When we talk about point of view (POV) in a novel, we’re usually referring to narration and perspective. The difference between first, second, and third person narration, with a note on the difference between third person limited and third person omniscient narration. Yet point of view goes deeper than just who is narrating the story. When we think about point of view, we must ask:
Once you have decided on the POV then you can move forward in writing your story.
First person perspective (I, we) is the most commonly used viewpoint in modern novels. It has several benefits:
Easier to create reader empathy/sympathy
Often easier to write
Makes it easier to keep things from the reader – limited perspective is useful for genres like mystery or romance
Easy to show deep emotion, introspection
Many writers also draw on their personal experiences and memories when writing, and using first person can make this easier. In first person, the writer can have a main character who questions his or her thought processes and feelings; who is introspective or reflective. This is a particularly useful tool for many genres, but especially romance, mystery, and fantasy.
Although first person novels are usually narrated by a character essential to the story, they are not always. In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout narrates the story, but she is not directly involved in the story’s major plot points. She is an outsider recounting events that happened to others and of her father Atticus’ court case. Her ‘telling’ relates events and interactions that are entirely hers and personal and these events add to the novel’s major story, but the plot could exist without them.
In writing from a girl’s perspective, Lee offers the reader intimacy (with the story) and a way to ask and answer questions that is neither forced nor heavy on what most writing instructors call ‘the information dump’. As a child, Scout can ask questions of her father; her personal ideas and viewpoints are not fully formed and so she offers an open perspective; she is largely unnoticed and can move between worlds and communities within the novel and narrate what she sees. Though Lee could achieve much of this with a third person perspective, third person offers less intimacy than first person.
Similarly, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is written from the viewpoint of Gatsby’s neighbour, Nick Carraway, a man who has little effect on the events in the novel. Using Carraway as narrator allowed Fitzgerald to reflect on Gatsby, but also to conceal information. This concealment of information is also a useful technique in first person mysteries. Consider Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. In using Watson as narrator, Doyle could conceal information from the reader to make his mysteries more gripping and surprising.
Peripheral narrators also show up in young adult literature. In Thirteen Reasons Why, author Jay Asher uses a series of recordings from a dead girl as part of the narration. The girl, Hannah, is not actively present in the story, and yet the limited recordings provide information and create an aura of mystery which in turn creates a compelling read.
Pitfalls of First Person Narration
Although popular, first person narration has several downsides:
Disguising the main plot
Stalling the story
Switching between too many first person voices
You may be describing things you couldn’t possibly be aware of or know
The first three pitfalls here are intertwined. First person perspective allows the writer a direct emotional and physical connection to the main character, and it can be tempting to write everything that ever happens to that character. Remember, every piece of a story must feed into the next – there is no room for extraneous information in a novel. When writing in first person, make a point of asking yourself: how does this move the story forward? Be ruthless. Novels zoom in on important parts of a story. They don’t show every tiny movement or thought.
For the fourth pitfall, it’s important to remember a novel has between one and four narrators – though it is possible to have more narrators, and more than one in first person, the novel’s structure will become highly complex and difficult to manage. For this reason, very few novelists do it, and those that do are quite experienced, well-known writers. If you think your story requires more than four viewpoints, it usually means you’re either using the wrong narrators, or are better off writing in third person.
The last pitfall tells the reader things that the narrator couldn’t possibly know. For example ‘my face reddened in shame’ from the first person point of view the narrator cannot see their own face so could not know if it was red or not – they may feel as though their face has turned red though. Reworded, it makes more sense as ‘I’m sure my face reddened in shame’. ‘He crept up behind me’ – if told in the present tense the narrator could not possibly know this (how would you know if someone was creeping up behind you if you couldn't hear or see them?). If told in the past tense then the narrator can use reflection.
These are common mistakes novice writers make when using the first person POV.
First Person Point of View Tips
Be wary of starting sentences with ‘I’ and using I too often; every time you use ‘I’ think about whether you could reword the sentence to eliminate as many of those ‘I’s’ as possible.
Switching between points of view (mid-sentence or mid-paragraph) is an easy trap to fall into. For example, you might start out in first person then switch to third person or second person POV.
As we walked along the cliff tops you could hear the waves crashing on the shore below.
I always concentrate when driving because you are less likely to have an accident that way.
The above examples are very common POV switching mistakes. Here is how these sentences could be written without switching POV:
As we walked along the cliff tops we could hear the waves crashing on the shore below.
I always concentrate when driving because I’m less likely to have an accident that way.
Make sure you don’t just focus on the emotions of the narrator – this can limit the characters' depth and turn the narrator into a storyteller rather than a fully embodied character. Don’t just describe thoughts and feelings - utilise the character’s senses (discussed earlier) where you can. Remember that the reader is actively viewing the world through the eyes of your narrator, so don’t limit that view.
Don’t use the passive voice unless you specifically want to highlight a character’s passive response. Remember that you are writing a story not reporting a string of facts. The narrator must carry the reader along with them, throughout the story, as if they are sharing experiences; the reader should be surprised when the narrator is surprised, sad when the narrator is said and jubilant when the narrator is jubilant, and so on. The following example is quite passive; it doesn’t inspire the reader at all:
“As I was walking through the dark tunnel and I suddenly heard footsteps coming from behind me, I decided I must run.”
The following uses a stronger voice - it creates contiguity, a knowledge that the action is happening now: “Darkness enveloped the tunnel, hearing footsteps behind me, I ran.”
When using the first person POV your narrator should speak with all the nuances and variety that is used in everyday life.
At times you will need to introduce the reader into the narrator’s scene (first person POV). This could be to give the reader a short background story that is essential to understanding the narrator, for example: “My mother was an addict; she was high when I was conceived and high when she left me.”
An example of a concise yet informative background novel from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.”
Or it might be used when you switch the narrator’s scenes: “I found the café where I was to meet John and waited. Half an hour passed by with no sign of him so I returned to the boat.”
Alter the words you use to convey your narrator’s emotions, their musings and experiences. If your character is an emotional type then the language they use would be more emotive than if they were distant, unemotional or even cold. Use the right language to suit your character.
For example, read this sentence: “I could not, not love him, just because I realised that he no longer noticed who I was.”
Now compare the above with this far more adept and strongly emotive example from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: “I could not un-love him now, merely because I found that he had ceased to notice me.”
Avoid descriptions or repetitive verbs in your descriptions, it becomes boring and monotonous. Vary your descriptions to make them lively, that is what brings your character/narrator to life and makes them ‘real’ in the mind of the reader.
Make sure you use language that is suited to and consistent with what the reader knows about the character and the character’s personality and background. Your character may be working class, well-educated, cultured or unsophisticated, loud and obnoxious, or quiet and refined. Choose the language to suit. For example, you might use regional dialects, accents and slang, a cultured voice, a loud voice, and so on.
Remember that the character is telling the story in the mind of the reader, not the author, so always use the voice of the character you have created – the author shouldn’t intrude.
Second person, or writing that uses ‘you’, is an uncommon choice for a novel. This is because it’s hard to do – sentences can easily become overly complex and longwinded. Moreover, there is also the question of who the ‘you’ of the book actually is. Of course, this doesn’t mean books are never written in second person or using what’s called ‘direct address’ – many self-help books use second person to good effect.
Using second person does help you (the author) create an immediate connection with the reader. Yet it also forces the story onto the reader, and this can destroy any empathy or sympathy the reader might feel. There are, however, two instances in which second person can be a good choice:
Smaller pieces of a novel, especially if the story needs the reader to “think outside of the box” for a key point
Working through writer’s block
Many young adult novels use ‘you’ in brief spots throughout the narrative to help the reader connect to a difficult or immediate problem. This can also be a helpful strategy in fantasy novels, and some contemporary works. Second person is also often used in digital narratives, hypertext-based works, and flash fiction.
The third person POV uses the pronouns he (him, his), she (her, hers), it (its) or they (them, theirs) and is the most common point of view used in fiction writing. The words used in the third person POV are always neutral and should not be opinionated, however that doesn’t mean that the language can’t be descriptive. The third person perspective is commonly used across all genres.
The third person narrator is generally not a character in the story.
The reader sees the characters in the story from the outside looking in.
The narrator usually ‘knows all’ and this means that there are no restrictions on what they may and narrate in the story.
The following well-known novels were all written using the third person perspective:
J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series
J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit
Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice
Richard Adam’s Watership Down
Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway
Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities
Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things
Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy
An example of third person POV: "He is just what a young man ought to be" said she, "sensible, good humoured, lively; and I never saw such happy manners! -- so much ease, with such perfect good breeding!" from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
There are broadly two types of third person POV writing: limited and omniscient.
Limited – the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings from the perspective of one character. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling and Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls are great examples of third person limited. Others include: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, and 1st To Die by James Patterson.
Omniscient – the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of all the characters. Great examples of books written in the third person omniscient are: Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and Vanity Fair by William Thackeray.
Advantages of Third Person POV
The third person POV is objective as it is seen through another’s eyes, the first person being subjective because ‘I’ am the narrator. When a narrator tells a story in the first person perspective they are less likely to show all the flaws in their character (being their own).
The third person perspective can give the author more freedom because there can be more than one viewpoint i.e. the narrator can disclose characteristics of the viewpoint character that they would never disclose of themselves. For example, he or she can disclose his or her characteristics to the narrator. This works because the narrator is also the author. However, to encourage the reader to ‘believe’ in the characters they need to be able to discount the author, the author must remain unobtrusive so the reader feels that they are reading the tale through a third eye or a silent witness.
Not as closed or narrow
Because you can tell the story as an outsider looking in rather than ‘I’ – it opens up the opportunity for greater character exploration. It can also add a sense of ‘truth’ to the story. When a story is told from the first person the reader needs to discriminate more – they may or should not always believe what the narrator is telling them. It is only one opinion.
Novels told in the first person may not be told in the present – it may be a character relating a story from the past; or an older narrator telling the tale of their younger self; the greater the difference in time between the events and the retelling of a story, the greater the effects on its immediacy. This may be good or it may be bad depending on how adept the author is in telling a tale from a younger or older character's point of view.
Even though more novels written in the third person use the past tense, this doesn’t seem to affect the immediacy. The main reason the third person POV seems more immediate is because it ‘feels’ as though it is written in the present. First person POV is more intimate and less immediate than third person POV.
Greater freedom and flexibility
The above is advice extrapolated from one of our books - How to Write a Novel"
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