When you sit down to write a story, there are usually two deeply important questions you need to ask yourself: what tense are you going to write in, and what point of view do you want to write in?
Eventually, I’ll be able to help you choose your tense but until then let’s take a look at how to choose your point of view.
Point of view in fiction
There are four points of view (henceforth POV) that we use in English writing:
- First person
- Second person
- Third person (close)
- Third person (omniscient)
Each POV interacts with the reader differently. First person uses the “I” pronoun and therefore situates the reader as the protagonist(s).
Second person uses the pronoun “you” and also situates the reader as the protagonist. However, in second person the reader is being told what they are doing instead of reading through the volition of someone else.
Third person (close/limited) is most similar to first person in that it follows one character closely, but uses “s/he” pronouns, thereby separating the reader from the person of the character. Third person (omniscient) also uses “s/he” pronouns but does not follow any characters exclusively. Or rather, it follows all characters more or less equally, thereby giving the reader access to the whole cast of characters instead of just the protagonist(s).
Most of the reading you have done has either been in first person or close third person because they are best at developing the main character for the reader.
And of course, you can write from multiple characters’ viewpoints in one story, rendering all of this a bit more confusing. While it’s recommended to write a story in one point of view, you could use the first person for your main character and close third person for other characters to help differentiate who’s who.
First person “I”
First person perspective has everything happen from the perspective of an “I”. The first person perspective is effective at displaying the inner thought world of the character, but can easily devolve into something that reads like a journal instead of a story.
With the first person POV, it is incredibly important to choose your verb tense and stick with it. Writing first person in present tense most closely ties your reader to the “I” character in the story (think Hunger Games or Divergent). Whatever is happening in the present tense to the character is being read in the present by the reader.
Writing first person in the past tense is more similar to hearing a friend tell you a story of something that happened to them. You still get the effect of having the action happen to the reader because they are closest to the “I” character, but there is that degree of separation.
How can you improve your first person narrative?
- Avoid filter words like “I thought,” “I heard,” “I saw.” Just tell the reader how your character sees it.
- Stimulate all 5 of your character/reader’s senses.
- Show details in a scene when appropriate. Tell the reader a summary of the pertinent facts when appropriate.
- Make sure the voice on the page is consistent with the voice in the dialogue.
Almost any and every genre has room for a story in first person. Heck, your main character doesn’t even have to be human for the story to work in first person.
In second person perspective, the action happens to and because of “you.” The second person POV is especially useful for text-based games and choose-your-own-adventure stories because often “you” the reader are actually making decisions that impact the story.
It is possible to write short stories or small scenes in the second person POV. This often alienates readers, especially if they are not similar to the character. If you’re not writing genre fiction that lends itself to second person, use the second person POV for the alienating effect.
If you are writing nonfiction, the second person POV can be incredibly effective. You’ll notice that much of this post is using second person—asking you to do this or that depending on your situation.
Third person (close)
The close third person POV is effectually most similar to the first person POV. Writing in close third person allows the reader to follow one character closely, but allows the author to keep some distance between the inner thought life and the actions of the character.
Close third person follows the main character with “s/he” pronouns. You also have a lot of decisions to make, including:
- Do you show the main character’s thoughts? If yes, how?
- Does the prose mimic the speech patterns of the character? If yes, how much? If no, how similar/different is the narrator’s tone?
- Do you closely follow one, or a few main characters?
The challenge with close third person is that it is so similar to first person—so you have to determine which perspective is better for your story. The ability to “zoom” in or out from the character makes close third person a more versatile perspective. It can also make it challenging to stay consistent throughout your whole piece but the work is definitely worth the final product.
The Inheritance Cycle is a good example of writing in close third POV.
Third person (omniscient)
The omniscient third person POV is perhaps the easiest POV to write in. Using “s/he” pronouns, you objectively describe every and anything that happens. This can take a variety of forms: you could write like Charles Dickens and define the world of most of the characters in the entire novel, or more like C.S. Lewis and Tolkien where you follow a core group of characters through their adventures.
An omniscient third person POV is effective when you have a large, diverse cast of characters that you want to be equally important to the narrative. However, omniscient third person can also be used effectively on a smaller scale.
That said, if you’re wondering whether or not to use close third or first, take a moment to consider if omniscient might be a good fit.
All right, what did I miss? What questions do you have about POV? What advice would you offer to someone who is just starting out experimenting with POV? Share in the comments below!