What is your point of view? Don’t worry, I’m not asking about your politics—just your storytelling. But the question of the point of view from which you write may be just as fraught with conflict as a question about your political or religious views.
There are four points of view in storytelling.
- First Person or “I.” You’ve read many books that use this point of view. Usually the main character, but sometimes a narrator who is a minor character and not the hero or heroine, relates his or her experiences directly. The advantage of using the first person point of view is it can help the reader to identify more completely with the main character.
But it also has many limitations. The story can only be revealed through the eyes of the narrator. If action takes place in which the narrator is not involved, it must be described to the narrator by a third party. Also, while we know the feelings and motivations of this main character, we must guess, along with that character, about the feelings and motivations of the other players in the book.
The most common problem I see authors have in writing in the first person is ascribing feelings, actions, and motivations to other characters when they should have no knowledge of them.
- Second Person or “You.” This is, in my opinion, the most difficult POV to pull off in fiction, however it is often used in nonfiction. The most common way in which fiction uses the second person is through letters from one character to another. This can be very effective in short sections of a book, or in a short story, but is very difficult to sustain for a long novel.
Second person can be used very effectively in nonfiction, however, particularly self-help books, where the author is assisting the reader in learning something. In a self-help book, using the second person can bring more intimacy to the book and help readers feel as if it was written just for them.
- Third Person Limited or “They.” In this perspective, the storyteller knows the inner thoughts of only one main character. The storyteller acts as a narrator who does not take part in the story, and as in First Person, only knows the feelings and motivations of one character, usually the main character.
This POV has more flexibility than the first person. As a semi-omniscient observer, the narrator can provide additional interpretation to the character.
- Third Person Omniscient or “They.” From this POV, the narrator acts as an all-knowing being who understands the thoughts, feelings, and actions of every person in the story. The story is still about “he” or “she,” but the narrator has full access to the thoughts and experiences of all characters in the story.
The advantage is that as the storyteller, you know all, see all, and can tell all. The disadvantage is that you must make sure that the reader understands whose perspective you are telling the story from at any given moment.
POV Rules—And How to Break Them
Now that you know the rules of Point of View, let’s discuss how to break them.
One of the first things English teachers will tell you is that once you pick a point of view you are stuck with it for the entire story. Yes. And no. Let’s take a well-known book series, Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon. If you have read the books, rather than just watching the TV series, you will know that the first book in the series is written entirely in the first person from the main character, Claire’s, point of view. But later books are more complex and Gabaldon needed to tell the reader what was happening to other characters in other locations and in other time periods. She does this by breaking her books into sections. If a section is about Claire, it is narrated in the first person. If it is about another character, it is narrated in the third person. The reader quickly learns that if a section begins with “I” it is about Claire. If it is about another character, that person is mentioned early in the first paragraph so that we know who we are reading about.
Another, simpler method of switching perspectives while keeping the first person point of view, is to label each chapter with the name of the character it is about. That way, we can see the story from several perspectives. Often, in this type of narration, the author describes the action more than once, giving each character’s viewpoint about what just happened.
The bottom line: you can change point of view from one character to another, but you must make it clear whose point of view you are in at any given moment.
A corollary to this is that, if you are writing in third person omniscience, you can, and should, tell the reader what several characters are thinking, feeling, and seeing. But again, you must make sure the reader understands which character you are discussing. Don’t change point of view in the middle of a paragraph and certainly not in the middle of a sentence. Make it clear whose point of view you are in whenever you change. Use proper nouns—the person’s name or title, for instance, rather than pronouns. Too many “he saids” and “she saids” will totally confuse the reader.
Another common rule is that you can’t sustain a second person POV for a long novel. As I said earlier, you can, but it is difficult. Here are a few popular authors and their books who manage it:
Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins, and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Early novelists including Charles Dickens and Jane Austin used second person in their books—probably no one had yet told them how difficult it was.
One popular series that you read when you were younger was the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series. This series offered readers various choices so that they really felt as if they were a part of the action, and each time they read it they could make different choices and essentially read a different story.
Worrying about point of view when you are first getting your words down on paper can get you so confused that you just don’t know what to write. If you are having trouble with point of view or find yourself switching between points of view in a first draft, I suggest you first get your story down. Then, edit it yourself looking for point of view and other issues, and finally send it to a good editor to look it over.