This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
When you start your novel one of the many decisions to make is which point of view to use. Point of view (POV) is the way in which the story is told. Or, to put it another way, the POV character is the narrator of the story. Or, if you prefer movie metaphors, POV is like the camera filming the action. A camera that can actually be placed inside a character’s head… Awesome!
There are three* main types; Omniscient, First person and Third person.
They each have different strengths and weaknesses and can even affect how close to the characters the reader feels.
Omniscient or ‘all knowing’ used to be very popular, but is used less often these days.
The advantage of this POV is that you can do pretty much anything you like with your narrative. You can describe the way everything and anything looks (including physical descriptions of the characters) and jump inside any character’s mind. You can describe the sunset on a beach in Bali before jumping into the thoughts of your main character, hundreds of miles away in Britain. You can see into the future and have complete knowledge as to the veracity of each characters words and actions.
The disadvantage is related to this freedom. With so much on offer it can be hard to decide what to describe and focus on. Also, this POV can feel a little distant, making it harder to get your reader to emotionally connect with your story. There is an unseen narrator telling the story, separate to any of the characters, and therefore slightly disconnected from the action. For an example of omniscient narration look at the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice. It’s an unseen narrator commenting ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged…’ not any of the characters in the story.
First person POV is far more limited.
You are basically using the character to tell the story and you stay exclusively inside that character’s head. This is the narrative style that uses ‘I’ as in:
‘I woke up in a strange bed with a terrible hangover.’
The advantage to this POV is that you can hardly get closer to a character. You can describe every single thought and feeling that character experiences, making your reader feel, hopefully, very attached to that character. First person POV relies on a distinctive voice and can set the entire tone of the book. A great example is Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep:
‘I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.’
However, it can also be slightly exhausting to be entirely in one character’s mind. Another disadvantage is that you can only describe the thoughts and feelings and experiences of that character, which can be very limiting. For example, when your character enters a room or meets somebody, you can only describe the things your character would realistically notice. In terms of plot, you can only relate the events that your POV character witnesses or is told about.
Third person POV is often described as the happy medium POV.
With third person, you are close to your character and see things from their point of view, without actually being them. This is the POV that uses ‘she’, ‘he’ or the character’s name instead of ‘I’, as in:
‘She woke up in a strange bed with a terrible hangover’.
It’s flexible and, if handled carefully, allows you to explore the thoughts of more than one character. Although, if you do this, make sure it’s not in the same paragraph or you’ll give your reader whiplash as you rip them from inside one character’s head into another.
You can, of course, mix POVs within a novel. There are many successful books that use different first person POV characters in different sections, or books that tell part of the story in third person and another part in first person. The key is to be aware of the choice you are making and why you are making it.
Play around with POV. If a story is stuck or not coming alive on the page, you could try writing it in a different POV. The more you practice, the more you’ll get a feel for the pros and cons of each POV and be better able to choose the best one for your project.
* There is also a POV called ‘second person’ and it addresses the reader as the character, as in: ‘You wake up in a strange bed with a terrible hangover’. It’s annoying and incredibly difficult to pull off. If you decide to use this POV, I’d say you have to be pretty damn certain that it’s the only way your story can be told.