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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  1. I just took a seminar on point of view at the last writer’s conference I attended. You have summarized it nicely here.

    One of things discussed was the trend to include multiple POV each a single book. For example, a first person in the first chapter, a 3rd limited in the second, back to a first person, and so on. What do you think of this trend and the potential confusion introduced?

    I’ve completed a novel where each chapter is narrated by a different person, in a different year. But each is from a first person POV. It is hard enough to keep 11 characters straight and luckily they have distinctive voices. I can’t imagine adding in multiple POV styles in addition to the multiple narrator choice.

    N@

  2. Brett Legree says:

    Harry,

    Generally I’ve used first person because of the subject matter, but I’ve started looking at the third person limited a bit.

    I took the plunge, after reading all of your great articles in this series, and started to write a fiction novel. So far, a lot of fun!

    -Brett

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..viking fridays – the coward. no kleenex required.

  3. Harry wrote:
    “Second person perspective is controlling and dominating. It reads awkwardly and lacks imaginative flow with freedom of creativity.”

    That depends on both a reader’s preference and the the writer’s mastery of craft. Check out Dennis Lehane’s short story called UNTIL GWEN, or Tom Robbins’s novel HALF ASLEEP IN FROG PAJAMAS. Each is a fantastic example of a story told in second person.

    Rob in Denver’s last blog post..It’s safe to say I’m stoked

  4. Manictastic says:

    I like to use a lot of different points of views because it’s fun to confuse your readers and for something another kind of point of view is handy. In my (still unfinished) blogvella named Deserted, I shifted between points of views. Some people are confused by it, but I like it since it gives me the opportunity to add extra layers to a story. (I do have to refine everything a bit and stuff, but one day it’ll work out)

    You could have said a lot more about a first person narrator. A first person narrator is a good tool to put a reader on the wrong track qua thoughts. A first person narrator often doesn’t tell the truth, but just his vision and if you want to explore the mind of a mad man, it’s the perfect tool to write it in. I think I did that with my latest short story.

    Manictastic’s last blog post..Those faithful days filled with fantasy are just the beginning of the end.

  5. Harry,

    I’m a third-person-limited type myself. I may want to write about “me” but I don’t want to see a lot of “I” in it.

    I never really thought hard about second person. I’d agree with your statement and Rob’s too… Tom Robbins happens to be both masterful and somewhat controlling as a writer, IMHO. I’m a huge fan, but his work is kind of… domineering.

    Regards,

    Kelly

    Kelly’s last blog post..Inspiration Points: No Regrets!

  6. If I pick up a book that is written in first person my first instinct is to put it right back down. In My personal taste it is HAAAAAARD to get it right. It is limiting and boring.
    On the other hand , when done well, it can make for a great book.
    For the most part, other than my journals and blogging, I write in third person omniscient.
    It’s ( again, my preference) more creative and freeing.

    Besides, why not….it’s as close to playing God as I’m ever going to get….hehehehe

    Wendi Kelly’s last blog post..Listening With Ears Wide Open

  7. It’s funny. As a rule, I don’t particularly like First Person stories–or autobiographies, for that matter–because they sound so self-involved. Everything revolves around the speaker. “I did this, I did that.” I just want to shake them and tell them to get over themselves. (Because, of course, really, everything revolves around ME.)

    BUT. What person am I using in the novel I’m currently stuck on, er, writing? First person. Weird, huh?

    Although, really, First Person just annoys me when it’s done badly (just like ghost-written celebrity autobiographies, which I gave up reading in high school). When it’s just so-so, it does nothing for me, but when it’s done really well by a writer who really knows what he or she is doing? No complaints at all!

    (And as to whether my own, stalled, first person novel is done well or done badly? I honestly couldn’t tell you….)

    –Deb’s last blog post..Good Writing Equals Professionalism

  8. I’m going to disagree with a lot people here and say that first person is often harder to do than third person. (Second person being generally reserved for choose-your-own-adventure books, with a few notable exceptions).

    First person is the language in which we generally speak. “I’m busy today. I want a hot dog. I have serious issues with my uncle marrying my mother and murdering my father.” It’s difficult to take that perspective and ask the reader to willingly choose to follow it – but through someone else’s eyes. Often, as Wendi says, we just find it annoying. We don’t want to follow someone else’s hot dog issues through their eyes. We prefer to follow their hot dog issues through omniscient eyes, third-person eyes that are not trapped in someone else’s head, so we can retain our own first person perspective while enjoying a story.

    First person requires getting your reader to willingly give up their own perspective in favor of someone else’s for a time. That is hard to do well. Usually, it has to be done so well that the reader doesn’t even realize they’ve been giving up their own perspective, and the feeling that they’ve been listening to someone else’s self-centered rant never surfaces, because they’re fascinated.

    Most first person is like meeting a really self-centered guy at a bar. GOOD first person is like meeting the a guy with an amazing life story and an incredible storytelling ability. You could listen to that guy for hours and never realize he’s the only one talking.

    Tei – Rogue Ink’s last blog post..I Am Not Useful. (And Why You Should Be Cool With That)

  9. Aaaannnnd the English major goes all ranty on everyone. Sorry, everyone. Welcome to my head. It hasn’t slept much.

    Tei – Rogue Ink’s last blog post..I Am Not Useful. (And Why You Should Be Cool With That)

  10. When I write, I prefer third person. What we do that is semi against the rules is use two character’s perspectives in one chapter, switching back and forth gently and seamlessly while also maintaining one character’s perspective overall in the whole chapter.

    Choose your own fantasy. Now that’s a blast from the past. Do they still exist?

    • Victoria says:

      Yay, James! Finally, someone else who does that, too!!

      My editors, I’m convinced, are just not that into me. They want me to stick with one POV per chapter, always asking myself who is most affected by the action taking place. I always come up with the same answer. It’s not one person’s perspective at a time that interests me. Rather, I’m in stupid love with group dynamics (absolutely ass-over-applecart about the mess that is human interaction) .

      I always have a vision of myself as one of the ghosts in A Christmas Carol, holding the reader by the hand as we float above the action. That’s what I see in my head when I write, and that’s the viewpoint I’d like the reader to have. Now, being omniscient ghosts, we have the power to jump in and out of the heads of anyone in the room. I love this POV!

      It works for he said/she said and for inner/outer dialogue really well. In the story I’m working on now, there is one scene where I pop in and out of three characters’ heads for the duration of the action. Two characters have a conversation and one character eavesdrops. So, the reader gets all three perspectives on the action.

      It’s tricky sometimes, but it’s rewarding. Yes, it can overload the reader at times. Still, I think it creates an intimacy with the story because it yanks the reader along and demands that they keep up.

      So far, I’ve had positive responses from readers and negative responses from editors. So far, my readers aren’t lost. They love it. I think readers aren’t as easily confused as traditional editors believe they are.

      Has anyone read any good fiction lately where the perspective shifts within the chapter, going back and forth between the characters involved in the action (usually 2-3 characters at a time)? If so, I would love some feedback about this technique. Good? Bad? Ugly?

  11. Yeah, What Tei said. That’s exactly right. I get annoyed when someone is telling a first person story and it feels like I am stuck at church with the nice lady who won’t shut up and there is no way to escape.

    It doesn’t lend itself to enough variety. I don’t want to hear the same person talk all the time. I don’t want everything fitered through only one person’s opinion or point of view.

    I like to know what the good guy’s thinking.

    I like to know that the bad guy’s planning on wrapping your brains up in a gift bag and giving it to your best friend for his birthday and that you have no idea.

    I can’t know that if you are the one telling me the story.

    Wendi Kelly’s last blog post..A Mother’s Gratitude

  12. This is truly design. Brain hurts. Stretching again like it does when I stare at Braque and Picasso’s cubist work, because you’ve offered multiple planes to pick from.

    It occurs to me that writers consider the negative space ( the space that the reader might take up) as much as their own. Sounds dumb to say that now “outloud”. But what I mean is the form you pick, in this case, POV, determines how the reader engages. How much room and where the reader gets to sit.
    I sound even dumber now.
    It’s another manipulator( in a nice way) depending on intent, and picking one or the other actually impacts the EXTENT of the reader’s role?

    Does it follow that the more restricted the POV, the more creative you have to be with the other tools?

    Janice C Cartier’s last blog post..Long Shots

  13. @Nicole: I used to do that on the game boards when I introduced a new scene. I had a main character I would use and for a change of pace I’d write him in first person. I’ve seen it work in novels too, where at the beginning or end of a chapter, or as an interlude in between chapters the writer would switch to first person. The one that sticks out in my mind is Mists of Avalon. Between the parts of the book, Bradley would switch to Morgain’s POV.

    @Tei: I agree with you, first person is a lot harder to maintain over a long period of time.

    @Rob: I haven’t read any of those authors. Now that I think about it, the only time I’ve seen a novel written in second person is in the adventure books James mentioned (yes, James, they’re still around).

  14. Rob- I like Lehane and Robbins. But hadn’t seen the ones mentioned. So I read excerpt from Half Asleep. Wow. Thanks for that.

    Janice C Cartier’s last blog post..Long Shots

  15. @Harry: While you may not have read Lehane, you may be familiar with his work if you’ve seen the movies MYSTIC RIVER and GONE BABY GONE. He wrote the novels on which those movies are based.

    Robbins is a little out there. If you like SF/F, Robbins might be worth a looksee. I’m positive he eats a lot of peyote before he sits down to write. He was writing magical realism before anyone knew what magical realism was. Not everything he does is in second person, though.

    @Janice: You’re welcome. 😉

    Rob in Denver’s last blog post..It’s safe to say I’m stoked

  16. Harry,

    I’d start with Even Cowgirls Get the Blues or Jitterbug Perfume if you’ve never read Tom Robbins. He is so incredible. His books are instant addictions.

    Until later,

    Kelly

    Kelly’s last blog post..Inspiration Points: No Regrets!

  17. You know when I first started to write this was my biggest problem. I was cluttered and I jumped from one to the other. Now I think that I do preferr third person limited. It’s much better for me to be able to give the reader the information he or she needs but at the same time keep it flowing perfectly. It does get difficult since my story has two main characters and about ten side characters that come in and out of the scenes at different intervals so I decided to stick with the two main and not clutter the story up with everyone’s pov.
    .-= J.Morgan´s last blog ..Transformers (The fallen) =-.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Fiction Writing: What’s Your Point of View? […]

  2. Brad’s Reader » Blog Archive » Friday Link Love 5/16 says:

    […] Fiction writing: What’s your point of viewWriting a story in first person or third person can make a big difference in how the story is experienced by the reader, and how it is written. Here’s a handy guide to help you decide. […]

  3. […] Here is a delightful and highly recommended (by me) blog about writing called “Men With Pens”. The entry on point of view is very well-presented and informative, and you may find the comments interesting and helpful as well: https://menwithpens.ca/fiction-writing-whats-your-point-of-view […]

  4. […] things first: POV means Point of View. It’s a fiction writing element, and it matters in your […]

  5. […] What’s Your Point of View: First person? Third person omniscient? What does it all mean? Exploring and discussing points of view in literature. […]

  6. […] thoughts on POV from Men With Pens. In a future post, I may write about how I decide which POV to use in the next book. Stay tuned. […]

  7. […] What’s Your Point of View: First person? Third person omniscient? What does it all mean? Exploring and discussing points of view in literature. […]

  8. […] 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  […]

  9. […] 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  […]

  10. […] more information on POV, here is a link to a blog entitled Men with Pens. Read this excellent post: Fiction Writing: What’s Your Point of […]

  11. […] What’s Your Point of View: First person? Third person omniscient? What does it all mean? Exploring and discussing points of view in literature. […]

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