sign up for news and inspiration
  • connect
"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

FAQ: Choosing a POV

QUESTION: How do you decide on which point of view to use in a story?

Choosing a point of view is as basic a decision as choosing the sex of your protagonist—perhaps even more so! In my experience, there is one right answer, at which you will arrive relatively early on in the process; and in the meantime, you might enjoy writing a single scene from multiple points of view and comparing their effectiveness.

Ask yourself, which point of view best serves the shape of this story? If there are several primary characters and we need to get into the minds of each of them, a traditional first-person narrative isn’t going to work. If, on the other hand, the voice of your hero or heroine is particularly crucial—if the story simply can’t fulfill its potential without it—then first person is pretty much a no brainer.

My first published novel, Mary Modern, has two female protagonists along with two male leads and a small host of important minor characters. I suppose I could have let each character have his or her say—as in novels like Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound, Tracy Chevalier’s Falling Angels, or Daniel Wallace’s Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician—but given that the family home in Mary Modern became something of a character in and of itself, it felt right to use a third-person omniscient point of view…almost as if the house itself were doing the narrating.

Third-person narration can, of course, be limited or omniscient, and a limited third-person perspective might feel a bit like first person even though the narration is technically happening outside the protagonist’s head. If you want to offer your readers a more objective view of what’s going on, but don’t need access to other characters’ heads, then third-person limited is certainly an option. Frankly—and this is a matter of personal taste—I find omniscient third-person narration a whole lot more fun, probably because I can “play God” within the fictional universe I’m creating. Then again, the claustrophobic potential within a limited third-person perspective might be just what you’re looking to achieve.

Petty Magic is the “memoir and confession” of a 150-year-old witch, so it had to be written in the first person. The way Eve looks at the world is so unique and fun that had I not allowed her to tell her own story, much of her verve would have been lost, or at least watered down. It’s like listening (over your favorite drink, in a cozy corner booth) to a juicy, almost impossible-to-believe anecdote from the person who experienced it, as opposed to just reading the story secondhand over the internet. (This is why young adult novels are generally written in the first-person present tense; to a teenager, everything often feels like it’s happening all at once, and it’s completely emotionally overwhelming, and the breathless pacing of the first-person present can capture this feeling most effectively.)

Aside from voice, the other consideration of first-person narration is that your character’s perspective is incomplete by definition. Every narrator is unreliable to a certain extent! As you write, you must leave space for a more objective truth, and decide to what extent your protagonist becomes aware of his or her “blind spots” and emotional limitations as the story progresses. Between her present-day romantic shenanigans and recounting her dangerous adventures of sixty years before, Eve is having so much fun that when the time comes for her rude awakening, she’s completely unprepared for it. (At one point she remarks that the word “epiphany” feels like a shard of glass in her mouth.) Eventually Eve does choose to learn from her mistakes, though, and therein lies the payoff for both reader and protagonist.

Another thing to consider is that even if you do decide on first-person narration, your narrator might not be the central character, as in The Great Gatsby. In this case, the narrator might have a more reliable view of the protagonist’s motives and identity—or he might not.

So far I haven’t felt much of a desire to experiment with point of view. Second-person narration would be difficult to execute in a way that felt even remotely organic; and, more to the point, I have not yet come up with a story idea best served by second-person narration. Other writers have experimented with point of view quite effectively, as in Joshua Ferris’s And Then We Came to the End. I haven’t read it, but the critical consensus is that he absolutely pulled off the narration in the first-person plural.

Every so often novelists will play it both ways—Diana Gabaldon employs both the first person and third-person omniscient in the thoroughly awesome Outlander series, for instance—but unless you are writing something similarly epic in scope, you probably won’t be able to justify this sort of “cheating.”

The choice of perspective is just as intuitive as the rest of the decisions you’ll make in the telling of your story. Each point of view offers its own potential, and if you keep plumbing those possibilities as you write, you’ll be able to create a narrative that is more complex, and therefore more satisfying, for your reader.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.