In writing, the point of view (POV) is the book’s perspective; the character through whom we experience the scenes and events taking place. There are several types of POV, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. There are also a few rules to consider.
- Switching POV mid-scene is confusing. It should be done after a scene or chapter break.
- When a switch is made, it’s important to quickly establish to the reader who the new POV character is.
- Once you’ve chosen which POV to use, you need to stick to it. There are a few exceptions, for instance if a third person character is reading a letter within the story which is written in first person.
First person narrative is written as though the perspective character were relating the story to a friend or writing in a diary or journal. It’s the most natural form of narrative, because we all use first person on an everyday basis when referring to ourselves. It is therefore a good choice for first time novelists.
First person POV books tend to be autobiographical or fictional, as academic and scientific works require a degree of objectivity, which is undermined by first person references. As with other POVs, first person can take singular and plural forms, (I/me/my) and (we/us/ours) respectively, depending on whether the POV character is acting alone or with someone else.
- Using first person avoids the pitfalls inherent in changing POV.
- The writer can develop their main character’s (MC’s) voice and personality more thoroughly.
- It can feel more intimate than third person.
- You can have an unreliable narrator who lies, cheats, misinterprets or has personal biases, making for a more complex character.
- The MC is limited to their five senses. They cannot ‘head hop’,or know what others are thinking or feeling, and they can’t know anything they have not learned from beyond their own perceptions.
- It can be claustrophobic, locking the reader into one viewpoint throughout the novel.
- First person encourages tell, not show.
- Jeopardy is reduced, since the reader knows the MC cannot die, or they wouldn’t be around to tell their story.
Second person addresses the reader directly. It uses you/your/yours, and sets the reader as the ‘eyes’ of the piece. It is rarely used in fiction, and is difficult to pull off. It’s usually found in self-help books and travel articles but can be found in choose-your-own adventure and video games. Like first person, second person POV also has a plural form (we/us/ours).
- It forces the reader into the protagonist’s shoes.
- Combined with present tense, it can pull a reader into the action.
- It can feel personal.
- It stretches a writer’s skills and, done well, can feel fresh and interesting.
- It’s difficult to pull off well.
- It often comes across as aggressive, leaving the reader feeling ‘bossed around’.
- The reader must feel each scene applies to them, or they won’t believe it.
- Instead of engaging the reader, it can make them feel disconnected.
Third Person (Limited)
This is arguably the most popular POV style. It uses he (his) or she (her/hers). While it implies that the narration is outside the head of the MC, the viewpoint is still very much rooted in their thoughts and perceptions. Third person is favoured by writers and readers alike, because it allows multiple viewpoints to be used. Again, when a viewpoint character is accompanied by others in the narrative, there is a plural form (they/them/their).
- It is more objective and less claustrophobic than first person.
- It offers more jeopardy – because the MC is not relating their personal ‘tale’, it’s possible that not all MCs will survive the ordeals ahead.
- The reader can learn more about each character; their motivations, background and interest and thus engage with them more effectively. This is particularly useful for exploring the dilemas and struggles of both protagonist and antagonist.
- Gives a broader perspective and expands the fictional world – especially useful for fantasies and epics.
- Head hopping (switching POV mid-scene) can occur if the writer isn’t familiar with this style.
- The MC is limited to their own perceptions and cannot know what other characters know, think or feel. Information slippage is a common pitfall.
- Skill is needed in giving each character their own voice.
- Narrator is generally reliable.
Your novel’s POV should be decided before you begin writing. You will be using this style for a long time and for many thousands of words. Try a couple of practice runs first to see how it goes. If you realise at a later date you have chosen the wrong style for your book, it’s no small task to change it. Don’t be afraid of stepping out of your comfort zone. It doesn’t take long to get used to a different narrative and, as shown above, each has their own appeal.