What is POV? It stands for Point of View, and it’s one of the most important aspects of your story that must be decided before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).
Sometimes you sit down in front of your computer, and the POV just comes to you. You know exactly who would tell the story. Other times, you have a cast of interesting characters in your head, and it’s a little more difficult to decide.
Following are suggestions on how to choose the best POV for your story.
First Person – “Me, Myself, and I”
With first person POV, everything is told intimately from the viewpoint of a character, usually your protagonist. Using “I” to show readers what this character sees and thinks is the easiest way to tell a story that uses a distinct, quirky voice.
This is the best way to show the story from one person’s point of view because you have an individual person telling you her story directly in her own words.
The limitations of first person POV, however, restrict you to only describing what this character sees, thinks, and feels, and sometimes that narrator can be unreliable. If you want to show your main character either rising above or succumbing to a threat at the climax, seeing the story through his or her eyes can be very powerful.
Consider, for example, The Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar, both interesting reads on flawed main characters. Compare that with the intimacy you get when reading Scout’s view of things in To Kill a Mockingbird. These are examples of different uses of first person POV.
Third Person Omniscient – “He, She”
You can throw everything you want at your reader with third person omniscient because you, as the narrator, have a God’s eye view of everything that’s happening in the story. This is a great POV to use when you have multiple characters, each with their own plot line to follow, and you want your reader to be able to see everything as it unfolds.
The downside to third person omniscient is that it can be emotionally distant from the story. Because you’re constantly jumping around different characters and their story arcs, it’s hard for your reader to get as emotionally involved with your characters. If your book is highly plot driven, however, this is the POV for you.
An excellent example of third person omniscient POV is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. The reader sees everything that is happening in the story and gets a vivid lesson in politics and society in France’s history. Compare this with Anne of Green Gables where you know everything that’s going on with all the characters, where the narrator sometimes shows affection for or mocks the characters.
Third Person Limited – Still “He, She”
Grammatically speaking, this uses “he” and “she” just like the omniscient POV, but follows only one character’s viewpoint throughout the entire novel. This means your reader sees only what the main character sees and learns things at the same time the main character does. You can show what your main character thinks, feels, and sees, which helps close the emotional distance between your reader and the main character.
The drawback with third person limited POV is that you can only follow one character. Showing other characters’ thoughts and feelings is a no-no. If you have a single character who experiences all of your major plot points, this is the best POV for you to use.
Examples of the third person limited POV are the Harry Potter novels. The reader sees everything that’s going on, but is limited to Harry’s point of view. We’re surprised when Harry is surprised, and we find out the resolution at the ending when Harry does. Another fantastic example of third person limited is Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” We know what’s going on in Gregor’s mind as he is transformed and are limited to his point of view in everything that happens in the story.
Second Person – “You”
This is one of the least used POV’s in literature because it places the reader in the hot seat and is hard to manage for a full length novel. It’s used by experimental literature to try out new styles of writing because in the wrong hands, it just feels gimmicky.
A prime example of second person POV that’s carried off nicely is the Choose Your Own Adventure books. Written completely in second person, these books put the reader in the driver’s seat and let him or her actually choose how the story will end.
Let’s look at a piece of dialogue written from the different POVs.
“I want a divorce,” I said, trying to gauge his reaction. What could he possibly be thinking?
“I want a divorce,” she said. She watched as he struggled to find the right words.
“I want a divorce,” she said as she watched his reaction, wondering what he might be thinking.
“I want a divorce,” you say. You try to figure out what he is thinking. Should you hug him or walk away?
Can you identify the POV used in each example?
Before you start experimenting with POV, get comfortable with the basics first. Read works by authors who use these different POVs with great success to understand how each POV changes the narrative arc of the novel.
POV is a matter of choice, but one that affects every part of your story or novel. Fitzgerald had to rewrite The Great Gatsby because he initially wrote it in Gatsby’s voice. He decided it would be much more powerful coming from Nick’s more naïve point of view. Imagine that masterpiece with a different point of view. Definitely not as powerful.