Understanding Point-of-View

POV. Love it or hate it, this is one of the most crucial decisions a writer makes. And yet, it often seems like writers overlook that fact, defaulting into whatever format they tend to read most. True, there’s something familiar and comfortable about mimicking a style you spend a large portion of your reading time in. But we’re not parrots, and choosing the right POV can make or break a story. It’s like the cinematography of literature, unseen and yet so incredibly crucial to the way you convey your tale. An invisible camera, it translates your ideas into images your viewers (readers in this case) can imagine. Whether it’s a sweeping panorama of landscape, or a close-up of your character’s soul, each style is specifically built to capture the mind’s eye in a variety of ways.

Why wouldn’t you want to put thought into how to wield a tool that powerful?

So let’s take a quick look at the various options, as well as their strengths and weaknesses, that way you can make educated choices about your next WIP: (Note, these will not talk about tense choice, as that opens a whole other can of worms. This is just the basic format for whose eyes we see through.)

First Person

May as well kick it off with the one that currently dominates a lot of genres. This one should be familiar to all of you — it’s the self-centered diva of the ball. In cinematography, this would be the camera that’s tethered to your character, perched on their shoulder like some kind of weird growth. It faithfully follows their every move and puts readers firmly in their heads. We experience what they do — their thoughts, their physical sensations, their fears and emotions, all of it.

The downside to using this format? Well, you’re stuck with that one character. Literally. The point of this POV is to let readers live vicariously as someone else. When you do your job well, they figuratively step into your character’s skin. Which means that they can only know what your character does. Want to show us what their potential lover is thinking when they stare at your MC? Too bad, you can’t. Want to clue us in to the nefarious plotting of your villain that’s taking place halfway across Fictitious-land from your leading man? Sorry. No can do.

Don’t get me wrong, First Person is a very powerful POV, but it’s limited. When deciding whether or not to use this one, look at the way your story is structured. Is it most effectively told from inside your character? Or do you want to be able to pull the camera back a little bit and show us more than just that character’s inner emotions?

Second Person

This is actually a fairly unusual POV, but you will occasionally stumble across it, more frequently in short stories than novels, though there are a few of those out there too. The cinematic version most akin to this would be a GoPro camera attached to your character’s head, where you’re literally shown the story through the character’s eyes. But not like the version seen in First Person. No, here, you never see the character’s face, because you are the character. This is my least favorite style of fiction because it always comes across as bossy. If First Person is the self-centered sibling, this is the bossy older sister who never lets you get away with crap.

Populated by an abundance of “you did this, you did that,” Second Person strives to get you to experience the story as if it were truly happening to you. The problem I have with it is a) I don’t like being told what to do, and b) it’s heavy-handed use of breaking the fourth wall (talking directly to the reader) actually makes immersion into the story that much more difficult. At least for me. I have seen it done well, but trust me, if you’re going to try this one, you better be a master storyteller. Not only is it extremely limited, but it takes a brilliantly light touch to achieve the escapism people are looking for when they read.

Third Person Limited

Another common one, this is the popular, people-pleasing twin to First Person, most frequently abused by those just starting out and often unappreciated for its generous gifts. The camera equivalent is the film style most often seen in video games. It follows a select character around, but at a slightly more respectable distance than that seen in First Person. Where First Person is all up in your character’s business, Third Person Limited is the quietly observing stalker in the bushes. You’re allowed to showcase more of the world outside of the character’s head, but also still allowed to show us their thoughts. But only their thoughts.

The key here is that “limited” tacked on to the end. Often, writers confuse the fact that they get to say things like “he did this” and “she said that” for the ability to jump between characters. But that’s incorrect, and is the biggest danger in using this style — head-hopping. Though you are most definitely outside of your character, you’re still tied to their movements. It’s a tight close-up or medium shot, not a free-roaming scenario that can pan across whatever part of the story you feel like. For that, you need . . .

Third Person Omniscient

Poor Third Person Omniscient is the wicked step-child. Once the favored style of fantasy and sci-fi authors everywhere, it now frequently falls beneath the mislabeled sword of head-hopping and is swiftly nixed from every manuscript. Except for a few stalwart authors in the know. Why the confusion? Because of the definition of that lovely “O” word in the title. “Omniscient” means that the narrator knows everything. This is the free-floating camera, disconnected from any one character and free to weave in and out of everyone’s thoughts at whim. This is actually the most versatile of the POVs, which also makes it the hardest to do effectively.

The trick to using this one is understanding the fine line between head-hopping and omniscient narrative (if you’d like me to go into further detail about this specifically, let me know in the comments, and I’ll do a separate post about it). Namely, you need to have a firm grasp on your characters and how to move the camera around effectively. The most visual example I can think of is where you watch a conversation between two or more characters in a movie and the camera switches back and forth between close-ups of each speaker.

Objective

Who here has never heard of this one at all? It’s okay. It’s not often talked about for some reason. To keep with our family analogy, Objective POV is the distant fourth cousin three times removed that you never knew you had. And there’s a reason — it’s hard. In Objective POV, you’re only allowed to impart the facts. That means no access to any of your characters’ heads. At all. No telling, no inner monologues, only observable details.

Have a bad habit of telling instead of showing? Try writing in this for awhile — it’ll break that habit real fast, because all you can do is show. Facial expressions, body language, physical details in the environment and characters’ appearances, these are the only tools you have to convey what your characters are thinking and feeling. In short, this is the literary equivalent of film. That same distance you feel between yourself and a movie? Yep, you’ll run into that here too, which is its biggest downfall — a lack of intimacy. But, when done well, this can be one of the more powerful writing tools.

So, there you have it, the five main POV choices. I’m sure some of you are wondering, if there’s an Objective POV, shouldn’t there be a Subjective one? You’re right, there is. It’s called the other four I listed. They’re considered subjective because all four allow you inside at least one character’s head. Satisfied?

This is by no means a detailed tutorial on how to wield each style effectively, but it does give you the basics of what each is good for, as well as what pitfalls you should be aware of. A good writer will experiment with all the tools at their disposal. Not every story will be best told in First Person, and not every character will shine in Third. So spend some time exploring the different techniques; the only thing it will do is increase your skill set. Make POV a conscious decision and gain one more level of control in your work. Understand how the camera moves, and you’ll gain a firmer grasp of storytelling in general. Humans are visual creatures, so use POV to help us see your story the way you do.

Any questions?

 

7 thoughts on “Understanding Point-of-View

  1. I have seen authors mixing First POV and Third POV Omniscient. Can that be acceptable as a way to show more on both the characters’ emotions and enviroment or not?

    • Hmm, I actually have never run across that in published works. I’ve seen first person and third person limited mixed in a single work with a split POV, but not third person omniscient. Do you have a specific example or two of authors who have successfully used this technique?

      As an editor, I would strongly caution against that approach. They’re too dramatically different in style and cinematic scale, and the result would be choppy at best, or more frequently, would be misconstrued as extreme head-hopping by a majority of readers. Instead, look at why you would need to consider this at all. What do you gain by adding third person omniscient? Are you hoping to showcase multiple characters, letting readers see through everyone’s eyes? If that’s the case, then I would probably say the entire thing should be written in third person omniscient. Alternatively, if you have one main character, but need to show us something they can’t possibly know, I would recommend maybe trying third person limited for the interludes. But only if you have one, maybe two other POV characters. If you bounce through too many, it will be hard for readers to connect with anyone.

      Either way, I would only point someone down this path if they have a solid understanding of the different POV styles. Trying to swap between first person and third is shaky at best, and it’s a risky move that only works if you do it well. And even then, you’re likely to have a lot of readers that dislike it.

      Thank you for that excellent question, though! I hope this answer helps somewhat. 🙂

  2. Great post. I tend to favor third person, but I sometimes play in the first. But I do have a bad habit of head hopping, which I’m trying to break. =D

    • Maybe give Objective POV a try? Not for anything super extended, or even for publication. Just something that forces you to flex those writing muscles and learn how to get away from head-hopping? Once you learn to identify it, it’s much easier to break the habit. 😉

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

  3. Very interesting. I’ve tried experimenting with a few of the above but always come back to first person. It works for me in a way the others don’t. I enjoy the level of intimacy I get while writing in first person. Putting myself in my characters head is a wonderful experience, and I like that my other characters have somewhat of a free run.
    Great post, with interesting insights 🙂
    Melody

    • Thanks for commenting, Melody! 🙂

      I think it’s pretty common for writers to find a favored style and stick with that. But the key is that you did experiment with the others; you didn’t just automatically end up in first person. I think that gives you an edge, as you will have a stronger understanding of the intricacies of your chosen POV after spending time in the others. 😉

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