Who’s Telling Your Story?

little girl looking through paper towel roll

Perspective makes a difference.

Should I write my novel in first person or third (or get totally wild and use second person)?

Am I limited to a single character, or can I use multiple point of view (POV) characters?

Who should my novel’s POV character be?

You want to write a story readers can’t put down, but how do you decide what point of view is the best for your particular story? In fact, how can you even begin to write without having decided this basic element of your story?

There are so many choices. How do you decide what’s best so you can increase your chances of writing a best-selling novel?

Point of view. It’s an age old struggle.

Defined, point of view is perspective. Through whose eyes are we seeing the story, whose head are we inside of, and whose emotions do we experience as the character experiences them?

Let’s take a look at our options:

  • 1st person = telling your story from the point of “I.”

As I stared at the ominous black clouds forming in the west, my heart began to pound. I’d learned to fear tornadoes the hard way.

You can achieve more emotional intimacy with this POV, but the entire story is then normally told from the perspective of that one character. (I say normally because all rules can be broken.) We aren’t privy to the thoughts and emotions of any other character.

  • 3rd person = he, she, or it, but only one character’s POV per scene.

This is the most popular POV and has greater versatility than 1st person, though it doesn’t make quite the same emotional connection. Compare this example with the 1st person example above for a feel of the difference in emotional connection.

As she stared at the black ominous clouds forming in the west, her heart began to pound. She had learned to fear tornadoes the hard way.

  • 3rd person subjective = he, she, or it, fully experiencing the thoughts and emotions of the POV character.
  • 3rd person objective = he, she, or it, detached from the character’s emotions and thoughts.

She looked at the black clouds forming in the west. She had experienced tornadoes as a child.

This is devoid of emotion and rather boring all on its own, but this may serve your purposes.

  • 2nd person = telling your story from the point of “you.” A special point of view that many readers struggle to read.

As you stare at the ominous black clouds forming in the west, your heart begins to pound. You learned to fear tornadoes the hard way.

  • Omniscient = all knowing narrator whose voice is as distinctive as any character in the story. Though once popular, many publishers don’t want omni-POV.

As she stared at the black ominous clouds forming in the west, her heart began to pound. Like most of us living in Tornado Alley, she had learned to fear tornadoes the hard way.

When not done properly the omniscient point of view just comes out as head-hopping, jumping from one character’s thoughts and emotions to another’s within the same scene. (Head-hopping is acceptable in the romance genre because the relationship is considered the main character.) Study The Princess Bride, Gone with the Wind, or A Tale of Two Cities for omni-POV done well.

Who is the best character to tell your story?

No story has just one character. Even in a plot of one man against nature, nature becomes the second character.

So how can you determine your best POV character(s)?

You want to think about what happens to each character and how much you want to reveal about them along the way.

Most often the main POV character is the protagonist. But are there aspects of your protagonist that can only be revealed via an objective character’s POV? The Great Gatsby is a book that utilizes a POV that is not the protagonist. This character reveals aspects of Gatsby’s character that Gatsby would have never seen about himself.

Does your protagonist have secrets you don’t want your reader to know until the end of the story?

Then avoid 1st person. Readers expect full access to the thoughts and emotions of a 1st person POV character. Because there is a degree of emotional detachment in 3rd person you can keep some thoughts and emotions secret in order to serve your plot. For that reason, 3rd person is best for mysteries and thrillers.

Part of the wonderful versatility of 3rd person is its ability for you to zoom in on a character’s thoughts and emotions or zoom out to whatever emotional distance you desire.

If a child told your story, how would it differ than having an adult tell the story?

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful example of how a story can differ with character perspective. Think about the professions of your characters and how that could impact the story you tell. Is there a character, whether child or adult, who would provide a more interesting take on your story?

Is it important that readers experience the thoughts and emotions of more than one of your characters? Then 3rd person is probably your best option.

Some genres (and some publishers) require a specific point of view. Review others books in your genre for their POV.

Each option has its benefits and drawbacks, so consider your plot, the protagonist’s character arc, and what you plan to reveal at the end. Ask yourself lots of questions about your story and characters as you ponder POV. I especially like Nancy Kress’s advice in her book Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint:

“Whose head are you most interested in inhabiting during this story?”

In a Quandary? Experiment

Still not sure what to do? Try this:

Take one scene from your story and write it in 1st person with the protagonist. Then write that same scene in 3rd person. Now try writing it with a different character other than your protagonist. Which was easier to write? Which one seems to flow more smoothly. Read each one out loud. Which sounds best?

As you learn the craft of writing and develop your skills, it’s best to master point of view with one character throughout your story (whether through first or third person) before moving on to multiple POV characters or experimenting with the more demanding 2nd person and omniscient POVs.

There are other ways of handling POV than those I’ve covered here. I recommend reading Unmasking the Mystery of Point of View by Angela Hunt, and Characters, Emotions & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress for a more in depth understanding of point of view.

By giving point of view greater thought before you begin writing, you can have a stronger story from page 1.

Have you found yourself making revisions because of POV issues? What was your problem and how did you fix it? Leave your comments below.

Debra L. Butterfield © 2014

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  1. Great post! Thank you.

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