How to Pick Your Point of View
Sat Mar 05 2016
Last week, we looked at what POV is for. And while theory is lovely, nobody really gives a crap unless it helps them write. This week we'll look at what the theory tells us about the different POV choices at our disposal.
Making the right choice is critical: The wrong choice will undermine the presentation of your characters. The wrong choice will sabotage your whole novel, leaving you with an enormous pile of work in fixing it. Your POV choice is such a fundamental element of any novel that changing it usually amounts to a full re-write. And really. Who's got time for that? Better to choose wisely in the beginning, yeah?
Buckle up. This is going to get long. Or you can use the links on the right to jump to a specific POV.
Third Person Omniscient
Third person omniscient feels like a movie with narrative voice-overs.
That's the best way to think about it, because just as when watching a movie the audience sees all the characters from the outside. But the narrative voice-overs are there to give us peeks into the characters' thoughts and feelings. But other than that, it's all from the outside.
That analysis reveals what I see as a weakness of third-person omniscient: it is inherently a hybrid POV. It's got the pure-external camera's eye view of third person, but then uses omniscient narration to sneak us extra information that the camera can't see. Thus, every time the narration lets us peek into somebody's head, it violates the external nature of third person.
Being external, third omni can't help but be emotionally colder than the other viewpoints. It just is more distant. It's harder for readers to bond so tightly with the characters. Not impossible, just harder. Ironically, though perhaps not surprisingly, one of the ways writers combat this is through those narrative peeks into the character's heads. Those help us know the characters more intimately and erase some of that emotional distance.
How Writers Screw It Up
Third omni gives the writer total freedom to show anything, any time, no matter where it might be happening within the world of their story.
That's powerful juju, but it's easy to use great power irresponsibly. Mainly by jumping around too much. Just because you can jump around, doesn't mean you should.
- Please don't skip around from one location or setting to another and another and another like popping potato chips. Think of locations and settings like courses in a gourmet meal. You want to spend some time with them. Let readers really get into them and savor them. Don't just give them one lick of the spoon before zipping them off to another destination. Jumping around within the time-and-space of your story's world can leave readers disoriented and unclear about what any of your settings are like or even what events happened in which places.
- Similarly, use your narrative voice-overs carefully. Don't peek into this person's head and then that person's head and then somebody else's all in quick succession. It is exhausting, and leaves readers feeling less in-touch with your characters, not more. Even in third person omniscient, a scene ought to have one character who the scene is more or less about. When you switch that focus, you demand work from your readers. We must expend mental effort to load that character back into our brains, as it were. To remember what that person is all about, what they want, what they believe, how they feel about some other character, et cetera. As readers, we're trying to "walk a mile in another man's shoes," as it were. But if you flip us between characters too much and too often with those narrative voice-overs, we tire of un-lacing and re-lacing different pairs of shoes all the time. At least let us wear a single pair for a whole scene.
- Don't tell us about every character's thoughts and feelings. They're not all important enough to receive that kind of treatment. Nobody cares what the bit player with the walk-on part in the scene is thinking. Remember: narrative voice-over is essentially a small POV break in which, for the space of a sentence or two, the story pretends to be in third person limited or even first person POV. Thus, such voice-overs effectively grant those characters a viewpoint. But a viewpoint is kind of a big deal. Again, it gets back to reader effort. Asking the reader to create and maintain a viewpoint--to track what that character is all about, etc.--is not a small request. Do it for the main players in your story. But please don't do it for the bit players and supporting cast. Chances are, they're just not important enough to warrant that much of the reader's effort.
- Your plot has nowhere to hide. The "omniscient" part of third omni means that it is incumbent on you to show readers everything we'll feel like we have a right to know. If you fail to narrate something that, later on, we feel like we should have had a right to see, there's no defense. We'll will feel like the story was holding out on us. Because it was. This puts you in the position of having to correctly predict which events in the story we'll feel like we should have gotten to see at the time they happened, and which ones it'll be ok not to know about until later. I see clients mess this up all the time, because it's not always an easy job. When you avoid narrating something precisely because you want to save it for a big surprise later, but readers can't see any reason why the narrative should have skipped over that, that's story death. To the reader, that feels like the writer jerking them around, and they'll (justifiably) hate it.
When to Choose Third Person Omniscient
Screw-ups and emotional distance aside, there are times when third omni is just the ticket.
"My plot is too big for anything else".
Action thrillers, political suspense, "epic" fantasy and sci-fi, and any other story whose plot involves a lot of people in different places with different motivations all doing stuff that affects one another, are stories that work very well in third omni. The whole point of these stories is the large-scale chess game of all those pieces moving around the story-world's board, and readers can't really appreciate the game unless they can see how the pieces are moving.
"I'm still developing as a writer."
To be fair, we all are. Always, if we're doing it right. But for new writers who are still learning the ropes of novel-writing, who are still homing in on their authorial voice, third omni can be a great choice due to the flexibility it offers. Because third-omni lets you show anything, at any time, it also lets you defer a lot of choices about when and how to show the various parts of your story. If you're a new writer and haven't yet developed a good feel for story structure, this flexibility can be a real help. It isn't a free pass for avoiding structural revision work later, but third omni at least lets you get your story written, get it out of your head and onto paper, with a minimum of fuss. And really, there's a lot to be said for that. Because once the story is written, other people can see it, give you feedback, and you can begin to work with it as a whole-thing. But until the story's actually written, you've got nothing.
Third Person Limited
Third person limited feels like first person, but written with third-person grammar. Really, that's it. Well, not quite it. Third limited also allows the writer to use their own authorial voice, rather than having to create a voice for the viewpoint character as in first person (see below). Again, this makes it well suited to novice writers.
Third person limited functions just like third omni, but with one extra rule: pick one character and stick with them for everything. Don't peek inside anybody's head except that one character. Don't show scenes or anything else that is not directly observable to that one character. If they don't see it, think it, feel it, et cetera, then readers don't get to read about it.
As its name suggests, third person limited fundamentally shows less stuff than third omni. You might think that sucks, but it a couple of big benefits.
Emotionally, it is much more intimate than third omni. But, of course, only with the single character the whole story is funneled through. Still, because readers never need to change shoes, our total mental effort is available for walking a mile in this character's shoes. We put them on once at the beginning of the story, and keep them on until the end. Thus we are able to understand, to a much greater degree, what the character is all about, how they think and feel, and all the rest of it. That's empathy. While we're in the story, reading about them, we're living their life in our mind.
The other big benefit is that because we don't get to see everything, you have a much easier time hiding stuff from us and building up the conditions necessary for great dramatic surprises. You do have to show us everything important that the viewpoint character saw, but if the POV character didn't see it, that's ok. We don't expect to know about stuff they don't know about. If they're confused, we're confused, and that ok too because it's a natural consequence of deciding to put boundaries on the story's information.
How Writers Screw It Up
Pretty much the main and only way to screw up third limited is to break that one extra rule. To sneak in just a word or a phrase about what somebody else thinks or feels. To mention, even in passing within the narrative, what's happening somewhere else.
Believe me, I know how utterly tempting it can be to do this. To get into the middle of a scene and realize that if only the reader knew what was lurking around the bend, the scene would suddenly acquire a whole lot more nail-biting suspense.
But don't do it. If you do, you break the spell created by the POV. You pull us momentarily out of the viewpoint character's shoes. And don't think readers won't notice. When you let a reader become so fully engaged with and attuned to one character's viewpoint, anything that doesn't naturally belong to that viewpoint is really going to jump out at them. It would be like you going about your day, when suddenly God starts speaking inside your head to warn you about the mugger in the alleyway. You better believe you'd notice, because that kind of information is not normally part of your viewpoint. At least, not until you reach the alley and the mugger jumps out at you.
Resist the temptation to sneak out-of-viewpoint information into a third-limited narrative. Look for other ways to foreshadow what's coming, if you need to, but otherwise don't color outside the lines.
When to Choose Third Person Limited
Third person limited is a great work-horse POV choice for a wide range of stories. It can be made to work for just about anything, because if you think about it from the perspective of the characters, that's essentially the way the characters live it. They're limited in what they know, and yet their lives still form a coherent self-narrative. Ergo, you can tell any story from one character's perspective, and still make it a coherent story. Perhaps not as rich in plot as the third omni version, but still coherent.
That said, there are reasons why third limited is a better choice in some circumstances.
"My story is about one central character"
If your story is not a plot monster, but is primarily about one character dealing with whatever situation the story throws at them, third limited is a great choice. Especially if you don't feel ready to tackle the voice requirements of first person writing yet. Basically, if your story doesn't demand the broad, chessboard view that third omni gives you, why not do third limited instead and gain the emotional benefits it provides? Trade something you're not using anyway for something else that will really strengthen your story.
"My story involves a strong component of personal growth"
Plot monster stories, being generally all about plot, don't demand a lot of growth from their characters. Growth is an internal phenomenon, and thus requires a view that lets you see the internals both clearly and often. In order to observe the character's growth, and the intermediate steps along the way, readers need the level of insight and empathy we get from wearing the same character's shoes for the whole story.
"My character's emotional journey is at least as important as the plot"
Some stories have a lot happening in the world of the character but not necessarily much happening in terms of emotions. Other stories may not have much going on in the world of the character, but have a ton of stuff going on inside the character's head. These are stories of deep struggle with personal issues. The character might not have anything particularly remarkable going on in their day-to-day life--viewed from the outside, they would look like just any other working stiff within your story's world--but on the inside their mental life is in total turmoil. That's a good reason to opt for third limited too.
Multiple Third Person Limited
There's not a whole lot to say about multiple third limited over regular third limited. All it means is following more than one character in the story, but treating each one with third person limited rules when you're following them.
Following multiple characters versus just one is a tradeoff: the reader gains a broader view of the story (moving in the direction of third omni) at a cost of emotional distance. Since readers' attention is split among multiple characters, they can't empathize as deeply with any individual character.
How Writers Screw It Up
The main way to mess up multiple third limited is to introduce too many POV characters. In my view, a good limit on POV characters is three. More than that, and you may as well write in third omni because you've broadened the view of the story so much and diluted the reader's emotional attachment to the point where you're not gaining the benefits that third limited offered you in the first place.
Too many POV characters tends to bog down the pacing of the story as well. Because we have to follow so many people, our perception of each individual thread slows down. Think of it like shuffling multiple decks of cards together. The more decks you've shuffled into the whole stack, the less often you'll encounter a card from each particular deck. Thus, the story plods along and you even risk readers starting to lose track of what's going on in an individual thread before they come back to it.
And anyway, not every character deserves a viewpoint. As I said above, granting a viewpoint is a big deal because of how much it adds to the reader's cognitive load. Don't give a viewpoint to a character if:
- we're only going to see that character a couple of times,
- their situation isn't particularly going to change throughout the story,
- the only reason they're in the story at all is to help one of your main characters,
- the character doesn't have anything at stake with respect to the main thrust of the novel,
- the character isn't pursuing any goals that directly relate to the story's central conflict.
A lesser way I see writers mess up multiple third limited is by introducing a new POV character too late. In the early scenes and chapters of a book, readers are still open to accepting something new like that, because they know they haven't read far enough yet to be sure about what rules this particular book is playing by. Nevertheless, the further they read, the more sure they get about those rules.
So if you write six chapters in which you alternate between two POV characters, and then in chapter 7 you introduce a third, that's going to be kind of jarring. Especially if your chapters are longer than a page or two. If you wait until chapter 17, that new POV character is definitely going to feel out of place. Unless you have a very good reason to do otherwise, try to introduce all your POV characters right away, in the first two to three opening scenes.
And finally, the last way writers mess this up is by "Head hopping", which means jumping abruptly from one viewpoint character's perspective to another's, with no kind of transitional device. The best such device is a scene break, which is why you'll often hear the advice to only switch viewpoints at scene breaks. It's good advice, and relates to what I said about making the reader change shoes too often in third person omniscient.
When to Choose Multiple Third Person Limited
Multiple third limited straddles a middle-ground between third omni and third limited. It has some of the strengths of each. As such, the best time to use it is when your story demands those competing strengths of broad view and emotional closeness. Times when, in last week's metaphor, you need to set the limits-of-observation lever to "wide" and the emotional attachment lever to "strong."
These levers do work against one another. Breadth of view diminishes emotional attachment. But with frugal allocation of viewpoints to a minimum of characters, you can find settings that score pretty well on each.
Multiple third limited is a good choice when:
- your story involves two or three storylines that parallel one another and/or dovetail together,
- each storyline involves one central figure,
- each central figure undergoes meaningful personal growth during the story, and/or struggles with internal issues as well as with their outer plot.
Second Person Singular/Plural
Second person singular or plural are fringe viewpoints in which the author casts the reader as "you" or "we". That is, the story uses the conceit that the reader is the story's protagonist.
In my view, that's a mighty tough sell for a book to make. Done well, second person has the potential to invoke the deepest level of emotional attachment one can imagine, because the viewpoint asks the reader to literally imagine themselves as the one doing and experiencing everything in the story.
But it's so easy to mess that up that unless you are a very experienced writer, or are simply interested in trying second person as an experiment to see what it's like, I'd recommend against it. In fact, my suspicion is that the reason there are so few second-person novels out there is because the risk of winding up with a manuscript that just doesn't work is so high. It's just so hard to do this well.
How Writers Screw It Up
In asking for such a deep level of empathy from the reader, the writer is taking on a very difficult task: controlling the reader/protagonist's choices without making the reader feel like a marionette.
You, me, all of us, are the protagonist of our own lives. We know what that's like, and it's an experience that involves the freedom to choose how we respond to situations. Yet when the reader accepts their role as protagonist of a book that has already been written, they step into the strange position of being a protagonist without any true choice.
That will be fine if the story's author--the one who really made the protagonist's decisions--picked choices that just so happen to match what you, the reader, feel like you would have done in that situation. But given the myriad ways that anybody can respond to anything, you begin to see how tough second person storytelling is. If you mess up, if you make a choice for the main character that doesn't match what the reader feels like they would have done, then the reader is going to be firmly struck with the fact that they do not in fact have the kind of choice that a true protagonist has.
All of which means one thing: for second person to work, every choice the writer makes on behalf of the reader must be exquisitely well motivated. Readers have to be able to see, feel, and understand exactly why that choice is totally the right, logical, obvious, or inevitable thing they themselves would have done under the circumstances.
When to Choose Second Person
I can only think of two circumstances in which second person is the best choice. Maybe there are others, but really, this is such a rare POV that I don't have enough instances of it to draw many conclusions from.
One, you're just feeling particularly daring in your writing that day.
The other, when you need the closest possible empathy between reader and character. This would be for books where the whole point of the book is to convey to the reader how it feels to live some situation. The best example of that that I've seen is the book Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney. It's about cocaine addiction, and uses second person to deeply embed the reader in the experience of being caught in that lifestyle. Since drug addiction is one of those things that's particularly difficult to understand (emotionally, anyway) without having been in it, this is a case where the story benefits from being in second person. The book is a story about a guy doing a lot of coke and suffering consequences from it, but that's just the story. The point of the book is to help non-drug users learn to empathize with people who are stuck in that.
So if the point of your book is to build deep, empathetic understanding in your readers for those intense slices of human experience they're unlikely to have experienced on their own--say, human trafficking, sexual abuse, living with AIDS, et cetera--second person might be a good choice.
First person feels like third limited, in that the reader is restricted to the perceptions of one character. The difference is that instead of getting occasional peeks into the character's head--those narrative voiceovers--the entire story is essentially told through voiceover.
It's the difference between getting to see inside a character's head, and being inside their head. When I describe first person to clients, I usually say it's like "riding in the protagonist's mental sidecar."
I will say up-front that I'm a huge fan of first person. I love the emotional closeness of it. I love the way you get to know the viewpoint character from the inside.
Most of all, I love the voice. First person trades an external narrator for the protagonist-as-narrator. Which means that the whole story (with the exception of other characters' dialogue), must be written in the protagonist's voice.
If there is one critical difference between third limited and first, that's it. Voice. First person tells the story in the character's voice, not in your voice. As I said earlier, third limited still lets you use your own authorial voice to tell the story. First person forces you to drop your authorial voice and take on the voice of your character.
First person writing--that is, the act of writing first-person fiction--requires you to be your character. You must don their personality so closely, like the tightest-fitting of tailored suits, that you can act the way they act, think the way they think, and feel the way they feel. Only when you can do that, can you speak the way they speak and capture their voice in your novel.
First person writing is an act of deepest empathy. My own experience with writing suggests that it takes time for writers to learn how to empathize with their characters deeply enough to do this. That makes a certain intuitive sense to me, and anyway, it would explain the general pattern of writers starting out in third person and shifting towards first as they gain experience.
How Writers Screw It Up
You can screw up first person either mechanically or philosophically.
Mechanically, you screw it up if you allow your protagonist to start talking about what other people are thinking or feeling, as though they could directly ascertain such things. They can't. Just as you can only see the other people in your life from the outside, so too is your protagonist limited to an external view of their friends, family, acquaintances, and enemies. Still, just because you've become your protagonist so fully doesn't absolve you of the need to understand the inner lives of the story's other characters, so if you're not paying attention, it's easy to accidentally let your protagonist start describing other people's inner mental states.
Philosophically, you screw up first person when you fail to fully become the character. When you find yourself fighting with the character because you want them to do something due of where you want the plot to go, but you know that the character would actually do something different. You screw up your first person story if you ever let the character lose that fight. That's a violation of the viewpoint character's motivations (which I talked about a couple of weeks ago), and I promise you, readers will spot it immediately.
When to Choose First Person
First person is great for the same reasons third limited is: because the character undergoes strong personal growth or a significant emotional journey.
That alone isn't enough to help you decide between them, though.
Choose first person when you know that the character is such a--well, such a character--that their voice will be a significant part of the story. We've all known those people. The ones who just have a wholly distinctive way of talking, the ones who you love to listen to no matter what they're taking about just because of the way they put words together. If that's your story's protagonist, write them in first person.
You might also write in first person for personal reasons. I've talked about this elsewhere, but you might do it because writing in first person is about becoming someone else. Barring the Buddhists being right about that whole Wheel of Life thing, I only get to live this one life. The one I have right now, where I work my day job, edit at night for my clients, play with my kids as much as I can, and generally do the whole suburban dad thing. This is it. This is my station.
And really, it's a pretty damn narrow slice of the total human condition. I can't live someone else's life. I can't, first-hand, know what it's like to be a Native American growing up with his grandpa somewhere on the reservation. I can't know what it's like to have been a prospector's wife in the California gold rush. I can't know what it's like to hunt whales on the high seas, or knit with my mother by the fire in the long, Scandinavian winter nights.
I don't get to have those lives. But if I do enough research, if I think hard enough about it, if I create a character who is any of those things and let myself become that person for fifty or a hundred thousand words, then I can get a glimpse of those other narrow slices. I can know, just a little bit, what those lives are like.
It's not the same as being them for real, but I think it's as close as we can get. How many lives do you want, from when you're born to the day you die? Just one? Or more than that? Oh, what a gift is writing! that we can sample as broadly and as often as we like from other ways of being human. If you want more than just the one life, write in first person.
Multiple First Person
I have to say, I generally find multiple first person narration a weaker reading experience than the singular kind. It's for exactly the same reason as multiple third limited versus ordinary third limited. The more viewpoints you introduce, the more you dilute each one. And as a reader, I therefore can't get as close to any of them as I could have with just one.
That's not to say that it can't be done well and to great effect. Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife is and remains my all-time favorite example of multiple first person, because she does it so bloody well. It's really something.
Anyway, as should be obvious, multiple first person just means following multiple characters through the story but treating each one through first person writing.
How Writers Screw It Up
Multiple first person is a sufficiently uncommon POV in mainstream novels that when readers encounter first person narration at all--say, on page one of your book--their default assumption will be that it's going to be a single-POV story. So if you've got another first person POV up your sleeve, you'd better spring it on us mighty quick, while we're still open to that possibility. Just as with multiple third limited, you can't wait until too late to introduce a new viewpoint character.
As in any multi-viewpoint story, don't switch viewpoint characters in the middle of a scenes. I've talked enough about that, I won't belabor it here. Head hopping flops even harder in first person than it does in multi third limited.
As a matter of craft, multiple first person can fail if the various viewpoint characters' voices are not distinct enough. Writing good single first person is hard enough; you want to try becoming more than one character and keeping them both (or all!) completely distinctive in your mind while you're writing? Good luck, but it's going to take practice and probably a lot of revision to really clarify the voice of each character to the point where each one truly feels like a unique individual.
Too many viewpoint characters. This will kill it too, for the same reasons as in multiple third limited, and just as there, I'd suggest three as an upper bound. But unlike multiple third limited, where three viewpoint characters can still work pretty well, three is pushing it for multiple first person. Beyond three? I say no. Prove me wrong if you can, but I say no.
The literary wags in the audience will be raising their hands right about now, saying "Ooh! Ooh! but what about My Name Is Red? It had like thirty first person viewpoints, and it won the Nobel Prize for Literature!"
Sod off. That book sucked. I have no earthly idea what the Nobel Committee was thinking that year. Don't believe me? Read it for yourself. Tell me if you were able to keep all those viewpoints straight in your head. I sure wasn't.
When to Choose Multiple First Person
To be perfectly honest, I can't really think of a solid reason for choosing multiple first person. At least, not one that stands up to scrutiny of actual books I've read. I can hypothesize that this would be the ideal choice if you have a story with two principle characters, where both of the characters fit the criteria for choosing first-person (emotional closeness matters to the story, and the particular ways in which each character's voice is distinctive is also important to the story), and there's strong contrast between those characters, and you feel like you've got the chops to create and sustain two distinctive first person voices, then ok. Go for it. And send it to me, because I'd like to see how it turns out.
As an example, let's say you were writing a cops-vs-mafia novel, in which the cop is a hard-nosed lawman with his iron clad view of the law, and the mafia don is an honest-to-god, omerta-living-and-breathing mobster. The point of the novel might be as much about contrasting the differing world views of those two characters as it is about the story of whether the cop gets the robber. In such a case, multiple first person would do a great job of putting the reader as close to those two different mindsets as you can.
There's a lot of POVs out there. Each of them pulls on those four levers we looked at last week in different ways that will give your story a whole different flavor from one to the next.
Yet, I suspect that when you set out to write a novel, there's a certain feeling you're after. You can't just pick a POV choice at random. Pick the one that already aims you towards the feeling you want the reader to have.