A Primer on Point of View

Jacque, Charles Emile, 1813-1894; The Boyhood of Raleigh

What is Point of View?

Point of view, often shortened into POV, is the narrator’s position in reference to a story they are telling (often interchangeable with “perspective,” which is how the narrator processes events).

Although point of view is an essential feature of any story, it is often taken for granted by writers. While there are no set-in-stone rules regarding point of view, there are some guidelines that should only be broken with great consideration.

Types of Point of View

There are three points of view:

First person

The narrator is a character actively involved in the story, generally the protagonist or antagonist, but sometimes a bystander. A first-person narrator only knows what is going on within their own head and their own perception. For example, they can be angry, but they cannot know someone else is angry unless they are told, or perceive that anger somehow (usually visually).

This indicates the reader only knows what the narrator perceives, whether the narrator’s perception is accurate, or the narrator is telling the truth.

Examples: Joe Lansdale’s Hap & Leonard novels, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones

Indicators: The narrator uses I, my, mine, me

Second person

The narrator is telling the story directly to someone, generally treating the reader as a character. While it is uncommon in prose, it is common in poetry and songs.

Once again, the reader only knows what the narrator perceives, whether the narrator’s perception is accurate, or the narrator is telling the truth.

Examples: The Choose Your Own Adventure series, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins, Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

Indicators: The narrator uses you, yours

Third person

The narrator is not a character, but conveys events as they occur/red.

Indicators: The narrator uses he, she, it, his, her, its, them, they, theirs and avoids using I, me, mine, you, yours

Third person is broken down into sub-categories:

Third-person omniscient

The narrator has the ability to know and convey what every character is thinking or doing.

Example: Richard Adams’s Watership Down, C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings

Third-person limited

The narrator follows a specific character or set of characters, and only conveys what that character is thinking or doing.

Example: George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic

Third-person subjective

The narrator conveys what characters are thinking and feeling.

Example: Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find

Third-person objective

The narrator focuses only on dialogue and action, and does not convey characters’ thoughts or feelings.

Example: Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants

KoalabooksThe Importance of Point of View

As stated above, some writers take point of view for granted, and write in whichever point of view feels natural to write in. This isn’t wrong, because it gets the story written. However, sometimes changing the point of view will help a writer continue when they get stuck, or they may find that another point of view will serve the story better.

Some writers choose the point of view carefully, depending on which serves the story best. Using first person generally encourages a more personal connection between the reader and the main character, such as The Lovely BonesGone Girl by Gillian Flynn is written in first person, because it increases the suspense and intensifies the plot twist. In Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, second-person narrator is used for the narrator to distance himself from the painful experiences he is recounting.

Age Group and Genrestoryteller_Anker_Grossvater_1884

Certain points of view are preferred for certain age groups or genres. But, as stated above, these are just general guidelines. Point of view should always, first and foremost, be chosen to serve the story.

Children’s, middle grades, and young adult books are often written in the first person, because younger audiences like their stories to be more immersive. For this reason, it would be a disservice to the story to choose third person objective, and not convey the characters’ personal reflections and feelings.

Unreliable narrator stories and erotica are often written in the first-person as well. As stated above, unreliable narrator stories are driven by the unknown, and first-person is the most limiting point of view. Erotica, on the other hand, is read to convey sensory experiences, and is therefore served best by getting into the characters’ heads.

Biographies and historical non-fiction are told in the third person, and here it is acceptable for the writer to slip some second-person commentary in (more on that below), to convey a relationship between the events in the book and the modern day (For example: “These events established the notion of chivalry as we imagine them today.”).

Autobiographies and personal memoirs, of course, should be told in the first person.

Possible Pet Peeves

Issues with immersion

There are a few reader-specific pet peeves in reference to point of view. Of course, you’re going to have readers who just don’t read a certain type of point of view. Personally, I believe this is absurd, but if a reader finds it difficult to immerse in, say, a first-person narrative, I can’t knock that.

Now, if they go out of their way to give a one- or two-star review BECAUSE they find it difficult to immerse in a certain POV, they’re just a jerk!

Head-hopping

Head-hopping generally means when the narrator shifts their focus from one character to another. This may mean the book has multiple point of view characters and the head-hopping is intentional, or it could mean the narrator broke from the character they are limited to in order to reveal the thoughts, feelings, or actions of another character.

Some readers find these transitions jarring or confusing, especially if they are not done well, and it pulls them out of the story.

Doing it right: George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones is notorious for its large cast, and each chapter is limited to a specific character. He starts off from the very beginning by labeling each chapter with the POV character’s name.

Doing it wrong: I’m going to call myself out here. My novel, COLOSSUS, has five POV characters, each of the four victims and Rhodes. Initially, it was supposed to be third-person limited. I labelled scenes and chapters with the first initial of the main POV character (HHHH for Heather Stokes), but it would occasionally shift to another character for a thought or feeling. I tightened this up in revisions, and later did away with the chapter headers altogether, but I left most of the instances where the narrator shifts from a POV character to Rhodes, hopefully giving him a sense of omnipresence.

Tricks with Second Person

Very often an author writing in third or first person will throw out a “you,” either intending it to be the impersonal “you” (as opposed to “one”), or to break down the fourth wall and interact with the reader.

Both of these are a no-no, as it is often jarring to the reader. Using the impersonal “you” smacks of laziness or ignorance on the author’s behalf. And while breaking down the fourth wall isn’t an issue in itself, doing so when it is not pervasive in the narrator or relevant to the theme is.

Second-person point of view is difficult to pull off in stories, as it tends to sound forced or pretentious. A lot of novice writers attempt second person because it is a challenge, but they do not consider beforehand whether it serves the story they are attempting to write.

Decameron

What about you?

As I mentioned above, some writers just stick to one point of view because it is most natural or comfortable for them. I am not one of those writers–I focus on what feels best for each story, which is how Mathematical Kisses ended up in first person present tense. What a chore!

Do you have a point of view that you prefer to write in or prefer to read?

Have you done any interesting experiments with point or view, or swapped points of view after already starting a project?

Let me know in the comments!


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