I believe that point of view (POV) can make or break a story. Well, maybe not break it, necessarily, but a different point of view can radically change a story.
A couple of other writers have blogged recently about POV, so I must do them credit by providing links to their posts. One of my favorite bloggers Ava Jae posted an insightful blog about POV, and editor Beth Hill wrote an exhaustive and very educational three-part post about point of view and character perspective.
To begin with, POV is one of three things: first person, second person, or third person. Each one has their pros and cons.
First person: I tells the story. The reader can immediately get into the main character’s head—the reader sees, hears, and feels everything that the character does.
For an example, I’ll use Daphne Du Maurier’s classic Rebecca. The story begins with an intense first line that puts the reader right away into the mind of the unnamed narrator:
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
A disadvantage (or perhaps advantage, depending on how you use it) is that first person POV can be limiting. If important events occur that the narrator does not witness, the information must be revealed in some other way or at some other point in the story.
As I said, this could be either good or not so good. In the case of Rebecca, for those of you who’ve read it, just think how different the story would have been if Max de Winter had been the one telling the story. Without giving away everything to people who haven’t read it, let’s just say that there would have been a whole lot less suspense and intrigue if the reader knew everything that Max de Winter knew.
I wrote a sci-fi story a few years ago (it’s been temporarily shelved, but I haven’t given up on it) that was written in the first person from the perspective of an alien. The plot involved the alien on her way to visit Earth for the first time, and her first encounter with a human.
I enjoyed being able to create and tell about the alien culture basically from the inside out. The interesting challenge to this, however, was describing humans and their culture from the point of view of someone who didn’t know what hair or tear ducts were, had never seen a yellow sun in the sky, and didn’t even have the words to describe the food that humans ate.
Second person: You tells the story. This POV is almost never used and is rather awkward. Really the only example (good or bad) that I can think of that’s written in second person are the Choose Your Own Adventure books. Anybody remember reading those as a kid? Those were cool because you were actually in the story. But as for reading, say, an actual novel, you as the narrator makes for a difficult read.
Third person: He or she (or it or they) tells the story. This POV form has the most options, which, like most anything, can be either good or bad.
The story can be told from the perspective of just one character, making it similar to first person in that the reader has a limited view of the story but very intimate knowledge of the character and their thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Multiple characters can tell the story, giving the reader not only knowledge of simultaneous events, but sometimes different perspectives on the same event or character. This format works best, in my opinion, for long complicated stories like epic fantasy (and other genres too, of course) that involve a large cast of characters and multiple plot threads.
The book I’m working on falls into this category. While I have two characters who would be the absolute main main characters, I have a cast of five characters who share the job of telling the story.
I keep the scenes separate as far as character perspective goes, however. I don’t know if this is what might be called a “rule” of narration and POV, but keeping the narrating characters separate within a scene is usually advisable. The best multiple-perspective third person POV stories I’ve read have separate scenes, or even separate chapters, for each character’s viewpoint. Switching mid-scene (or worse, mid-paragraph) from one character’s head to another can often be jarring or confusing for the reader.
For an example of third person, I’ll use an excerpt of a scene from my current book. This scene involves two of my main characters (Mađen and Teija), but it’s told from the perspective of Mađen.
The sun was rising as they neared Sodankylä. Mađen paused at the top of a hill for a moment to admire the view. The snow was just mere flurries now and the clouds were thin, and a red-gold glow was blazing on the horizon. Wild sweeping hills stretched in every direction, dotted with little pockets of trees and rapidly freezing lakes. Towers of rock, softened only slightly by the fresh dusting of snow, rose up from the tundra. Everything glowed a muted orange in the veiled sunrise.
“It’s beautiful,” Teija said.
“Sápmi. It’s always been the most beautiful thing to me.”
“The land of the Sami children. You call it Lapland, or sometimes Samiland. But our ancestors called it home.”
Home—a land of ice and reindeer, rich traditions, and dying languages. And because of his stupidity, he’d almost let that life slide through his fingers and be lost to him—again. He belonged in the north with his reindeer and his family. Ávgos and their animals would be brought back safely, if it was the last thing he did. He gunned the engine and sped down the hill.
He stopped briefly in Sodankylä for food and fuel. Teija was uncomplaining, though she did purchase a thicker scarf before they left the village. Mađen saw no evidence of pursuit of any sort, either in Sodankylä village or out on the tundra. During another pause in the late afternoon to stretch and relieve themselves, Mađen noticed Teija examining her phone.
“You’re not calling anyone, are you?” he asked.
She looked up at him. “How could I? There’s zero signal out here. My mom called me earlier and my friend texted me, but I can’t reply to either one.”
“Are you planning to tell them where you are?”
“Johanna knows where I am—basically. Well, she knows I’ve gone to Lapland. Why? You seem really concerned about me communicating with anyone.”
Mađen pursed his lips and tried to think of a good way to answer that. “I just don’t want anyone to think I’ve kidnapped you.”
Along similar lines in the third person POV is the omniscient narrator, which is basically just the author telling the story. Scenes and characters are all treated equally, and if the thoughts of any characters are discussed, the reader is informed of them by the author rather than having the characters themselves share.
A good example of this is in Beatrix Potter’s stories; the author is the narrator, and in The Tailor of Gloucester, for example, this omniscient narrator tells us what is going on with the characters of the tailor, Simpkin the cat, and the mice. These stories are of course children’s books, and this omniscient narrator form is more common in children’s stories (it was also the most common POV form used about 100 years ago, when Beatrix Potter began writing).
It’s rare, though not impossible, of course, for a story to mix POV forms. One book that accomplishes this mixing quite well is The Dreaming: Walks through Mist by Kim Murphy. There are three main characters who tell the story—two of them tell it in third person, and one in first person. Each POV and perspective is given its own chapter, with a heading featuring the name of the character. This is a great way to prepare the reader for not only the change in perspective, as the third person narration switches between Shae and Lee, but also for the dramatic shift when the first person I narrator Phoebe tells her part of the story.
Regardless of the point of view, or the viewpoint character(s) used, the reader can only know what the author chooses to tell. That’s why I mentioned at the beginning that POV and character perspective can radically alter a story.
For writers out there, do you have a favorite POV that you write in, or do you let the story and characters determine the narrative perspective? For readers, who do you like to have telling the story: first or third person, omniscient narrator, or just one or two characters? Please share your thoughts!
Grace Robinson: Writer of fantasy. Fan of arctic places, world music, mythology, and linguistics. Soon-to-be world traveler and published author.
Born and raised in Virginia, studied English and creative writing at Hollins University. Currently living in Virginia with two rabbits and a lot of books.