Sunday, May 27, 2012

Point of View Demystified

Point of view: it's a way of looking at the world, or, in the case of writing, it's the lens through which your readers will see the world of your story. There are an enormous number of points of view in writing. Trying to distinguish between them (much less use them) gets extremely complicated extremely quickly. That's why--for my peace of mind as much as anyone's--today's post will be about what each point of view (POV) is, as well as the costs and benefits of using that POV.

Note: some of the thoughts below come from Randy Ingermanson's excellent book, Writing Fiction for Dummies. If you're interested in reading more about POV, be sure to check it out!

1. First Person
-- What it is: write from inside the head of one character, using the pronoun "I". For example, "I walked into the street and looked around for Karla. 'What's taking her so long?' I wondered. Just then, someone clapped a hand over my mouth." You stay inside that character's head, seeing their thoughts and reactions, for the entire scene.

-- Benefits: It's extremely close and personal, allowing readers to connect easily with the character.

-- Drawbacks: You can only use first person for one person per scene, and when you're looking from that character's view, you can't write anything that the character wouldn't know. Plus, if you change around the point of view characters in different chapters or sections, the characters can start to sound alike unless you're careful to make their thoughts sound different. Lastly, the first person voice can be too close and personal for some readers, who would prefer distance.

2. Second Person
-- What it is: write from inside the head of one character, using the pronoun "you." For example, "You walked into the street and looked around for Karla. 'What's taking her so long?' you wondered. Just then, someone clapped a hand over your mouth." In 2nd person, you can choose whether or not to show the character's thoughts (as I did in the example above).

-- Benefits: it's unusual, so it will catch a reader's attention right away.

-- Drawbacks: It's even more personal than first person because, in a way, it feels as though you are a character in the story. So if the narrator in the story (the 'you' character) does something the reader wouldn't do, than the reader will almost certainly balk and stop reading. Also, because it's so rare, readers aren't used to reading it, so readers may give up after trying to read a little.

3. Third Person (Limited)
-- What it is: write from inside the head of one character, using the pronoun "he/she." For example, "He walked into the street and looked around for Karla. 'What's taking her so long?' he wondered. Just then, someone clapped a hand over his mouth." Again, as with first and second person point of view, you can only show/tell what the character is thinking, seeing, or experiencing.

-- Benefits: it's still fairly close and personal, allowing readers to connect with the character.

-- Drawbacks: again, you must stay within that one character's head during the entire scene. Plus, it can seem slightly more distant than first person, depending on how often you introduce the character's thoughts into the story.

4. Omniscient
-- What it is: write from inside or outside the heads of multiple characters, or write from the perspective of a god-like persona who knows what's going on in and out of everyone's heads. For example, "Jimmy was a paranoid man. As he stepped into the street, he glanced nervously around, wondering where Karla went. Across the street in a parked car, Karla fiddled with her nails. Although normally a calm woman, she could not help but wonder what was taking Jimmy so long. Then, a man dressed in black clapped his hand over Jimmy's mouth."

-- Benefits: your readers know what's going on in and out of most characters in the story, including the villain. This can be helpful in some scenes (although often it's simply confusing).

-- Drawbacks: Omniscient point of view tempts authors to add in little bits of explanation and inner thoughts that aren't strictly necessary. One note of warning: few modern authors write in omniscient point of view, especially as it's very close to the very confusing head-hopping view (see point 6). For an example of effective usage, see The Godfather by Mario Puzo, or portions of Dune by Frank Herbert.

5. Objective
-- What it is: write from outside the head of a focal character or characters, using the pronoun "he/she." In this point of view, the reader never gets to see anyone's thoughts. It's very scientific and, as the name signifies, objective. For example, "Jimmy stepped into the street. Karla waited in a car across the street. Suddenly, a man in black clapped his hand over Jimmy's mouth."

-- Benefits: if you're going for a scientific feeling, then this view can be helpful. It makes the story very visual, almost as though there's a movie camera filming the scene.

-- Drawbacks: you can't use inter emotions or show the inner thoughts of any of the characters, so the characters can feel extremely remote from your reader. And when writing in this point of view, don't cheat by having the characters voice their thoughts in a phony way.

6. Head-Hopping
-- What it is: write from inside the heads of multiple characters in the same scene, using the pronoun "he/she." For example, "As Jimmy stepped into the street, he thought, 'Karla isn't waiting for me. But where could she be?' Karla, sitting in the car, bit her fingernail and wondered, 'Jimmy's sure takin' a long time. Wonder what got into him?'"

-- Benefits: the readers know what everyone in a scene is thinking.

-- Drawbacks: Humans find it easiest to identify with one character at a time. Head-hopping can become confusing and distracting, and makes the story less vivid and precise for your reader. This method of narration is highly discouraged by most writing teachers. However, there are still plenty of novels that head-hop a good deal (Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell, for one).


Hope you enjoyed that (not-so-short) summary of points of view! Now, what about you? What point of view is your current story written in? Have you ever tried writing it in a different point of view?

Sweet Halloween Dreams, by begemot on Deviantart


  1. This is a good post. :D It certainly makes me think again about the point of view I am using.

    1. Thanks! Tell me what point of view you decide to use :)

  2. My first novel that I did with the One Year Adventure Novel curriculum is written in first person. I stayed in my heroine the entire time. My second novel I wrote in third person.

    First person was a lot easier than third person to me. But it was also a little irritating, because I had to try and keep my heroine interesting without making her super bizarre.

    Third person was a lot more fun, but I head-hopped a LOT. I had to go back and fix all of the head-hopping scenes, which took a long time.

    I'm planning to write another novel over the summer, and I think I am going to do the third person limited. I actually just decided that right now. Thanks for the epic post! :)

    1. First person and third person are so similar and yet so different--it can be really interesting to try switching to the other to see which one suits the tone of your story best. For mine, I started in third person and decided it sounded too distant and impersonal, so I switched to first person. Problem solved! Amazing how much POV can do for your story!

      No problem, and thank you! Glad it helped you decide :)

  3. My last novel (which I just finished, woohoo) is written in third person, but I'm seriously thinking of rewriting it into first person. I love the connection with the character that you can get from sitting inside their head. My next novel (for Camp NaNoWriMo) I think I'll try first person, but switch to third if it doesn't work. For me, it's trial and error getting the right POV.

    1. Congratulations for finishing!!! That's amazing and fantastic! Actually, I started my work-in-progress in third person and now in my second draft I'm rewriting in first person, which I like a lot better for the tone of my story. However, let me warn you, it's a LOT of work to switch from third to first. Maybe try a few chapters first and see how you like it :)

      Hope it works! And congrats again!

  4. A lot of the stories I write are in omniscient. I mostly use it because I like getting into many different characters heads. I like knowing what all the characters' motives are and the different ways they think. I do find myself doing the head-hopping sometimes, but I try to use it sparingly, and a lot of the time I change it when I go back to edit.

    I did try First Person recently, but found that I didn't like writing that way. I felt so limited, since I could only tell the story from one character’s point of view.

    1. Really, omniscient? That's quite rare, but really cool :) . It does seem like a great way to get to know all your characters.

      Personally, I like to try writing in different styles to stretch myself, but I keep returning to third and first person. I like the closeness myself. I guess every writer is different!


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