Choosing the right POV (Point of View) for your story can be a challenge. I know, because it’s challenged me. But after writing five novels and moderating a critique group for several years, I think I’ve learned a few things I can pass on to you.
I was probably halfway finished with Ride of Your Life before I realized it needed Josh’s POV. Until then, Josh was kind of flat. The reader only got to see him through Tracy’s eyes, and Tracy had a tendency to idealize him. In her eyes, he was this cute boy, a boy who made her imagined ghostly heart beat faster. Love doesn’t let us see the whole person, just the parts we like. That’s the way Tracy sees Josh. And if I had written the entire book from Josh’s POV, Tracy would have been flat for the same reason. People are much more complex and interesting on the inside than they seem on the outside.
So I went back and added chapters and rewrote others to give the reader Josh’s POV. And that brought this entire ghost story to life.
Ride of Your Life was probably the biggest eye opener for me, although I think I learned something every step of the way. Believe me, if this is something you’re struggling with, there’s a reason. Getting the right POV is hard! In fact, if you’ve never struggled with POV, I think you might want to reconsider your process. The best POV isn’t always obvious, and it’s worth taking a deeper look.
Okay, so how does POV work? There are three tenses: past (most common), present (immediate, exciting and fun, but a bit challenging), and future (rare, and very difficult to do well). There are also three kinds of narrators: third person (most common), first person (immediate, exciting and fun, but a bit challenging), and second person (common in nonfiction, but rare and difficult to do well in fiction).
While tense tends to be consistent, at least within a scene, the kind of narrator you use can be blended and can shift.
For example, a third-person narrator can get inside a character’s head like a first-person narrator and show the reader what the character is thinking. This is sometimes called “close third,” and the character whose thoughts we get to see is referred to as the “focal character.” If the narrator does this a lot and jumps from head to head, the narrator is omniscient, something that’s generally fallen out of favor in the last few decades (although when done well, like in A Series of Unfortunate Events, it can be delightful to read). A third-person narrator who knows things the characters don’t, particularly future events, is also omniscient.
In most cases, a writer needs to decide if a narrative will be present or past tense, and first-person or third-person.
Past is standard. Readers are accustomed to it.
But present can be good if you either really want to get into the character’s head at the immediate moment (almost diary style) or you want to give the reader the impression that anything can happen at any moment, for example, that the main character could die. Of course, that made present tense perfect for Why My Love Life Sucks (The Legend of Gilbert the Fixer, book one). The book starts with Gilbert dying. How much fun would that be if the story were told in first-person past tense? It would kind of give away that (SPOILER ALERT) Gilbert doesn’t exactly die. Not permanently anyway.
Whether a writer should choose third or first person is often a lot trickier.
The main advantage of third person is that the narrator can know things the main character doesn’t know, as well as show a counter point of view to the one the main character might have of him or herself. Sticking with A Series of Unfortunate Events, the narrator, Lemony Snicket, has an adult, reflective and comically morose POV, which contrasts sharply with how the main characters view themselves. If this had been written in first-person, it would have lost half its humor and charm. The books simply wouldn’t be the same without Lemony Snicket’s strange point of view.
The main advantage of first person is that it really lets the reader feel what it’s like being in the main character’s shoes and seeing the world through his or her eyes. I couldn’t have written Why My Love Life Sucks from any point of view other than Gilbert’s. He has a unique way of seeing things that makes the story what it is.
Of course, the problem with first-person narration is that you can’t show the reader something the main character doesn’t know. That can be a serious problem if something important happens when the main character isn’t there. That’s why in the second book of the Gilbert the Fixer series (Why It Still Mega Bites, which I am close to finishing), Amber gets to be the first-person narrator of about half the chapters. Gilbert spends most of the book away from the main action, and there wasn’t any other way to tell the whole story.
In addition, first-person narration can be challenging for those who don’t feel they have a good handle on how their characters see the world. I get complimented for how well I write from a male point of view (considering I’m a woman), but I have seen writers struggle with trying to write from the point of view of someone of the opposite gender. I’ve also seen adults write kids as they imagine kids to be, rather than as they are. Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books—indeed, any of Cleary’s children’s books—are great examples of a writer who knows how to get into a kid’s head. And these books are written in omniscient third with focal characters, not first.
Third-person narration is more flexible than many writers think. Not only can you get into a character’s head, unless you’re one of those rare writers like Hemingway or (sometimes) Capote, you generally should. At least you should know how to write third-person with a focal character. If you decide not to, that should be a conscious choice, not one made because you didn’t know there was another option.
Writing in third makes it easier to jump around from one character’s head to another, although in general it’s preferred to have only one focal character per scene. And you can write about things the main character doesn’t know or see, so it would seem that third-person is the obvious choice.
But is it? Well, no.
It really depends on the story.
Like Gilbert Garfinkle, sometimes the main character has a very interesting way of seeing things. In my post about writing humor, I mentioned the House of Funny lens that is character. I love the lens of character! I love seeing thing through the unique perspective of a character who sees the world very differently. Sure, you can sort of get that with a close third-person narrator, but it’s like the difference between hearing a reporter talk about something and hearing the person who was involved talk about it. I'd rather hear the story first hand.
Whatever point of view you choose, I hope you won’t be one of those writers who deliberately hide information the narrator knows. I consider that cheating. If your narrator gets to see all the cards, your reader should get to see all the cards, too. The only time cheating is acceptable is if it’s a part of the story. If your narrator is meant to be a liar and a cheat, it’s fine to lie and cheat here, too. But if we’re meant to see the narrator as honest, the narrator has to be honest and open with the information he or she shares, too. Lay those cards on the table where we can see them, narrator!
Okay, so let’s say you have a story, but you don’t know which POV to use. How do you decide?
Who are your characters? Do they have interesting points of view and interesting voices? Do they have a lot at stake? If so, first-person or close third-person with focal characters will probably work best for you. The more interesting and unique their voice and way of thinking are, the better your story will be in first person.
Do you want to tell the story from an outsider’s point of view? Are there things you want the reader to know that the characters don’t? If so, third-person is probably the way to go. Whether or not you use focal characters will depend on how much you want to get into your characters’ heads. If you do decide to show their thoughts, I recommend going all the way. Really show the entire landscape of what they’re thinking and feeling. If you do it, don’t do it superficially. Dig deep.
Are you trying to give the reader a sense of immediacy, the feeling that all this is happening right here and right now? Do you want to give the impression that anything could happen at any moment at any time? If so, present tense is the way to go.
Do you want to give the impression that the story you’re telling has already happened? That it’s over and fixed in stone and nothing can change it? That calls for past tense.
Let’s say you’ve decided to go with first person or third-person with a close focal character, but you’re not sure whose point of view it should be? Obviously, you’ll need to choose a character who’s present in the scene, which can change from scene to scene. After that, the character who has the most at stake is usually the most interesting.
One thing to keep in mind is that readers prefer it if there’s a clear pattern for who the narrator or focal character is. If you plan to write a book almost entirely from one character’s point of view, don’t let the first time you switch to another character’s point of view be halfway through the book. It’s jarring. Just let another character be the focal character earlier on so that readers know to expect a shift.
Like with anything else, don’t be afraid to change the POV when you edit your story you see something that will make it better. Yes, it can be challenging, but it will be worth it in the end.