Introduction to Point of View in Writing Fiction

If there’s one subject beginning writers tend to struggle with it’s Point of View. This article is not intended to be the oracle on the subject, but it will provide an introduction.

So what do we mean by Point of View (POV)? It simply refers to the way in which the story is narrated, and the relationship between the narrator and the reader.

It is crucial to understand Point of View because it affects everything in the story:

  • Whose voice the reader hears telling the story
  • Whether the reader is privy to any characters’ thoughts, and whose thoughts in particular
  • How close the reader is to the character’s consciousness
  • How closely the words on the page resemble the character’s own way of speaking
  • Whether the reader is part of the story
  • What information can be shared with the reader and when

First-person POV

In first-person POV, the story is narrated by a character in the story, who talks with their own voice. They use the pronoun ‘I’ and they relate events directly as seen/heard by their own eyes/ears. Usually they are the protagonist, for example Jane Eyre, but not always. An example of first-person narration where the narrator is not the protagonist is The Great Gatsby.

An example of first-person narration is:

I struggled to keep up but I’d never been hiking before, not long-distance anyway. When our group set off again after lunch, I caught Sarah looking aglance at me and whispering to Melanie, then they laughed. I suspected they thought me weak and pathetic but I didn’t know what to do about it.

Do you see how everything is narrated from the perspective of ‘I’? Let’s call her Jessica. We are privy to Jessica’s internal thoughts (‘I suspected…’) as well as external events.

First-person is very common nowadays, especially in literary fiction, for example The Life of Pi by Yann Martel or Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. 

Advantages of first-person POV are:

  • For a beginner writer, it is ‘safer’ than other POVs because it is less likely that you’ll make a mistake. You know that you have to stick with one character and their voice telling the story.
  • If you create a character with a really compelling voice you can reel readers in. You can really go to town with the voice and make it unique and interesting.
  • First-person narratives are an excellent way of exploring a character and their personality, really examining their consciousness and way of thinking.
  • Because the reader spends so much time with the narrator and is bombarded with their opinions exclusively, it is likely that readers will sympathise with your character. Consequently, even if your character is not a nice person readers are still likely to sympathise with them and keep reading your book. 

Disadvantages of first-person POV are:

  • You are limited to only showing events/scenes in which your narrator is physically present. If there is a great showdown scene you want to put in between the antagonist and the narrator’s sidekick, but the narrator is absent…tough! You cannot include that scene in the story; you can only refer to it, for example in dialogue when the sidekick tells the narrator.
  • The reader can only learn information as and when the narrator learns it. This means you can’t tell them something at the beginning of the book, say, which your narrator learns half-way through.
  • Everything depends on your narrator. If people don’t warm to them, they won’t read your book. Note that the narrator doesn’t have to be likeable, but the more unlikeable they are the harder you’ll have to work to make them interesting and compelling.

Third-person POV

In third-person POV, the story is told by a narrator who is not part of the story. The characters in the story are referred to using the pronouns he/she/they. As an example, I’ve changed the example above from first-person to third-person narration:

Jessica struggled to keep up but she’d never been hiking before, not long-distance anyway. When the group set off again after lunch, she caught Sarah looking aglance at her and whispering to Melanie, then they laughed. Jessica suspected they thought her weak and pathetic but she didn’t know what to do about it.

Note that we still have access to Jessica’s thoughts (‘Jessica suspected…’) but we feel more removed from her, because before it was her voice we heard whereas now it’s a nameless/faceless narrator.

There are two main types of third-person POV. These are

  • Third-person limited,
  • and Third-person omniscient.

Third-person limited POV

Third-person limited is a bit like first-person in that events are shown and filtered from the perspective of one character. We see what that character sees and we have access to that character’s thoughts and no-one else’s. We know what that character knows. The example immediately above is third-person limited. The story is not told in their voice like it was in the first-person example, but it is similar in that we follow one viewpoint character.

(Read The Talented Mr Rigby by Patricia Highsmith to see a third-person limited style which is very much like first-person.)

The difference between third person limited and first-person is that in third-person the story is not told in the viewpoint character’s voice. It is a faceless, nameless narrator telling the story. Third-person limited is extremely popular in commercial (genre) fiction nowadays because it allows the reader to follow a favorite character closely without restricting the author to the constraints of first-person (especially if you do multiple POV, for example with occasional chapters from other characters’ perspectives e.g. the antagonist.- See below for more on this).

In addition, with third-person limited you can decide how deeply you want to go into the viewpoint character’s mind. (To an extent this is also true for first-person but it is most true in third-person.) This is called ‘distance’. Take the following two examples:

Distance in third-person limited POV

John carried his luggage into the caravan. It was mid-December in the Yorkshire Dales and the little cabin was extremely cold. He looked in the cupboards, but there was nothing to eat. And to make matters worse, it was time to read his dad’s letter. He opened it and smoothed the paper. ‘Thanks for your letter,’ it said. ‘I’m sorry I won’t be able to visit at Christmas.’ John shook his head and sighed heavily then folded it away.

John carried his luggage into the caravan. God it was freezing and there was nowt in the cupboards. He must be mad to have thought this was a good idea. And if things couldn’t get any worse, it was time to read dad’s letter; no putting it off any longer. It was as he’d expected; dad wouldn’t be visiting for Christmas. Typical. Why did he bother with the old coot?

You can see how the second example is closer in distance than the first. It uses language the way the character speaks, and gives a much closer internal view. This is what we call ‘deep POV’.

Third-person omniscient POV

In third-person omniscient, there is no viewpoint character as such through whom all events are filtered. The story may, and often does, follow a single character but the narrator can show the thoughts of any character and can reveal any information, even information known to no character. Omniscient means ‘all-knowing’; it is as if the narrator is a god-like being hovering over the whole story, knowing everything and able to reveal anything.

Omniscient POV was popular in Victorian times and it is only in modern times that it has been displaced by first and third-person as readers want a closer relationship with their favourite protagonist. Dune by Frank Herbert is an example of omniscient POV.

Here is the ‘Jessica’ paragraph transformed into an example of omniscient POV:

Jessica struggled to keep up but she’d never been hiking before, not long-distance anyway. Melanie felt sorry for her but for some reason Sarah had it in for her, so to maintain her status in the group Melanie joined in with the whispering and snide laughter. All the while, Jessica looked on, at a loss as to what to do about it.

Do you see how we have access to both Jessica’s thoughts (‘at a loss’) and Melanie’s thoughts (‘felt sorry for her’).

Multiple third-person limited POV

This is when third-person limited is used but there are more than one viewpoint characters. So the reader is shown events through the eyes of more than one character and they see the thought of more than one character. How is this different to omniscient POV you may say?

Well, with multiple third-person limited, the viewpoint character won’t be changing constantly and within the same paragraph like it did with my omniscient example above. Each section (for example each chapter) has a specific viewpoint character and this won’t change until the next section. Sometimes you see the viewpoint character changing within a chapter but  to avoid confusion the break will be, and should be, clearly defined. I recommend keeping your number of viewpoint characters manageable too.

There are other ways in which omniscient POV differs from multiple third-person limited POV, the main one of which is the difference in tone. Third-person limited immerses you in the perspective of one individual but omniscient POV tends to have more of an overall feel to it, and the narrator might say things no character knows or would think of. For example,’It was the coldest day for thirty years, hitting a low of -3.8 degrees’.

You might hear the term ‘head-hopping’. This is when a narrative which to all intents and purposes is third-person limited switches between different characters heads quickly or seemingly willy-nilly. It’s poor writing and can’t be passed of as omniscient POV.

See The Ruins by Scott Smith as an example of a novel with multiple POV where the POV changes frequently.

Second-person POV

I’ll end this article with a brief description of second-person POV. In this POV the story is narrated as though the reader themself is the viewpoint character. The pronoun used is ‘you’.

I’ll use the same example as before to illustrate this:

You struggled to keep up but you’d never been hiking before, not long-distance anyway. When your group set off again after lunch, you caught Sarah looking aglance at you and whispering to Melanie, then they laughed. You suspected they thought you weak and pathetic but you didn’t know what to do about it.

In second-person POV, therefore, it is as though the reader is part of the story. This POV isn’t commonly used and it is difficult to pull off convincingly and sustain, especially for longer works. For consistency, I’ve kept the example above in past tense, but in fact second-person is quite often done in present tense because it feels more plausible. After all, people know what they have and haven’t done, so they have to really suspend disbelief when reading a past tense story in second-person.

Conclusion

Ultimately, what’s important is that you choose the right Point of View for your story, and stick with it. You shouldn’t change POV during your story. Tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

Point of View in Writing

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