Books & Reading · Story & Characters · Writing Insight

Writing Insight – Picking POV

Point of view (affectionately known as POV for short) serves as the vehicle through which a narrative gets told. In cinematic terms, POV is like a camera, pointing and focusing on whoever or whatever a reader needs to pay attention to in any given scene. Thus, POV guides readers’ attentions to who or what they should concentrate on, from dialogue to descriptions and even characters’ thoughts.

There are three basic forms of POV:

First Person – Uses  the pronouns I, me, my, mine, myself,  we, us, our, ours, and ourselves. For example, Moby Dick is composed in first person since all of the events are related by a single narrator. (Can you guess who? Well, that opening line of “Call me Ishmael” is a big clue!)

Second Person – Uses the pronouns you, your, yours, and yourself. To be fair, this POV is rarely used and I can’t think of any notable works that have used it. Definitely for the avant-garde among us.

Third person – This view can assume the role of spectator, a character on the outside, an omniscient character, or someone with limited omniscience. (But more on that below…..)

Piecing Together POV

First Person POV
This form has a character tell a story himself or herself. Like with the above example from Moby Dick, the novel’s events and characters are all filtered through the eyes of the main protagonist, Ishmael. The Sherlock Holmes stories and novels work the same way – everything the reader engages is everything John Watson engages, so we glimpse his thoughts and no one else’s.

A first-person POV needs to have a  unique voice to set it apart from other characters the speaker interacts with. Likewise, the perspective needs to fit the character’s personality, world, and story’s tone. Could you imagine what The Hunger Games would be like if Katniss Everdeen, chief protagonist and narrator, talked like a valley girl and saw the world around her as, like, so totally uncool. That type of voice doesn’t suit her (thank goodness!) nor does it suit the nature of the book. Hence, a character’s voice needs to fit both the person he or she is and the story’s world and tone.

Lastly, when working with first-person POV, make the vocabulary fitting. Again, this goes back to keeping it in character, but, as a rule, more simplistic narratives are employed for children’s and younger reader’s stories but a more mature approach and tone can be assumed for adults. For instance, some complaints I’ve read regarding books with kid protagonists assert the narrators sound “too old.” Granted, if the character is supposed to be mature for his or her age, this is fitting. But for the most part, you don’t want a six-year-old talking like a thirty-six-year old. As adults, sometimes it can be difficult to write in a younger voice, but the primary rule to remember is to think simply – kids often think big things but can’t put them into big words or even know the right words to say.

Overall, first-person is, in my opinion (and some folks would disagree) the easiest POV to write in because the narrative scope is already narrowed for you. All you have to concern yourself with is describing the world through one person’s eyes, emotions, and perceptions. Easier said than done but sometimes it’s more manageable than a broader vantage point.

Second Person POV
This form is generally not used due to its awkwardness, not to mention it’s quite restrictive. In other words, a story’s entire perspective is from a removed, secondary viewpoint. Rather than saying “I left my house one cold, grey November morning” or “He left his house one cold, grey November morning,” second person POV would read, “You left your house one cold, grey November morning,” and the rest of the events would be related in the same “You did this/You did that” fashion. While it isn’t wrong to utilize second person, it can be confining. Sometimes, though, it’s used as a glorified first-person where the narrator speaks to himself or herself as a form of psychological discourse.  Should you decide to be brave and use it, just make sure that the tone and voice stay true to the “you” narrator, just as they would for an “I” narrator.

Third-person POVs
There are actually two sub-forms of third-person POV:

Third-person omniscient: This form observes everything and everyone, including the thoughts of other characters. The trick here is to not get overwhelmed: there is no need to describe every single element of every single character or scene. Reveal only what is necessary to move the plot along. Many books have been written using third-person omniscient, which allows for a certain sense of freedom. For example, C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is written using third-person omniscient. We engage Narnia through the Pevensie siblings but we’re not limited to just Lucy’s or Edmund’s or Peter’s or Susan’s viewpoint alone. We see them all. Granted, using third-person omniscient is self-limiting to a degree, such as in this case where the only thoughts and vantage points we’re shown are of the four children, not Aslan, the White Witch, or the beaver family. So third-person omniscient is focused yet presents a broader scope of events.

Third-person limited: This form is isolated to the view of one character though it’s not first-person. Instead, it’s limited to only what the focus character can and cannot observe. The Harry Potter books (excluding a few chapters) are written almost exclusively in third-person limited. Everything we see and hear is filtered through Harry’s perceptions. We never know what Hermione, Ron, or even Professor Snape are thinking. We only know Harry’s thoughts and Harry’s take on the world as he witnesses it first-hand and listens to others. Hence, what Harry believes is true, we believe is true, too, (even if he happens to find out later he was wrong) because we engage everything through Harry. For me, this is the second easiest POV to use since it’s narrow enough to keep itself from sounding too overwhelming yet still broad and can bring in details that first-person POV might omit.

Picking POV
Some POV’s are easier to write in than others though most writers experiment with different vantage points for different stories. But as a general rule of thumb…

Use first-person if your story would benefit from an active participant and a personal touch.

Use second-person if your story would benefit from a distanced or introspective narrator.

Use third-person omniscient if your story would benefit from a wide-angle view.

Use third-person limited if your story would benefit from a narrow-angle view.

There is no hard and fast rule saying you can only use one POV in a single story. Feel free to incorporate more than one POV as long as they are kept distinct and readers know who is talking. Likewise, it’s possible to have multiple narrative threads that seem to bear no relation to each other except that, over time, they come closer together as the story’s climax nears. (This is often called a zipper story, which you’ll also want to avoid.) Whichever POV you chose and when it occurs, make sure it stays consistent.

POV Exercise:
Write a short scene about a character opening a mysterious package. Compose it using one POV, then revise it using a different POV. Which POV better benefits your story? Why?

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