One of the first things every writer has to decide when starting a new novel is point of view. Who among their characters will be telling the story?
It’s not always an easy call. I have some stories that are most definitely first person and others that are most definitely third person and no other point of view will work.
But I have some that could go either direction and it’s a struggle to determine the best point of view.
So what’s the difference between the points of view? How can you tell them apart and how can you make the best use of them for your novel?
Let’s take a look at four possibilities.
1. First Person Point of View
This point of view is easy to spot. The narrator is “I”.
The major advantage with first person is that readers experience the story as it happens. They see everything through the narrator’s eyes, hear everything through his or her ears, and process everything through his or her mind.
It is also the most intimate of the points of view, allowing you to go into deep point of view by eavesdropping on what the character is thinking as they experience the story.
The major disadvantage is that readers can see, hear and know only what the narrator sees, hears or knows. This can make for some stunning surprises for the reader, but it can also create difficulties for the writer.
First person looks like this:
A cold draft raced up the stairwell and greeted me as I descended. At first, I thought nothing of it. Then I paused. Most drafts come down from upstairs. Not up from downstairs.
A shiver raced the length of my spine and fear coiled in the pit of my stomach.
Internal dialogue is usually – but not always – italicized. I bolded it here to separate it from the rest of the quote.
2. Second Person Point of View
Second person point of view used to be quite popular, but is never seen on fiction shelves these days. The reason is that the narrator refers to the reader directly and puts the reader into the role of lead character. You did this and you did that.
How does that look in fiction? Like this.
The first sign of trouble is a cold draft racing up the stairwell as you descend. At first you don’t think anything of it. It is an old house, after all. Then you pause because you know most drafts roll down the stairs. Not up.
Breathless with the realization, you hesitate a moment longer, considering the implications. A shiver races the length of your spine.
Notice the passage is also written in present tense. Second person lends itself extremely well to present tense writing, which is another reason it’s uncomfortable to read and generally unpopular with writers and readers.
3. Third Person Point of View
With third person writing, one of the characters is the primary narrator. Narration duties can revolve among characters if there are more than one main character, but there is usually a primary character and that character gets the most time.
You can do internal dialogue, but you need to remember to keep the internal dialogue with the POV character if you’re moving from one character to the next. For example, I can’t write a scene from Dick’s point of view and include Jane’s internal dialogue.
Here’s the sample paragraph.
The first sign of trouble was a cold draft racing up the stairwell as she descended. Occupied as she was with other things, she didn’t notice the draft at first. Halfway down the stairs, she paused. Most drafts roll down the stairs. Not up.
She shivered as a thread of fear knotted in the pit of her stomach.
Again, note the bolded internal dialogue.
4. Third Person Omniscient Point of View
Third person omniscient was once the POV of choice in fiction. I, for one, am sorry to see it fallen so far from favor in contemporary fiction.
With this POV, the narrator knows all, sees all, and understands everything. You can tell both sides of the story as you write. You see the characters. You can hear what they’re saying and see what they’re doing. You can see when someone is doing something that might cause them harm because you can see the things they can’t see.
However, there is no deep POV with Omniscient third person. You can’t share internal dialogue or fears in a personal way, so the writing is more passive voice than active.
Let’s look at the following paragraph written in third person:
The first sign of trouble was a cold draft racing up the stairwell as she descended. She didn’t pay it much heed at first, occupied as she was with other matters, but halfway down the stairs, she paused, considering the implications. A hundred explanations raced through her mind, most of them unpleasant, some of them frightening. She grew afraid standing there, gripping the railing, but she was afraid of moving, too; uncertain how best to proceed.
At the open door on the ground floor, the intruder paused, too, listening as she was. But he didn’t share her uncertainty. He knew exactly what he was going to do.
Notice I mentioned the cause of the cold draft in this passage and said something about the intruder. I could do that because I’m seeing everything, like a closed circuit camera. I see the heroine standing on the stair listening and I see the intruder at the door, also listening.
This point of view is the closest thing to watching a movie and, if done well, can be very effective for a variety of genres.
It is also the closest thing to storytelling as far as POV is concerned.
Q4U: What is your favorite point of view to read or write?