I See You: The Basics of Point of View

You get that small flash, that inkling, that spark for a story. But how do you go from that idea to a full-blown novel?

One major aspect is point of view.

Point of view (POV) is the relationship that’s established between you, your character, and your readers in a story. It’s one of the most basic elements of fiction.

There are two major concerns for POV:

  1. Whose story is it? What character will be telling the story? Is it Nancy, a 43-year-old waitress, who’s losing touching with reality? Is it Michael, a 25-year-old lawyer fresh out of law school? Is it Kate, a 15-year-old runaway? All three of these characters may be in the same book, but whose story is it? Is it Nancy, Michael, or Kate’s voice readers will be hearing?
  2. From what perspective will you tell the story? Which POV will the story be told from? First person? Third person? Omniscient? How about second person?

POV is a choice, and each POV has its advantages and disadvantages.

First Person

First person POV uses “I” or “we.” It gives the impression of the story being more real because it implies intimacy and immediacy. In first person, the author is pretending to be the character. (But be careful, make sure the character doesn’t morph into the author.)

First person works best in stories where voice is the most important aspect. It can make an otherwise unappealing character interesting because readers can see inside the character’s head. Also, events in the story don’t have to be as dramatic, or dramatic at all really. It’s the character’s internal process, his narration that shows the significance of the events. For instance, A&P by John Updike is about a boy quitting his job because three girls walked into the store. Doesn’t sound very interesting? But it’s a famous short story, one people comment on over and over again, because readers see into the protagonist’s mind. And what we see in there makes the story very interesting.

However, the success or failure of a story depends on voice. If the “I” in the story doesn’t attract readers, then they won’t read it. On a similar note, first person can make a story seem claustrophobic since the “I” can be very limiting. It’s a close up shot, where everything that is experienced, is viewed, felt, tasted, etc. through the main character.

Nowadays, first person seems very popular in young adult literature. Some examples are Twilight, The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, Thirteen Reasons Why, Delirium, and Vampire Academy.

Second Person

Second person POV is where the author makes the reader the character. The author addresses “you,” instead of “I,” “we,” “she,” “he,” or “they.” Second person is not common in today’s literary world. One more current example is Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. (Excerpt from the novel’s opening: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this in the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.”)

Second person can seem intrusive. It can provoke readers, which sometimes it a good thing. Many authors hope to incite questions, especially self-questioning. However, second person breaks down that wall between the fictional world and reality, and many times readers pick up a book because they want to escape for a little while, not be put on the spot.

Warning: There are some editors who say they’ll never publish a second person story because they think it’s gimmicky.

Third Person

Third person POV is the “he,” “she,” or “they.” It’s the POV where the author is hiding, so that readers aren’t aware of the author’s presence. Third person is one of the most common types of POV in literature.

There are two types of third person POV:

  1. Third person limited. The story is told from the character experiencing the action, the unfolding of events in the novel. The character must be present for any dialogue or action to occur. However, there is more wiggle room in third person limited than first person. Third person can pull away some, as well as incorporate multiple voices. Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy takes advantage of this.
  2. Third person Omniscient. This type of POV is where the author is sitting on top of a mountain with the reader and they’re watching all the little people below. With an omniscient POV, information, histories, futures, etc. can be related to the reader, even if the characters in the story aren’t privy to that information. Omniscience creates distance between readers and the protagonist. An omniscient narrator knows everything that’s happening, has happened, and will happen, as well as what all of the characters are doing and thinking. Read Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens’.

What’s great about fiction is that the author can choose which POV to tell his or her story from. And what’s truly important is figuring out which POV is best for the story you want to tell.

What type of POV do you tend to write from? Why?

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