How to pick the right point of view for your novel
In this article I’m going to give you some practical, hands-on guidelines for choosing the right point of view (POV) for your novel, a task which is not always as straightforward as it sounds. While I can’t tell you what’s right for your novel—only you can decide that—I can explain the ramifications of each, so you can weigh the pros and cons yourself.
Making the right choice is critical: The wrong choice will undermine the presentation of your characters. The wrong choice will sabotage your whole novel, leaving you with an enormous pile of work in fixing it. The POV choice is such a deep, fundamental element of any novel that changing it usually amounts to a full re-write.
This isn’t a grammar lesson, so I’m going to assume you know the technical difference between first-person and a third-person POVs. Instead, we’re going to look at the options each one gives for how you present your plot and characters, what kinds of mysteries you can create and preserve, and how well you can establish a connection between the reader and your characters.
Third-person omniscient. This is the classic “God’s eye” view of the world. You are allowed to show the reader anything at any time: thoughts, actions, dialogue, even events where your characters aren’t present. The story is told with no explicit narrator.
Third-person omniscient is a great choice when you have a very complex plot with several main characters and minor characters who all follow their own story lines until things meet up at the end. It is ideal if your goal is to allow the reader to watch everything unfold even though the characters aren’t aware of all that’s going on.
However, third-person omniscient is also the emotionally coldest point of view. It is the most distant from your characters. Because third-person can (and often does) skip around from here to there, jumping into and out of different characters heads, it is difficult for readers to form any close emotional ties with the characters.
For books where the plot is the central attraction for readers, third-person omniscient is often the best choice. If your novel doesn’t have much in the way of character arc—if your characters don’t particularly grow or change over the course of the story—then this could well be the way to go.
Third-person limited. Grammatically, this is exactly like third-person omniscient. The only difference is that in third-person limited POV, you channel the entire story through one character’s viewpoint. You can show the POV character’s inner thoughts and opinions, you can show what the character sees, hears, and feels. But, you may only show those things. Showing other characters’ thoughts or events the POV character doesn’t directly experience is dis-allowed.
Third-person limited gives the POV character and the reader exactly the same information. It closes the emotional distance between reader and character and is very effective at giving the reader the same experience of the story as the POV character.
Third-person limited is a great choice when you have an essentially linear plot with minimal diversions or side journeys, and a single main character who experiences all the important plot events. Third-person limited offers a nice balance between a plot-driven story and a character-driven story. This is a good choice for stories where the outer events of your plot matter (that is, you couldn’t get the same effect by switching a plane crash into a train crash, for example), yet those events are closely tied to the character’s inner growth.
First-person. This is when you present one character as the narrator of your story. The character literally relays the story to the reader in present tense as it unfolds, or in past tense from after the events have transpired. Because of the reliance on a single main character, first-person stories require the same type of linear plots as third-person limited POV.
First-person POV presents the smallest emotional distance between the reader and the main character. Thus, first-person is a great choice when the story is more about the inner character arc than it is about the outer plot. But, it is also the hardest POV to write well because it demands a very strong, compelling voice.
Note, harder does not mean better. There are distinct differences between first-person and third-person limited, and each has its place. Because first-person writing involves the main character narrating the story for the reader, it’s not the same presentation of information as in third-person limited.
In either POV, the writer is always in control, but that’s not what a reader perceives. In a first-person story, the reader’s perception is that the narrator—a character—is telling them the story. Implicitly, that narrator chooses what to tell the reader, what to omit, and what spin to put on events. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one: in first-person writing the narrator can lie to the reader, either by commission or omission. In third-person limited, the reader perceives the writer conveying the information, and the writer isn’t supposed to lie to the reader. That’s cheating.
A so-called “unreliable narrator” can create very powerful mysteries, especially if in lying to the reader the narrator is really attempting to lie to him or herself. If your story demands a large, surprising reversal somewhere along the line, an unreliable first-person narrator is an effective way to do it.
Finally, there are a few unusual POV choices and variations on the above choices that bear mentioning:
First-person plural This is when the book’s narrator is a group, rather than a character, and the story is told from a “we” point of view. A good example is the classic Cheaper by the Dozen, by Frank Gilbreth, which is about a family’s father but is told from the collective point of view of the children. Not many books do this, and it’s easy to see why: very few have a premise which permits it. But when done well, it can give the reader a sense of inclusion in the group, as though the reader were part of the collective “we” that’s relating the story.
Second-person. This is when an author puts the reader directly into the story by using “you” as the main character: “You walk into the cafeteria, wrinkling your nose at the smell of mystery meat and canned peas.”
Second-person stories are very rare, and I think for good reason. It is far too easy for this to feel like a gimmick than a good writing choice. In fact, the only examples of this style that I can think of offhand are those entirely gimmicky Choose Your Own Adventure books from the 1980s. (However, if you know of a literary novel that does this and does it well, please share it down in the comments. I’d like to see it.) In theory, I suppose, this POV would eliminate the emotional distance between the reader and the main character entirely.
Multiple POVs. This is simply when you use the techniques of first-person or third-person limited writing, but apply them to multiple characters in the same book. If you try this at all, make sure you know what you’re doing, and think carefully before violating the guideline that you should only switch between POV characters at a scene break or a chapter break.
Multiple third-person limited would not be much different than good third-person omniscient writing. But multiple first-person writing can be incredibly compelling, because it gives a double-dose of the pure character driven experience that only good first-person writing can do. At present, my favorite example of this is The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. This should be a case study for anyone who wants to try multiple first-person POVs.
In a nutshell, here’s how to choose the right POV for your story. First, answer these four questions:
Does the structure of your story force you into a particular choice?
Is the plot more important, are character arcs more important, or are they of roughly equal importance?
How emotionally close do you want the reader to be to your main character(s)?
Do you need a large, surprising reversal that an unreliable narrator could create?
Next, evaluate your answers against the criteria I’ve given above. A complex plot forces most novels into third-person omniscient. Other plot structures have more leeway with POV. Plot-driven stories tend towards third-person, while character driven stories tend towards first-person. Close emotional distance argues for third-person limited or first-person. If you want your characters to be more opaque and enigmatic, third-person omniscient is the way to go. If your novel is more experimental, you might want one of the rare, oddball POVs instead.
Choosing the right POV is important, even critical, to the success of your novel. But with the right guidelines in mind, and by asking yourself the right questions, the right answer is usually easy to find.
September 01, 2009 18:22 UTC
Hypothetical dialogue vs. inner monologue
There’s a style of first-person writing that reads as though you’re riding shotgun in the narrator’s mental car, listening to the narrator explain his life as he goes along. It’s a style that fluidly intermixes narrated actions and events with inner monologue, philosophizing, and reflection:
I was never what you’d call a happy child. I’m not looking for pity or anything, it’s just a fact. Something that was true. It’s not like I felt bad about it when I was a kid. Kids don’t know shit. They assume that whatever happens is normal. I took it that way, anyhow.
Maybe other kids were happy, maybe they were just as miserable as me. I have no idea. Kids are also really self-centered that way, you know? Except, I wasn’t exactly miserable. That’s the wrong word. If you asked me how I really was, I guess I’d say “I just floated along, tried to keep an even keel.” That about sums it up. I survived, anyhow.
Notice, in that brief bit, a quote. It’s not dialogue because the narrator isn’t actually saying anything to anyone. It’s a form of hypothetical dialogue, what-I-would-say-if-asked, intended to convey something about the narrator. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se. There will be times when it is entirely appropriate to use this device. The questions you must ask as you write are: what is the alternative, and what does each option convey about the character?
The alternative is to re-write so the ideas in the quote are conveyed in the same inner-monologue fashion as the rest:
Except, I wasn’t exactly miserable. That’s the wrong word. It’s more like I just floated along all the time. Tried to keep an even keel. That about sums it up. I survived, anyhow.
It’s almost exactly the same words, but notice the shift. If your story is almost entirely made up of inner monologue (as this style tends to be), introducing a piece of hypothetical dialogue as in the first example is a minor POV break. As a narrative issue, you are taking the story out of the narrator’s head to step briefly into the narrator’s mouth.
It may seem like a minor difference, but consider the implications: people lie with their mouths. What people choose to say is not always the whole, unvarnished truth. Speech—and thus, dialogue of any form—is always filtered through a person’s desire to control how others perceive them.
Dialogue places the reader at a greater emotional distance from the narrator. It admits the possibility that the narrator is keeping something back, not telling the whole truth. But if you stay in the realm of inner monologue, stay inside the narrator’s head, that distance is eliminated. You keep the reader as close to the narrator as possible.
If your goal is not, in fact, to keep something back from the reader then in my opinion this is the stronger choice. For first-person monologue stories, showing character is all about giving the reader the sense of what it’s like to be that character. What it’s like to have those thoughts, opinions, and attitudes. In my opinion, staying in the narrator’s head and out of the narrator’s mouth better enables you to do this.
June 30, 2009 18:26 UTC
For older posts, see archive links in the sidebar