Fiction Writing: What’s Your Point of View?

Over the past few weeks in our Fiction Writing series, we’ve covered a lot about characters but very little about the actual nuts and bolts of writing.

I’m not a technical kind of guy when it comes to writing. I know what sounds good, I know what looks good and I understand how to write a good scene. I guess you could say that I’m like a musician playing by ear instead of reading the sheet music.

Today, I’m going to get down to business with a topic that’s a little more technical: Point of View.

A Tool for Every Job

Every job requires certain tools. You wouldn’t use a chainsaw for carving delicate crown molding, and you wouldn’t use a chisel to chop down a tree. The same concept of the proper tools to get the job done applies to your work of fiction.

In writing, there are four points of view available:

  • First person
  • Third person omniscient
  • Third person limited
  • Second person

The first three options are the most popular and widely used in fiction writing. The last option, second person point of view, is very rarely used.

Each point of view has its place in writing a novel. Which you choose depends on how you would like to tell the story and from which perspective.

First Person

This perspective deals solely with writing a novel from a single character’s view. First person point of view is often noticed with the easy giveaway, “I”. First person novels are similar to personal diaries.

Writing from the character’s perspective might be fun for a while, but it’s a lot more limiting than you might think. The biggest challenge is that you can only reveal as much as the individual character knows.

The character’s thoughts and the way he perceives the world come from his mind and eyes only. He can make assumptions about the motives of other characters and react to them based on what he sees, but the reader gleans no more.

You’ll also have to figure out believable ways for this character to get information from other characters. Since your reader only has your character’s observations available, the reader is as much in the dark about what’s going on as your character is.

The greatest advantage of the first person point of view is that your character makes an instant personal connection with the reader.

Third Person Omniscient

This perspective gives both the reader and the writer more freedom. Third person omniscient allows the author to show the internal workings of every character’s mind involved in the storyline. It’s easy to reveal thoughts and motives.

For a long time, third person omniscient was a popular method of perspective for writing a story. As a silent observer, the writer reveals as much or as little as he or she likes. Writing from an omniscient perspective also allows the author to be more descriptive with facial expressions, actions and general appearance.

This point of view is tricky, though, and it might become annoying and cumbersome after a while. If you’re constantly showing what’s in everyone’s head, imagine how confusing a scene of with several characters could be? Your readers end up overloading on information.

Remember that everything in your story should have a purpose. Unless a character’s thoughts are pertinent to the overall story, there’s no need for them. If a character or information doesn’t further that purpose, you’re wasting words.

Third Person Limited

Of all the points of view, third person limited is probably the easiest to work with. The writer chooses one character’s point of view for the novel, the chapter or the section.

Most novels or collaborative fiction games use third person limited. The author (or player) can only write his character’s experience and know what’s going on in that character’s head.

Limiting the perspective of third person omniscient to one character’s point of view eliminates the clutter. Each chapter could easily focus on a specific character for a particular reason.

You do have to be careful and diligent when working from a third person limited point of view, especially if you widen the limitation to include the perspective of two characters. If you do present two different points of view in the same scene, blend them carefully and avoid jumping from one point of view to another abruptly.

Second Person

Second person point of view is rarely used unless you’re creating an instruction manual, a table-top role-playing game or a LARP (live-action) game.

Second person, simply put, is “you.” The author or narrator tells you what you are doing and what you see. Here’s an example:

You see a wood-frame door with teeth marks low down on the right hand side. When you touch them, you can feel the splinters in the wood. You see that there is blood smeared on the carpet… What do you do?

Second person perspective is controlling and dominating. It reads awkwardly and lacks imaginative flow with freedom of creativity.

What’s Your Point of View?

Before you set pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard), take a moment to decide which perspective you want to use for your novel or your writing. The trick is to decide which one suits your overall purpose – and how you’ll be limited by what you choose.

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