Choose the Right Point of View


It’s a basic question: what is point of view and when do you use which point of view (or POV) in a novel?

Point of view refers to the basic outlook of your story, who narrates it.

First-person POV is firmly in a character’s head and told as if the character was narrating the action. It uses “I, me, my, myself” to indicate the narrator. Another description is to consider the placement of the story’s camera. Here, the camera sits firmly behind the character’s eyes. What the narrator thinks, the reader knows.

I am scared to try back handsprings at the football game tonight because I haven’t practiced enough.

Second-person POV uses “you” as it talks directly to the reader. It’s considered an awkward POV for most fiction, although there are, of course, exceptions. Camera placement here would be above the narrator’s head, pointed at the reader.

You will notice that the cheers will come out with a series of aerials, including back handsprings.

Third-person POV
uses “he, she, it, they” pronouns as it refers to people and events. For this POV, we often speak of how “close” it is to the narrator. Close 3rd person POV puts the camera directly above the main character’s head and the camera placement tells the reader about what the character is paying attention to, what s/he is thinking. It is different from the 1st person POV, in that, we don’t know the narrator’s thoughts directly, but only indirectly. Sometimes, the Close 3rd gives information and the reader assumes the character thought that, said that or did that.

She hesitated, then with a burst of energy, she sprinted then threw herself forward into a back handspring.

The 3rd person POV can also draw back and be more detached, a recitation of a narrative from a more objective POV. The nicest thing is that this POV can change focal length at will, drawing back to describe a football field, then zooming in to the cheerleader as she does a back handspring and feels a muscle tear.

Her hands pushed off the grass and she catapulted over, a perfect back handspring, until—oh, no! Just as she landed, her ankle, it gave way. Pain shot through her foot and she collapsed.

Omniscient POV puts the camera on the ceiling looking down at everyone. It dips in and out of character’s thoughts and gives a comprehensive look at anything and everything the author wants. It’s difficult to pull off, too, because the reader is uncertain where to focus. If done badly, the reader may try to identify with too many characters and fail to really care about any of them.

Bored, her Mom glanced up from her text message in time to see Betty sprint for the handspring. Would this game never end?
Oh, no! Pain shot through Betty’s foot. Mom, she thought, Mom. Where are you?

Notice that this is a discussion of point of view, not verb tense. You can write in 1st person, present tense or 1st person, past tense:

1st person, present tense: I walk across the football field.
1st person, past tense: I walked across the football field.

The difference in verb tense definitely affects the overall tone and voice of your novel, so you should consider it, too, when you write.

Use this photo and try writing from the POV of the climber, from each of the observers, and from an omniscient POV. Each POV will include and exclude certain types of observations, dialogue, descriptions and would result in very different narratives. For example, only a 1st person account from the climber herself could talk about how the rock felt under her hands.

When to Use Which Point of View

The default POV for fiction and novels has traditionally been 3rd person, past tense. It is closer to a storyteller of old telling a story about fictional or historical events. It is a sturdy workhorse of a POV, allowing for a wide range of stories.

Many authors feel that first-person POV allows the reader to identify with a character more closely. However, it requires some justification to use it instead of the default. It implies that the narrator should be telling the story for some reason. S/he has a unique voice, a unique role in the story, has been a careful observer of the story, is lying for some reason and therefore wants control of the story, etc. It works well for larger-than-life characters, unreliable narrators, or scientific observation. It might work, for example, for a deaf person, who has a unique way of observing the world. It works for angst-ridden teen or YA voices. If you choose this POV, you must work very hard to make sure the novel’s voice will carry the POV.

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