A POV Primer

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It’s New Year’s resolution time, and yours might be actually writing that book. I say: go for it! But as you’ve probably discovered if you’ve spent some time planning and strategizing this Herculean effort—you’ve got a lot of decisions to make. One of the first is: whose story is this? And how are you going to tell it? In other words, you might be weighing point of view. In this post, I’ll define points of view, give you their pros and cons, and warn you about common mistakes other writers make with them.

First Person

First person narratives are stories told by one person from their own limited point of view. This is a certain character’s story. Everything we see, hear, or know is because that character shared it with us. First person POV uses “I” and “me.”

On the positive side, the narration is usually conversational and easy-to-read. I love first person POV for that very reason. As a reader, you “get to know” the characters. You know what they think about everything, and their opinions aren’t hidden. It feels, to me, almost like I’m reading someone’s diary.

First person allows authors to experiment with unreliable narrators. This can amp up tension between the reader and the plot because the reader never knows exactly what to believe. Can we trust the narrator? Not knowing is part of the fun! After all, the reader’s knowledge is limited to what that character shares. As an author, you’ll be able to keep your readers on their toes with unexpected plot twists. Prime example? Gillian Flynn’s juggernaut, Gone Girl.

The challenge of first person is making the narrator likeable/interesting enough to sustain the story. The other issue can be telling more than showing. It’s easy to get lost in the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist instead of showing what that person actually does. Not reconciling these two issues are common mistakes.

First person protagonists are commonly found in young adult novels, new adult, and “chick lit.” However, writers of any genre can choose first-person if that’s the right move for the story they want to tell. Keep in mind that more than one character can narrate a first-person book—say, a dual narrative like Gone Girl. However, only one of those characters can tell the story at a time.

Third Person Limited vs. Omniscient

There are two types of third person: limited and omniscient. In third person, a (usually unnamed) narrator tells the story, so the characters are called him/her rather than I/me. In general, third person limited means that the story is told from one character’s point of view at a time. The narrator doesn’t know any more than the character herself knows, though the narrator can share information about that character’s past, present, or future. However, notably, the narrator does not have access to information about the other characters.

The biggest thing to keep in mind with third person limited is that the narrator is not omniscient. If the story is about Billy, the narrator can’t tell you something about Mary that Billy doesn’t himself know. The question with third person limited is: how close is the point of view? This POV can be almost as intimate as first person, or it can be more distant. It’s also quite common to show various characters’ points of view throughout the story. Sometimes this “head hopping” occurs from chapter to chapter (a more distinct break like in a dual narrative first person) or it can be scene by scene.

Omniscient third person is as it sounds: the narrator knows all about all. The advantage of this point of view is that you, as writer, can offer information about everything going on whenever you want. It can happen in the same chapter, scene, or paragraph, if needed. Think of situations like: “Randall left the briefcase under his seat, not knowing then that the terrorist two rows back had given him a bomb”—or whatever. In this case, the omniscient narrator is able to tell the reader all, immediately.

This advantage with omniscient third person is also its draw back. How much do you tell? When? There needs to be an element of mystery to every plot, so it’s important not to be heavy-handed. The level of revelations—and whose—is something to consider. Finally, it’s common for writers to “head hop” too much, to the point that the reader loses track of who is saying what. You never want the reader to not know whose story it is. Confusion is a quick way to pull a reader out of a novel.

Third person limited shares many advantages and disadvantages of first person. Can the reader identify with whoever is sharing their experience of the story? Do we like that character? Do we care what happens? Third person can show more action, but it’s often not as personal an account as first-person is.

Third person limited is a commonly used point of view in most books, especially Middle Grade and adult fiction. Omniscient is less common, but it is more likely to be found in adult novels.

It’s useful to be aware of your genre’s conventions regarding point of view. You don’t want to make things harder on yourself than necessary. That said, there are no “rules” in writing. The best story is one well told!

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About Author

Mary is a young adult writer and archaeologist. By day she teaches at a local college, and by night she writes about the adventures of adolescence.

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