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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:

  1. Does the structure of your story force you into a particular choice?

  2. Is the plot more important, are character arcs more important, or are they of roughly equal importance?

  3. How emotionally close do you want the reader to be to your main character(s)?

  4. 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

Tags: character, emotional distance, first-person, second-person, third-person omniscient, third-person limited, multiple first-person, point of view, POV, unreliable narrator, Audrey Niffenegger, Frank Gilbreth, voice

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14 Comments:

Posted by Michele on October 22, 2009 18:46 UTC

Great article. I have trouble sometimes figuring out which POV to use. Your comments and suggestions are helpful.

Posted by BypeFiene on November 27, 2009 21:49 UTC

Could not find a suitable section so I written here, how to become a moderator for your forum, that need for this?

Posted by Jason Black on November 28, 2009 03:04 UTC

Thank you for the offer, but I do not need additional moderators at this time.

Posted by Andrew B. on December 12, 2009 04:34 UTC

“The Crimson Petal and The White” did a pretty good job with second person POV — though it could just as easily have been third person.

Posted by Southern Writer on December 21, 2009 08:06 UTC

<i>A Prayer for the Dying</i> by Stewart O’Nan was an excellent second-person POV novel, although I admit to reading the opening paragraph about five times before I caught on. Once I did, no problem.

Posted by El Chupacabra on January 15, 2010 07:35 UTC

Wuthering Heights has sections of second-person as well

Posted by Meg on July 04, 2010 00:15 UTC

“Bright Lights, Big City” did second person POV very well.

Posted by molly_b on July 04, 2010 00:17 UTC

<i>Bright Lights, Big City</i> used second-person POV. First line: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.” I remember just loving that when I first read it, back in the 80s.

Posted by Hannah on July 05, 2010 11:49 UTC

If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino opens in the 2nd person PoV. Disconcerting, but involving and very effective.

Posted by David Lascelles on July 29, 2010 23:18 UTC

‘Halting State’ by Charles Stross second person. Ok, it is not literary but it is reasonably high brow Sci Fi. It also switches between characters so each chapter ‘you’ is a different person.

I think the choice of PoV in this case was definitely a style thing. It is a book about online roleplaying games (MMORPGs) and how they may ultimately develop (tied in with an extrapolation of current mobile phone tech and the internet) so the PoV makes the reader feel like they are playing a game rather than reading a book. Its a strange read but I think it works quite well.

On the issue of emotional attachment to a character, I don’t think 2nd person adds anything or is any less than 1st person. You can do all the same ‘thoughts and feelings’ stuff as you do in 1st person, you just say ‘You feel...’ instead of ‘I feel...’

I have also seen some books use 2nd person as a trick to illustrate something - a character possessing another, for example. Usually a short extract, often in italics. The switch in PoV lets the reader know something strange is going on.

Posted by Mugtaba on December 02, 2010 05:52 UTC

Hello, thanks a lot for this highly educational article. I recently asked a question here http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index;ylt=ArZYdORtjuYmKYjGaSBilpUazKIX;ylv=3?qid=20101127164634AA60MqI about a story I was thinking of writing, an action filled fantasy story. I was wondering what you thought of using first-person for most of the story and third-person (maybe limited) for a few parts where the main character isn’t around. At first I thought it’s a bad idea but my friend told me there’s a good book like that, and he’s better with books than I am. My story has a quite a few main characters, but they’re usually with the protagonist.

It’s supposed to start with a dream (hinting to later events, as he later realizes he’s from the parallel world mentioned in the above link), should I extend that to a few paragraphs or a page or less is enough.

P.S. Does the title have to have the protagonist’s name in it like ([Protagonist’s full name] in [story name]).

Posted by Jason Black on December 02, 2010 19:34 UTC

@Mugtaba—

Thank you for your comments. Personally, I’m not a great fan of books which use 1st person for some and 3rd person for other parts. I like a book to stick to one POV throughout. Certainly, some people like that and certainly there have been examples of books that have used this technique and still been successful.

That said, however, I would encourage you to stick with one POV for another reason: learning to write any particular POV well is challenging enough. Doing more than one in the same book, when you’re just starting out in your writing career, is a lot to undertake.

Writing is kind of like juggling. There are a lot of things you need to keep in the air all at once. But when you’re learning to juggle, do you start off trying to juggle five flaming torches? No. You start with something simpler, three plain old tennis balls, and you work up from there.

Learn to master story structure in one POV first, before you go trying to juggle multiple different POVs at the same time. And for action-packed fantasy, third-person is probably your best bet. Certainly, it’s the easiest to write, it allows you to track multiple characters more easily, and it’s kind of a standard for fantasy literature.

Posted by Saronai on March 15, 2011 20:00 UTC

Thanks for this article. I’ve been wracking my brains lately on POV. I only once used first person and it led to a concerned discussion with my mother who mistook the character for me. After that I stuck to third person limited for a large chunk of my early writing experience.

I’ve only just now (through the act of journaling for my characters of all things) been considering first person again. This article was immensely helpful in guiding me more firmly on which pov to choose for which story. I set out to do it the harder way. Creating the first two scenes with a plan to rewrite them in the other choice I considered.

I may still do that, but this guide gave me a lot more to consider in a more concrete fashion for the story’s needs, the characters’ growth, and my aims.

Thanks!

—Saronai

Posted by Kaspar on September 27, 2011 00:57 UTC

Manhatten Tranfer is another good Multiple POV book.

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