How to Choose the Best Point of View for Your Novel
Characters are not just people who inhabit the same area as the plot. Stories are told through their eyes, thoughts, and emotions. The point of view (POV) is what makes a story truly come alive to readers. It's an important element that you should select carefully based on the needs of your story. There are many types of POVs, each with its benefits and drawbacks.
In any story, authors have to choose the POV from which they will tell the story. There are many options and every one has its own advantages and disadvantages. It is important for an author to take into consideration what they want to accomplish with their story and then pick the best POV that suits their needs.
A story from a single narrator's perspective can be an arduous task or it can be much easier depending on the amount of planning you've put into creating a character with a history, personality, and distinctive voice. (And you've done all of that, right? Riiight?) A distinctive voice will compel your reader to follow your narrator's perspective throughout the entire work.
You can do this by introducing the narrator at a pivotal point in time and exploring their thoughts and motivations about what has just happened or is about to happen.
For now, let's pretend you're going to tell your story through a single narrator. There are three ways to do this:
First-person, or "I" POV, is a way of writing whose narrator is the character themselves. It offers an intimate form of storytelling that can be powerful and engrossing if executed well. POV is the most important element in any story. The first-person narrative has many advantages: it makes readers feel like they are inside the protagonist's skin; it allows for deeper exploration of how a character thinks and feels; and it offers a more natural flow to dialogue.
I've always had a soft spot for books that are written in first-person POV. I believe that the immediacy of the narrator's voice draws the reader into the story, making it feel more personal. The protagonist of the novel is speaking to us, telling their story in their own words. It's almost like they're sitting on your shoulder, whispering secrets in your ear.
Here's an example from my WIP, Out in the Cold:
I could use someone like you. It wasn’t what he said, but that’s what I took from it. I can’t say I wanted to be used. Tools get used. I wanted something more than that. I wanted touching and the like. Something soft and loving. I ain’t had love in—well—ever. Not that life in the company orphanage wasn’t one of being cared for, but… love? Love wasn’t a part of my life. Not for me and not for the other kids they brought up. No one ever talked about it as far as I can remember, but I reckon it was something we all wanted, just that no one said it. We got three meals and day and vitamins and exercise and training. Those were our days. We prayed a little every evening, but Sundays were for morning prayer that went on a little longer. We’d gather in our Paths and pray we’d be good citizens and good at what they trained us for. Praying went right up to the day we left, and I went right on with it. It comforted me knowing God was looking out for me. Even here. Even through the hardest days and night. Days working and nights dreaming. I knew my kind of dreaming wasn’t what God wanted for me, but he kept me from touching myself and I told myself that was enough.
Some stories tell the story of a protagonist through the eyes of a narrator who reports on what they see. For example, The Great Gatsby's Nick Carroway, or Sherlock Holmes's Watson.
This POV means that the narrative is limited to what the narrator knows and it may only be their perspective of events. In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, there is one narrator, Scout, who gives us a first-person account of what she can see and do. In this way, the reader only sees the world through Scout's eyes and ears. This makes it difficult to know what is happening in other places, like when Atticus goes to the trial of Tom Robinson.
This POV can also mean that information needs to be taken with a grain of salt, as the narrator could skewer it. A narrator such as this is known as an unreliable narrator.
First-person POV is a natural way to tell a story, because it allows the reader to feel as if they are inside the character. The writer must only focus their attention on describing what the character sees, feels, hears, smells and tastes. It's not just about the narrative of the story; it's about how the story affects the narrator.
First-person POV has a narrator who is telling the story from his or her own perspective, including thoughts and feelings. The narrative voice is limited to what the protagonist knows, perceives, thinks, and feels. In contrast, second-person POV has a narrator who is telling the story from a character different from the one being addressed. We can also refer this to as “you” narration.
It can be an effective technique, but it can confuse readers if not used correctly.
Second-person POV can be considered to be the most difficult perspective to write in. Only use it where the story is actually being told to someone as if they were a character other than themselves. The reader must consider themselves as a character in the story, which is difficult for some because they're not at liberty to draw their own conclusions for motivation.
Some authors use a second-person POV in their stories when it isn't necessary. These authors feel the need to force the reader to feel as if they are in the story or that they have a say in what happens in the story. This can annoy some readers, and these people may not enjoy reading a book written in this perspective. Authors who use this perspective must think carefully about their reason for using it.
If you're interested in checking out novels written in second-person POV, read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Booked by Kwame Alexander, and Damage by A.M. Jenkins.
Third-person point of view is a literary technique that allows the writer to stay outside of the story and provide an objective, external perspective on the actions and motivations of the characters. It can be hard to transition from third-person to first-person, but it is often necessary for memoirs and autobiographies because it lets the reader know what is happening in one's own head. You can use the technique in both novels and non-fiction writing, like biographies and historical fiction.
Third-person POV is a narrative device that offers a subjective perspective of the events in fictional works. It is a third-person narrative view that does not shape or alter the story, but offers an impartial account of what is happening.
Third-person POV is a way in which a story is told. In third-person, the author uses words such as "they," "he," or "she" to refer to the protagonist. They use these pronouns to show that they are telling the story from outside of the character's head.
Third-person narration is one of the most common techniques in literature. It can be tricky for writers to decide which way to use it because there are two different ways to approach it, but they both have their pros and cons.
The first way to write third-person narration is by using a omniscient narrator. The second way is by using an limited narrator.
Third-person omniscient narration is a technique in which the narrator knows and shares the thoughts of all major characters. The narrator does not represent any one character, but views the story from an overview perspective. We often see third-person omniscient narration in books. Examples include The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and Middlemarch by George Eliot.
This technique allows you to reveal important information to your reader that one narrator doesn't know.
For my romance, Behind the Seams, I used two narrators, Kit and Barker, told in third-person omniscient. I switched perspectives from chapter to chapter. Here are four examples of how I began each chapter:
To avoid Emilia, Barker shut himself in the first bedroom he stumbled upon, only to find it didn’t have its own bathroom.
After stripping off his jumpsuit and retrieving his wash-bag, Barker grabbed a folded towel from the bed. He hitched it around his waist, then padded out onto the landing in search of a bathroom, wishing he’d paid attention when the group explored their new home. Grateful to find a sticky note scrawled with the word ‘bog’—had to be Aden—he slipped in, then locked the door.
If one designer was going home, Kit would make sure it wasn’t him.
Showered and fed, he hurried downstairs and boiled the kettle by six o’clock. Izzy joined him first, fresh-faced and wearing a sherbert orange jumpsuit.
Kit looked at her over the rim of his mug. “Didn’t think you’d be wearing that after yesterday. Looks good with your skin tone.”
Izzy smiled as she did a little spin. “If they’re keeping us in prison, I may as well look the part. As long as I don’t look like a chocolate orange. I don’t, do I?”
Barker fumed. That bloody cameraman interrupted his conversation with Kit, forcing Barker to goad Kit about something. Sure enough, that something was Aden. Then Kit got the better of him and made him look like a fool.
And the cameras at the house weren’t just up on the ceiling. Tiny lenses peered from clocks, picture frames, and even a plug socket. He’d even found one in the bathroom, set into the starry sky over the bath.
When he checked his contract with Bacchus Broadcasting, it stated they could film everything. Everything. All the sodding time.
Kit made himself busy mashing a tea bag against the side of his mug.
Izzy joined him at the rumbling water urn. She took a mug. “Who do you think’s getting their marching orders? I can’t believe you kept your cool while Bitchwhore and Nancy gunned for you.”
Grunting, Kit tossed his tea bag into the bin. “I see we’ve graduated from ‘Snow Queen’ to ‘Bitchwhore’.” He supped his tea, burning his top lip. “I’m not sinking to her level.” He handed Izzy a spoon. “Thanks for sticking up for us, pet.”
Izzy’s gaze snapped to Barker. “Wasn’t only me. Barker came to your defence.” Barker snarled something at Aden, then walked away. “Our men really don’t get on, do they?”
Third-person limited narration is a POV for a story in which the narrative is told from the perspective of one character. The narrator tells the story from their own viewpoint. The narrative voice gets information from that character’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences without being omniscient.
In this type of narrative, the reader only knows what the protagonist would know at any given moment in time.
Some writers use multiple narrators to tell their story. This can be done by taking turns, or jumping back and forth between the different perspectives of the characters. Either way, writers who choose to use this technique should be sure they understand how it works before embarking on this project of choice, as it may make the story more difficult to follow if not done properly.
But each narrator must move the story forward, and that's the golden rule—each narrator must move the story forward. If your story, told by one narrator, feels incomplete, then chances are you need one or more additional narrators.
Every time a narrator jumps in, they need to not only be telling their own part of the story but also be contributing to the larger story. This isn't always easy for writers. When you're trying to balance the perspectives of multiple people, it's easy for things to get muddled or confusing. Some writers, like Edgar Allan Poe, use this confusion as an asset. Other times, the connections aren't as clear and readers may grow frustrated.
Many factors can contribute to whether or not a book feels cohesive. One of the most important, however, is how the story moves forward chapter by chapter. That's what you want, a story that's constantly moving forward. So ask yourself, who is telling their side of the story?
An Exercise in Choosing the Best POV
If you're still struggling, don't worry! Try writing a chapter using each of the POVs you're thinking of.
Here are a couple of examples from my POV, Masterpiece.
Third person limited:
Gunter’s morning started, as it always did, at six-thirty am. He did his stretches, prepared his breakfast, then ate it at the kitchen table. One cup of tea, always in a china cup, and one slice of buttered toast with the thinnest layer of marmalade. He washed the breakfast things in the kitchen sink, dried his cup, saucer, spoon, plate, and knife, then placed each one in its correct place. Upstairs, he brushed his teeth, took a shower, then selected his clothes for the day.
Being a Friday, he decided on the Gieves & Hawkes slate-grey suit cut a fraction looser than his Monday to Thursday suits. Fridays deserved a pop of colour, so he selected a sky-blue poplin shirt and a hot-pink silk tie. His only indecision was which colour handkerchief to fold and tuck into his suit jacket. Pink or blue? Blue, he decided. Blue to match the crisp October sky.
Every morning begins the same, and every evening ends the same and I have no issue with either. What excites me is what happens between those times. It’s an early October morning, and I’ve completed my stretches and morning ablutions, eaten breakfast—one slice of toast with a thin layer of both butter and marmalade—and dressed in my favourite Stitchworthy charcoal-grey suit. It’s Friday, and all Fridays need a pop of colour, so I opt for a sky blue poplin shirt and the hot pink silk tie I bought during the summer sales. And on a bright, crisp morning such as this, I eschew the underground for two buses and a brisk walk to the London University of Creative Arts.
“Good morning, Edgar,” I say to the security guard on duty.
“Good morning, Mister Lyffe, and happy Friday.”
“Happy Friday indeed.”
It’s three flights to the staffroom and I take the steps two at a time, flinging the door open only to be greeted by cigarette smoke and a thunderous looking Sybille Fitzpatrick, head of the same fashion design department in which I teach.
The staffroom’s seen better days. A yellowed clock over the door, melamine cabinets hanging at odd angles, and a huddle of stained mugs covering on the metal draining rack.
“Who died?” I ask, hauling open a smudged window.
Sybille waves a chunk of paper that looks difficult to hold in just one hand. “My bloody father, if I had anything to do with it.”
I'll leave it to you to decide which POV works best in these examples, and if you can decide that you're on your way to deciding about your own work!
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