Point of View questions

Breaking down Point of View – which one is right for you?

Today we’re going to talk about perspective, or Point of View (POV).  Who is the narrator of the book? It’s a concept that’s easy to grasp, but difficult to execute. Accidentally changing viewpoints is one of the more common mistakes a new author can make. In my first book I thought I caught them all, but a recent reader just pointed out a spot at the end where I changed the narrative perspective. Drat!

There are four primary perspectives that are commonly used in fiction writing. They are:

  • Omnipotent Third Person (OTP)
  • Limited Third Person (LTP)
  • First Person (FP)
  • Second Person. (SP)

Let’s break them down.

1. Omniscient Third Person Point of View

In this POV, the narrator knows everything.  It’s also called “God’s Eye View”.  The narrator will bounce across multiple viewpoints and perspectives telling the reader what they need to know as they see fit.

There are two sub-types of this POV – active narrator or passive.   In the passive version, the narrator is recounting events with no opinion.  In the active version, the narrator is almost a character in the novel.

While it feels easier to write a story in this format, it can be quite challenging. Here are some famous books written in this POV:

  • Harry Potter
  • Hitchhikers guide to the Galaxy
  • Lord of the Rings

What are the benefits?

  • You can point out things to the reader that the characters don’t know and use this to create suspense.
  • If using active, the narrator can have a distinct voice, separate from the character. For example, the narrator in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is detached and wry, which serves as a funny counterpoint to the craziness in the novel
  • If you have numerous action sequences, you can fly around the field of view and provide different viewpoints

What are the inherent risks?

  • You need to decide up front if your narrator is passive or active. A passive omniscient narrator has no opinion on the action, they simply recount the events, neutrally. Harry Potter is a good example of this. The narrator never passes judgement, they are truly a neutral observer. Whatever you pick, you need to stick to it
  • You can accidentally undercut your scene. If you write a heavily emotional scene, but the narrator is dry and cold, you risk undercutting the emotion. The balance can be tricky to get right
  • Switching between too many viewpoints. Just because every character can have a viewpoint doesn’t mean they should. You still need to fix the camera on your main character and stick with them for most of the book.
  • Because your narrator knows everything, it’s tempting to tell the reader everything. You still have to hold your cards close to your vest and ensure you’re not revealing too much

2. Limited Third Person Point of View

In this POV, the narrator only knows what the main character knows. You can still hop across a few different character viewpoints, but you are not allowed to know, or disclose, anything the character doesn’t know. Personally, I think this is the best POV for new authors. While the restrictions can chafe at first, the inherent guardrails keep you out of trouble. Here are some famous books written in this perspective:

  • Game of Thrones
  • Also, Harry Potter (I’ll get into this)

What are the benefits?

  • It’s easier to engineer deeper emotional connection between your reader and main character using this POV. Because you’re following them around so closely and the whole book is from their limited perspective, the reader can really get into their head
  • Much easier to build narrative tension with secondary characters because their background and motivation stays hidden from the reader.
  • You can use the “unreliable narrator” technique to great effect. Because the story is filtered through the narrow perspective of the character, it presents opportunities to incorrectly evaluate the circumstances of the novel

What are the inherent risks?

  • If you’re writing Omniscient Third Person, you can occasionally drop down to Limited Third Person. Harry Potter does this. The book starts, quite clearly, with OTP and then drops comfortably down to LTP. However, you can’t go the other way. You can’t write the majority of the book in LTP and then jump up to OTP. Or, I mean, you can, but it’ confusing for your readers and it’s cheating.
  • Your narrator cannot have an opinion. The narrator is completely neutral in this instance. It cannot ever write an aside about what just happened or offer a distinct, separate view point.  If you do that, even if you’re sticking with one character, you’re writing OTP.
  • Jumping from head to head. Same as OTP. You can’t excessively jump around, no matter how much House of Pain encourages you to do that.
  • You’re going to screw up and write something about your secondary characters that your MC has no way of knowing.

Trust me, you will do this in your first draft. Here is an example of how you’ll make this mistake.  I’ve made up a snippet of a story about a harried woman battling aliens using only the power of Ice Cream

aliens and icecream
From my upcoming smash hit “Aliens and Ice Cream”

Sarah sat across from Detective Smith. He was reluctant to tell her everything he knew, but she needed the truth. What happened to all the ice cream? It was the only way to defeat the aliens.

Did you catch the mistake?

Sarah would have no possible way to know Detective Smith was reluctant. She could guess at it. She could read his non-verbal cues and assume it. But there’s no possible way to know what the other person is thinking. That is omniscient third person.

3. First Person Point of View

In this POV, the narrator and main character are one and the same. The whole story is written from the main character’s perspective. I did this, I did that.  For example, here are some famous books from that perspective:

  • Almost every single detective novel in existence
  • The Hunger Games

What are the benefits?

  • You easily create a strong attachment between the reader and the main character
  • You can develop a strong narrative voice within the first paragraphs of the book
  • There is little to no risk with changing POV or “head jumping” as you are forced to stick with a singular POV

What are the inherent risks?

  • Some people find the format limiting and begin to over-rely on flashbacks to convey information
  • You have to have a very strong narrative voice. The reader is going to spend 300 pages with this person, they need to be immediately compelling and likeable.  If you’re trying to write an edgy “anti-hero” this can be incredibly challenging.
  • The tension in the novel is completely derived from what the main character (and reader) doesn’t know. The MC needs very clear goals for this to work. This is why so many crime stories are written in first person. The reader is figuring out the clues along with the detective.
  • Describing the physical appearance of the narrator becomes challenging, and most authors rely on cheap tricks, such as “he stared at himself in the mirror….”

4. Second Person Point of View

Yuck. In this POV, the reader is the narrator. Bleh. People mostly do not care for this POV and as a result, you barely see it in fiction anymore. It’s difficult to pull off without coming across as pretentious or unreadable. There is only one popular example in fiction, and that is “Bright Lights, Big City.”

Here is the opening from that book so you can see what I mean:
“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head.”

Eeeesh.

What are the benefits

  • There are no benefits to writing a novel in Second Person.

What are the inherent risks

  • With almost 100% certainty, you have written a novel that is off-putting, unreadable and unsellable.

I have pretty strong opinions about 2nd person POV!

Can I write a book using multiple POVs?

Yes, The most common mix and match seem to be:

  • First person augmented with third person limited (The Martin by Andy Weir) or the “John Dies at the End” series by David Wong
  • Third person Omniscient dropping to limited third person (Harry Potter, noted above)

If you are going to switch POV’s, be aware of a few tips to do it successfully:

  • Never write a single character from multiple POV’s. If you start writing a character in first person, that character can only be written in first person. A secondary character can be written in third person
  • Never switch POV’s mid-chapter. The only way to keep narrative perspective shifts clear is to create very distinct breaks between the shifts, usually chapters.
  • Firm up in your own mind the “rules” for when you’re shifting POVs and stick to them. To use The Martin as an example, any time we were with the MC on Mars, it was first person. Any time we were with the NASA crew on Earth, it was omniscient third person, occasionally dropping to limited third person. Because he stuck to those rules so firmly, it was easy to follow the POV shifts in the novel

Today was a little heavy on “rules” and I know there’s a lot to absorb, but remember the tag line.

Writing is hard.

You can do it! Get writing!

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3 comments

  1. So many rules! I never gave this one any thought. Now I will notice when I read books. And where did you slip up? Since I don’t have your book I’m front of me, I think you wrote in OTP or LTP but I can’t remember.

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  2. This is a great overview! And your pros and cons were on point. I, too, hate second person, and will try to talk anyone out of it, but I have seen it work, most notably in The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. The whole book isn’t second person, but there are parts that get across information in a way that wouldn’t be as effective in third person.

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