September 2, 2015 | Posted in: Writing & Grammar Tips
How to Choose POV in Fiction Writing
Point of View, or POV, is the perspective from which your story is told. The POV you choose depends on many factors including how many main characters are in the story, how close you want readers to be to the protagonist, and what information you want readers to have access to.
Choosing the POV can be one of the most important decisions a writer makes beside choosing the protagonist. Each POV has advantages and disadvantages. The best POV will be more obvious in some stories than others. Your chosen POV will have direct impact on the pacing, format, and suspense of your story. The POV will dictate the pronouns used, how much of the protagonist’s thoughts readers can see, determine the importance of the narrator, determine the importance of characters versus events, and position readers within or outside the story.
The right POV is more than a technical decision. The POV you choose can make the difference between a story that “speaks” to readers and a story that readers don’t become engaged with. In short, the POV a writer chooses can make or break a story.
Before deciding which POV is right for your story, you need to understand the different types of POV and what they can do for your story. The "Point of View Flowchart" shown below can be used as a starting point in choosing the best POV for your story.
Descriptions and pros and cons of the viewpoints depicted in the POV flowchart are given below the image.
FIRST PERSON POV
(Identified by the pronouns I, me, my, mine, we, us, and ours)
FIRST PERSON PROTAGONIST
While First Person Protagonist is from the POV of one character, a variant of this POV can be used with multiple main characters. If this is done, the same character should be the narrator for an entire scene or chapter, as switching to the POV of another character within the same scene is considered "head hopping."
- Perspective of one of the characters in the plot—usually one of the main characters.
- The character will often narrate the story in a similar way to which he talks but with more description and often better grammar.
- Narrator is relating the story of something that happened to him personally.
- Easier to keep the secrets of other characters from the reader.
- Readers are able to experience events that happen to the character first hand through the character, as though it’s happening to them.
- Difficult to keep secrets about the POV character from the reader.
- Difficult to describe events that don’t happen directly to the reader.
- Example: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
FIRST PERSON OBSERVER
- Similar to First Person Protagonist, but the narrator is not the main character.
- The focus is on the protagonist instead of the narrator.
- Narrator has some role in the events other than simply observing them.
- The narrator is close enough to see most of the events, but distant enough to maintain some objectivity.
- Narrator has his own goals and encounters his own obstacles.
- Narrator’s story is a subplot to the protagonist’s main plot.
- Makes a larger than life character fascinating rather than insufferable and annoying.
- Gives the protagonist an air of mystery.
- Allows information about the main character to be withheld.
- Narrator can share insights into aspects of the main character’s personality that the main character isn’t aware of and are integral to the plot.
- Narrator can describe events that the main character is unaware of or didn’t witness first hand.
- Readers have a personal link to the story while being able to see the main character objectively.
- Can be used if the protagonist dies.
- Can risk creating a main character that readers cannot warm up to or relate to.
- Readers might not feel a direct emotional connection to the main character.
- The main character can remain something of a mystery or an enigma.
- Thoughts and feelings are interpreted by the narrator and may be biased.
- Example: Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Great Gatsby by. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Moby Dick by Herman Melville
FIRST PERSON WITNESS
- Narrator is not a character in the story.
- Narrator is not a part of events and is on the outside looking in.
- Events are related based on what the narrator sees.
- Narrator provides his interpretation of the feelings and actions of characters.
- Can be used if the protagonist dies.
- Information about the main character can be withheld.
- Can risk having a story that reads like a long news report.
- Narrator’s interpretation of events, feelings, and actions are based only on what he sees.
- Narrator may be unaware of events or feelings pertinent to the plot and/or main character.
- Example: Luck by Mark Twain
THIRD PERSON POV
(Identified by the pronouns he, she, his, hers, they, them, and theirs)
THIRD PERSON OMNISCIENT
What many writers refer to as Third Person Omniscient is technically a variant of Third Person Limited with multiple characters instead of one. True Third Person Omniscient was seen more often in the past and has fallen out of popularity in modern books.
True Third Person Omniscient
- Story is narrated by an unnamed/unknown entity who knows everything.
- Narrator sees all, whether a character is present to see it or not.
- Contains descriptions of things the characters can’t know about and can’t observe.
- Narrator is never a part of any scenes, which gives a somewhat distant and dispassionate feel.
- Narrator can look into every character’s mind and analyze motivations, goals, and thoughts.
- The thoughts that carry the greatest weight in a scene are the ones that are shared, regardless of which character they belong to.
- The focus is more on events than thoughts and feelings.
- Characterized by "head hopping."
- Can easily impart knowledge without worrying about how the characters found out.
- No concerns about inadvertently switching POV.
- Works best for stories that follow a group of people (e.g., family, nation) and is often used for a story that spans more than one person’s lifetime or a larger region of space than can be traveled in one person’s lifetime.
- Less personal.
- Difficult to justify keeping information from readers.
- Example: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Third Person Limited Omniscient with Multiple characters
Third Person Limited Omniscient with Multiple Characters is a variant of Third Person Limited and is often incorrectly referred to as Third Person Omniscient.
- Narrator writes from the perspective of more than one character.
- The same character should be the narrator for an entire scene or chapter, and the POV of another character should not be entered during that time.
- Switching from one character’s POV to another character’s POV within the same scene is considered "head hopping."
- Can reveal/keep secrets from readers by writing from the perspective of a character who isn’t in the know.
- All events in a story can be shown directly by switching to whichever character is experiencing them.
- Works well for stories with more than one main character.
- Deciding which POV is most beneficial at any given time can be difficult.
- Readers can be confused by the different characters.
- Readers may have a hard time identifying who the main character is.
- Example: Game of Thrones series by G.R.R. Martin
THIRD PERSON LIMITED OMNISCIENT (One character)
Envision the narrator as a reality TV camera that follows the main (viewpoint) character around, but occasionally gets comments and thoughts about what is happening. The narrator is still “outside” of the story, similar to Third Person Objective, but catches occasional glimpses into the mind of the main character. These glimpses are typically portrayed as thoughts and written in italics.
- Follows one character directly.
- Narrator only knows what that one character knows.
- Narrator cannot explain why other characters act a certain way.
- Depending on the level of intimacy between narrator and main character, this POV can be close (deep) or distant.
- Narrator can see events through the eyes of the main character as he believes they are occurring.
- Narrator can be closely involved with the main character and never leave his mind.
- Readers don’t become overwhelmed trying to keep up with different POV characters.
- Readers won’t become frustrated with POV switches.
- Less stressful to write.
- Can’t easily describe events that don’t happen directly to the POV character.
- Example: The Giver by Lois Lowry, Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained by Peter Hamilton, Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
THIRD PERSON FAMILIAR OBSERVER
In this POV, the narrator, or observer, has insight into the history and background of characters and may relate some of this information from his perspective (like an added commentary). Think of the narrator as the host of a reality TV show with a documentary camera. The camera follows the main (viewpoint) character everywhere, but can insert his opinions and interpretations based on knowledge only he knows about the character.
- The narrator describes what happens and what a character does.
- The narrator can offer explanations into a character’s behavior based on his knowledge of the character’s history and background.
- The narrator can take on an evaluative role and judge the characters as good and bad or offer praise and criticism.
- Writer can influence the reader’s values and judgment.
- Writer has an opportunity to insert his values into a story without assigning them to a specific character.
- Can create dislike of a story as the narrator’s opinions can conflict with a reader’s opinions.
- Can create confusion for readers as the narrator may know information that the reader does not.
THIRD PERSON OBJECTIVE OBSERVER
In this POV, the narrator, or observer, is detached and never inserts his opinion. Think of the narrator as a documentary camera that unobtrusively follows the main (viewpoint) character everywhere. This camera presents all events the character is a part of, but never sees inside this character or any other character’s mind.
Unlike Third Person Omniscient, the narrator is virtually invisible. No information other than what the camera sees is given to readers. No interpretations of actions, emotions, or thoughts are given. The reader must form his own opinion.
- Opposite of True Third Person Omniscient.
- The narrator can only describe what happens and what a character does.
- The narrator can never describe what a character thinks or feels.
- Emotions and thoughts of characters must be inferred through action and dialogue.
- Gestures and actions that indirectly show how a character feels, thinks, and deals with internal conflict must be described.
- Makes it difficult to "tell" emotions rather than "show" emotions.
- Easy to keep information from readers.
- The distance can be an advantage when the focus is on the events, not the characters.
- Readers lose a direct link with characters.
- The least emotionally engaging POV.
- Example: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
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