds, the fading light, and a hint of storm brewing on the horizon. Then the camera drops down, giving us a closer look at the ominous exterior of the building. The action starts as the main character’s car arrives and parks under a streetlight and we get to watch as they nervously approach. Once the character is standing in front of the main gate, the camera jumps to behind their eyes, now telling the story from a “close” perspective as they knock on the door.
This close version of the third person offers some of the same advantages as using the first person. You can provide the character’s thoughts and emotions directly to the reader, and the tone of the narrative can shift to match their patterns of thought and speech.
Third person PoV styles
In the unlimited omniscient third person PoV, the narrator is effectively “god,” in that the viewpoint character (or narrator) has unrestricted access to everything about the characters, world, and plot. In a sense, when using the unlimited third person, you have effectively transformed the camera into a character, one who can either possess as much personality as your core cast or tell the story from a more neutral perspective.
A common place where you see this format utilized, is when the narrator is one of the main characters involved in the plot, but is telling the story from sometime in the future, possessing full knowledge of the events that will soon unfold. This results in your story effectively splitting the PoV character into two separate components, their present character and future narrator selves. The unlimited viewpoint offers you infinite freedom to place the camera anywhere you choose and to provide any information you wish directly to your audience. However, it comes at the cost of intimacy and voice and runs the risk of making it more difficult for your reader to bond with your cast.
This PoV style is most useful in novels with complex plots featuring numerous moving parts. Where in order to understand the big picture, the reader needs to be filled in on events occurring in many places simultaneously. If you do decide to use it, I suggest limiting each scene (chapter or subchapter) to following a single character in order to maintain cohesion and focus and to make it easier for your audience to keep track of the action.
Advantages: Unlimited freedom to tell any part of the story from any angle you choose. Useful when the narrator is telling a story from their past or when the reader needs to be provided with information that none of the central characters possess.
Disadvantages: It can be challenging to maintain focus and tension using this format. It may also make it more difficult for your readers to bond with your central characters.
This is the viewpoint style that will likely be the most familiar to you, as it is used for the vast majority of novels. In it, the camera is placed over the shoulder or behind the eyes of one character at a time, granting the reader limited access to their thoughts and feelings.
Advantages: This is a highly flexible narration style, allowing you to work from both up close and far away while exploring the stories of multiple characters.
Disadvantages: Slightly less freedom than the unlimited omniscient viewpoint. Less intimacy than the first person PoV.
Wait, what about the second person point of view?
Although I did mention it above, it is highly unlikely that you will be using second person much if at all in your novel. While some inventive stories do manage to use it effectively (starting chapters with brief, first person “letters” for example), the second person doesn’t really tend to work well for full-length novels. You do see it sometimes in exposition, when a narrator addresses the audience directly, as well as in children’s’ choose-your-own-adventure novels. You might also have noticed that I tend to drop into the second person fairly frequently when writing this blog.
Past vs. present tense
Now that you have decided between a single and multiple point of view, and between the first and third person, there is one last thing to consider as far as the shape of your text is concerned: tense.
Most stories, regardless of viewpoint style, use the past tense (“I ran to the store. She opened the door.”). Present tense, (“I run to the store. She opens the door,”) provides a stronger sense of immediacy (everything is happening right now) and is generally only used for first person perspective stories, although, once again, for every rule there are many stories that successfully break it.
Exercise: Choosing a point of view style and tense
By now, you have hopefully decided on how many and which of your central characters you want to use as viewpoint characters. Now it’s time to commit to a PoV style and tense.
As I mentioned earlier, if you are using a multi-PoV style, you will be almost certainly be using the third person, but you still need to decide on a limited vs. omniscient narration style, as well as present vs. past tense. If you are going to stick with a single PoV, you will need to decide between first and third person, as well as present vs. past tense.
In order to help you decide, I want you to try writing a short scene involving several of your characters. Don’t worry about the quality of the action and dialogue for this exercise, as this scene does not need to be included in your novel. After you complete a first draft, first look and ponder the style you chose initially, as you may very well want to stick with it going forwards. But if you are still undecided, go ahead and rewrite the scene in the other tenses/styles you are considering. This means trying out the present vs. past tense (John drove to the bar and went inside. John drives to the bar and goes inside), as well as first vs. third person (I drove to the drycleaner. Bob drove to the drycleaner).
This means that you might have to write up to four drafts when considering all options for a single PoV novel. As far as the limited vs. omniscient third person goes, stick with the limited unless your narrator is telling the story from the future, somehow possesses otherworldly knowledge, or it is critical for you to be able to directly provide details to your reader that none of the characters or settings could otherwise deliver.
Final thoughts on selecting a point of view
Choosing a PoV that suits the genre of your story
As I alluded to above, most authors find that only one of these perspectives lends itself well to the story they are trying to tell. In my own works of epic sci-fi/fantasy, only the limited third person really works for my large cast of viewpoint characters (although I do use a neutral unlimited omniscient PoV in just a few places to establish atmosphere and foreshadow). Conversely, an unlimited omniscient narrator doesn’t really work well for horror or mystery stories, as it is hard to build suspense when the narrator already knows “who done it” or the truth behind the supernatural occurrence.
What to do if you do decide to change tense or viewpoint style part way through
I warned you that this shift wouldn’t be easy, but it’s certainly not impossible. You basically have to go through the entire draft line by line (several times) and change each relevant word. One tip I do have to offer is to use the find function of your word processer to make sure that you caught each instance of a word. However, be careful when using the replace all function, as some of the instances might not need to be changed (embedded in dialogue or inner monologue, etc.)
That’s all for this entry on PoV and tense. Now it’s time to head over to the next section, where we will be discussing drafting descriptive text.