What Point-of-view do you choose?

Point of View (POV) is one of the implements in the writer’s toolbox that can make a huge impression on the feel of your novel. Here are my thoughts about it.

First, some definitions:
First person: this will have an ‘I’ character. The viewpoint is necessarily constricted to the head of the main character, who will be somewhat of a narrator. It’s more or less implied that a book written in first person will have only one POV character, but that isn’t always true. More adventurous writers may choose a mix of first person narrators, or sometimes a combination between first person and third person.
Drawbacks: first person has a tendency of slipping into narrator/lecturing mode.

Second person: this will have a ‘you’ character. I’ve seen second person short stories. Some of them work, others less so.
Drawback: because it’s new and considered ‘literary’, some people find it very annoying. Some people even find first person annoying. To the writer, I think second person is a style that would be hard to maintain for novel-length fiction.

Third person limited: this will have a third person (he, she or it) character, and while that person has the POV, we will be privy to that person’s thought. This is the most common POV type in fiction. The convention is to stick to one character per scene, or sometimes per chapter. Sometimes there is only one POV character in the book.
Drawbacks: it is very tempting to introduce too many POV characters.

Third person omniscient: this type is fairly common in fairytales and epic fantasy. In true omniscient style, we are privy not just to one character’s thoughts, but either to all of them or none of them (cinematic view).
Drawbacks: this style creates a lot of distance between reader and character and can become quite clinical and unemotional. As for the cinematic view—the main advantage of a book over a movie is that we can be in the character’s head. Why throw away that advantage?

What POV would you choose for your work?
The convention is that most work is written in third person limited. It seems to be what readers expect. There is also a fair bit of first person fiction being published. Omniscient has fallen out of favour, and I’m yet to see a novel written in second person, although such novels probably exist.

POV tends to be highly dominated by current conventions within genre. If you write epic fantasy, you write in third person with multiple POV characters, or omniscient. If you write chicklit you write in trendy first person or limited third.

But there are drawbacks to following the mould. If you write with multiple POV characters or omniscient, the reader will lose connection with the character each time the narrative skips to another character. By doing this, the writer shifts the focus from the characters to the overall story. Besides in epic fantasy, this technique is also common to hard SF, where the author will switch characters purely for the sake of showing off another part of worldbuilding. Fine, but don’t expect the reader to identify with (or indeed remember) any of the characters. On the other side of the spectrum, there are several fantasy series I’ve found slow to read because each character has his or her own personal story, so each time the author switches character, another story starts. There are books I’ve flung aside because they have eight POV characters, and after eight chapters, each with a new character, we’re a third into the book, and the plot has made next to no progress.

POV is an excellent tool for artificially beefing up the word count. Novel too short? Just add another POV character, with his or her (often pointless, but mildly interesting) story. It slows the pace of the novel tremendously, but hey, you get a much fatter book.

I think before you decide what POV to use for a novel, it pays to consider what you want from your novel. Do you want a sweeping, epic feel, but with less emphasis on individual characters. Do you want a gritty, personal feel from a much more limited viewpoint? Do you want a fast pace or a slow pace? Could you possibly, within your chosen genre, do something that’s just a bit outside the current conventions?

To illustrate the difference, think of a battle scene in a fantasy novel. Think of how this would look on the page in omniscient POV, where the narrator would know what is happening, or in limited third POV, where a character fighting on the ground would have next to no idea of the overall picture.

I think part of the reason why Joe Abercrombie has been such a success is because he makes the story so personal for his characters, because he uses third person limited in an epic story. Consider how a book would be different if for example you used an omniscient POV for an urban fantasy, or first person in hard SF. The choice of POV would dictate the way you told the story. That, in itself, could bring a fresh perspective to your fiction.

7 comments on “What Point-of-view do you choose?

  1. Hey Patty, great post. Just read The Finkler Question which had an omniscient 3rd person POV. Very annoying and, as you say, distancing. I just did not care about any of the (odious) characters by the end.

    You haven’t read The Bride Stripped Bare by Anonymous (later unmasked as Nikki Gemmell)? It’s a novel told in 2nd person POV. Very interesting to read it – especially given the subject matter! In fact, I think that was the trick. It was a racy read, so it helped you get over any discomfort of coming to terms with the unusual technique.

    Interestingly, I followed a convo between two Australian literary mag editors on Twitter about six months back, where they said they would only consider third person limited POV told in the immediate past tense! They considered 1st person narratives were for ‘beginners’. I have since noticed a lot of very good 1st person POV fiction being published (and winning awards!).

    Cheers and thanks for the topical post.

    • I tend to stay away from people who are that rigid about POV, because they’re likely to be rigid about other things, too. OK, I can be rigid about things that are wrong, technique-wise, but POV? There is no ‘right’ POV. Have you read Hunger Games? Best book in first person present tense yet.
      I haven’t yet written any novels in present tense, but I sure have written in first person. In short stories, I’ve written in almost everything. Two of my latest pro sales are present tense, one of those also in first person.
      At one stage at a workshop some woman was bellyaching about a short story of mine in first person and how we should all write in third person past tense. I wrote a story in second person future tense just to piss her off. The story is in the Semaphore SF 2010 anthology, after first having been published in the magazine.
      I think the mantra that first person is for beginners is the biggest load of bullshit I have ever heard. I think a writer should be able to write a story in whatever POV is suitable for the story. If some magazine or publisher doesn’t accept this writers’ right, then I shall vote with my feet–er–stories.

  2. Hi Patty, Good post!

    My first novel was written in first person. I heard a lot of naysaying about this, that agents wouldn’t go for it, nor would publishers, because it’s too hard to read. My advice is don’t listen to these people – as you say, you use the POV that is most appropriate for your story. You decide what the reader should experience and give them that. There was no trouble for my novel to find either an agent or a publisher.

    I use a real mix of POVs in short story writing and it really helps to see which ways you can stretch a story in a given POV. I really recommend testing them out in short stories to help you understand what you need in a novel.

  3. Hi Patty,

    It’s a good post, and some interesting observations. I agree with most of them, including your concerns about the kind of strict POV editorial demands mentioned in the first comment.

    A great recent SF book written entirely in 2nd Person present tense, from the perspective of two (mostly alternating) characters is ‘Halting State’ by Charles Stross. I believe the forthcoming ‘Rule 34’ is a sequel, or at least a follow on.

    The book deals a lot with MMOs, and so the 2nd person POV was quite a deliberate (and in my opinion successful) choice.

  4. Pingback: Claire King | Pub/Lit Roundup

  5. Hi, I’m so glad I found this post. I am a beginning writer and have joined a writing group and have a critique partner.

    My novel is written in third person omniscient. It’s been suggested that I shouldn’t write it that way because I am a beginner but I feel that’s the way it should be written.

    Reading the comments have made me feel better with the direction that I’m going.

    Thanks 🙂

  6. Classic omniscient narration with digression and rhetorical reader address is my one true way to go. No workshopaholic, no publisher, no reviewer will be able to deter me therefrom.

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