Contemplate reading the latest murder mystery on the market. Imagine your emotional response to the story presented from the point of view (POV) of the husband who first stumbled upon the scene of the crime. What about a story from the victim’s perspective as they you (the reader) tell their story? Would your reaction be any different if the narrator was an omnipresent narrator with no direct ties to the characters? The point of view, or voice that tells your story, directly impacts your emotional connection to your story.
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What is Point of View (POV?)
A point of view (POV) refers to who is telling the story. It uses a first, second, or third person to narrate events, thoughts, and actions. Here are some basic questions to ask when trying to determine your POV.
- Who’s telling the story, a narrator or a character?
- Whose thoughts does the reader have access to and through whose eyes are the events of the story unfolding?
- Who will provide the most interesting outlook? For example, it might not be your protagonist but their best friend.
In traditional storytelling, personal pronouns are used to indicate the point of view. While there are exceptions, here’s a quick and easy chart.
Still confused? Consider the difference in these three sentences.
First-person POV. “I watched as he straddled the motorcycle and drove away. I stood, paralyzed with fear that he was gone for good.”
Second-person POV. “You watched as he straddled the motorcycle and drove away. You stood, paralyzed with fear that he was gone for good.”
Third-person POV. “She watched as he straddled the motorcycle and drove away. She stood, paralyzed with fear that he was gone for good.”
The difference with each sentence is the sense of perspective. In the first person, someone is giving you their perspective. The second-person POV tells you what your perception should be. In the last one, it’s giving a third-party view of the events within the story.
In more complex stories, an author may use a combination of all three. However, it’s best practice to limit your perspective to one POV per book. Therefore, if you must switch it up, limit it to one POV per chapter. Nothing is more confusing than switching perspectives from one character to another within the same scene.
A story told from the first-person POV is narrated by a character in the story. The narrator is a character who tells the story of what “I” did. It is usually the story’s protagonist, but it can sometimes be the antagonists as well. The reader experiences n the fictional world through the eye of the first-person narrator. You are also creating the words and tone of the character.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, narrator Nick Carraway observes and relates the story of the protagonist, Jay Gatsby. This is known as the peripheral point of view and is effective when the main characters may be blind to their own faults or may not be able to complete the story.
Here’s a couple of examples of first-person POV.
“I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward the consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed. And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it ― or my observation of it ― is temporary?” ― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
“I can feel Peeta press his forehead into my temple and he asks, ‘So now that you’ve got me, what are you going to do with me?’ I turn into him. ‘Put you somewhere you can’t get hurt.” ― Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
The main advantage of writing in the first person is creating a sense of intimacy between the character and your reader. The tone and voice of the character reveal a lot to the reader. One limitation is that the writer is also the writer is usually stuck with the viewpoints of the character and is not free to wander off without him. For example, in the first-person narration about watching the motorcyclist drive off, you couldn’t suddenly have the person on the motorcycle telling us where it is heading unless they were told ahead of time.
Plural Uses of First Person
Most authors use the first-person narrative, but there are times when you use multiple narratives. A story may be strongest if more than one witness describes the stories events. For example, the motorcyclist may You’ll often see this technique used in mystery novels, where the protagonist, antagonist, and sometimes victim all present their own unique point of view. Sometimes the first-person narrator may not be any of the above, but rather a third-party expressing their view of the novel’s events.
First-Person POV Novels
Popular books written in the first person include:
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- Divergent by Veronica Roth
- The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
- Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard
Stories told from the second-person point of view use the pronoun “you.” Within these stories, the voice of a narrator tells what you did, said, or thought. The emotional impact of using second-person POV can be powerful. However, some may say it’s too powerful. Second-person is more commonly used in poetry or experimental short fiction, writing in the second person can be hard to write. Using a second-person narrative helps to give the reader the impression that they are going on a journey along with the characters.
The opening line to Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, starts in the second person.
“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.” — Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City
Here’s another great example from Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.
“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.” ― Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
The novel’s use of second-person POV gives readers the impression that they are the protagonist, stuck in a nightclub in the early hours due to an odd set of circumstances. Hence, allowing the author to engage the reader in the experience of being involved in the story.
Some authors use a combination of second-person and other forms to set off an introduction or section to set it apart from the regular text. Skilled writers can easily switch between points of views.
Second-Person POV Novels
Books written in the second person include:
- You by Caroline Kepnes
- The Fifth Season (Broken Earth #1) by Jay McInerney
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
- The Hobbit by R.R. Tolkien
- If on A Winter’s Night by Italo Calvino
The third-person point of view belongs to a narrator that is not a character in the story that tells the story of what he, she, it, or they did. There are many variations of a third-person POV. One of the most common forms is that of a disembodied narrator describing what the characters do and what happens to them.
Third-Person Single POV [Limited]
A third-person single is a POV where the narrator only has access to one character’s mind. The story is told through the eyes of a single character but is told by the narrator who gives the perspective of this character. With this viewpoint, the reader often empathizes with the point of view character, like a first-person narrative. The disadvantage is that the POV character must be present for all events in the story.
“Something very painful was going on in Harry’s mind. As Hagrid’s story came to a close, he saw again the blinding flash of green light, more clearly than he had ever remembered it before ― and he remembered something else, for the first time in his life: a high, cold, cruel laugh.” ― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Third-Person Multiple POV
A writer may decide that two or more narrators are useful and may show the story’s events from different perspectives. In Linda Howard’s Dream Man, for example, she has at least three third-person narrators. Detective Dane Hollister is the main narrator through most of the story, giving his perspective of what he sees of Marlie Keen and the serial killer. Occasionally, especially in the epilogue, Marlie becomes the main narrator as she explains her point of view. We also see through the eyes of the serial killer as he goes on various rampages. Most importantly, the difference between this POV and a first-person POV is that the author is careful always to state the he/she/it perspective.
Here’s a couple of examples. In the first one, the main male protagonist is alone with his best friend and this entire chapter is from his point of view.
“What?” he demanded testily.
Trammell raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t say anything.”
“You’re thinking something, though. You’ve got that shit-eating smirk on your face.”
“Why would anyone smirk while they eat shit?” Trammell asked rhetorically.”
― Linda Howard, Dream Man
In a chapter further in the book, Marlie is considering this new relationship and how she feels about the detective. She is alone in her thoughts and the entire section is from her POV.
“She felt oddly safe with him, though not safe from him.” ― Linda Howard, Dream Man
Third-Person Omniscient POV
A third-person omniscient is one where the narrator knows the thoughts, actions, and feelings of every character and the story is told from different characters points-of-view. Think “god’s eye view.” The narrator knows every event related to the story, past, present, and future. Most of the classics written before the twentieth century used omniscient narrators, such as Jane Austin and Charles Dickens.
By supplying readers with information unknown to the character, the narrator can use this technique to create suspense. One limitation of omniscient is that it tends to isolate the reader from the characters more and may seem impersonal, especially in this era of social connection. Many authors find it easier to manage POV when they limit the thoughts to one or two characters.
“If he could have heard what her parents were saying that evening, if he could have put himself at the point of view of the family and have heard that Kitty would be unhappy if he did not marry her, he would have been greatly astonished, and would not have believed it. He could not believe that what gave such great and delicate pleasure to him, and above all to her, could be wrong. Still less could he have believed that he ought to marry.” ― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Third-Person Objective POV
One of the most challenging forms of story-telling is by using third-person objective POV. This employs a narrator that is denied access to even a single character’s thoughts, opinions, or feelings. The entire novel is written from an unbiased point of view. As the author, you must reveal everything about the story through dialogue, description, and action.
Although Carrie by Stephen King has a mixture of POVs, the sections describing the newspaper accounts of what happened is a good example of using the objective POV. Therefore, the narrator simply reports the events rather than trying to explain them in parts. The story switches between third-person limited points of view as you hear from characters like Carrie and Sue.
An example of a book that primarily uses the third-person objective POV is The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. The short story limits its narration to descriptions of surroundings, plot events, and character dialogue without describing any internal thoughts. You only see the outward reactions to an event without hearing any internal dialogue.
“Although Mr. Summers and everyone else in the village knew the answer perfectly well, it was the business of the official of the lottery to ask such questions formally.” ― Shirley Jackson, The Lottery
In this quote, the narrator tells us that the village knows the answers with regards to the question and that the question is just part of the tradition. The author does not go into the thoughts and minds of any of the participants and explain why and how they knew the answer. It is just simply stated as a fact.
Third-Person POV Novels
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
- Dream Man, Linda Howard
- Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
- The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
- City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare
Using A Combination of POVs
Some authors use a combination of voices in their writing. Jody Picoult’s Plain Truth novel was told from both the first person (Ellie, the main character) and the third-person omniscient vantage. The Journey Home by Dermo Bolger has first, second, and third person narrative.
Combination POV Novels
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
- Plain Truth, Jody Picoult
- The Journey Home, Dermo Bolger
I feel most comfortable using Third Person Multiple POV. I like to get into the heads of the main characters, leaving the other characters motivations up for discovery.
What about you?
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