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February 21, 2023

Point of View: What’s the Best Choice?

Photo looking straight up into the canopy of a forest with text: What Point of View Should We Choose?

Once we have a story idea and we’re ready to put fingers to keyboard, one of the first things we usually need to decide is: How do we want to tell the story? What perspective are we going to use? What tone or style or voice are we going to use? Do we know when the story starts or what to emphasize?

Those questions all tie into the point of view (POV) of our story. Our story’s perspective—whether a broad overview of a family saga from an omniscient POV, or a deep insight into a single viewpoint character’s POV—affects most aspects of our story.

  • Will we use our author voice (or a narrator voice) for a more distant POV? Or will we use our viewpoint character’s voice because we’re in a deep POV?
  • Will we start with an event that emphasizes the theme because the story is about a bigger picture than any one character can see in their POV? Or will we start with an event that emphasizes a specific character’s POV of their arc of change?
  • Will we use a shallower POV so readers can judge story events from a more unbiased perspective? Or will we use a deeper POV so readers will empathize with the character, even when they do bad things or make mistakes?

Or anything between any of those extremes and so on with other examples beyond those listed here.

In other words, while our story idea is the framework that builds the bones and muscles of story structure, plot, and arcs, the point of view is the skin that holds everything together for presentation to the audience of readers. How we present our story—how we choose to tell the tale—will affect how readers feel about the plot, characters, and overall story.

Obviously, the choice of POV is important, so how should we choose? Is there a “best” or “right” choice of POV for our story?

Recap of POV Types: From 1st to 3rd

First, let’s start with a refresher on the different POV types. Feel free to skip down to the next section if you don’t need a recap of our POV options.

Most of us are probably familiar with the basics of different POV types, levels, whatever we want to call them:

  • 1st Person: Uses I or me for the POV character. Emotions, thoughts, and perceptions shared with the reader are limited to what this character knows.
  • 2nd Person: Uses you for the POV character. (Note: The POV character being you is different from addressing the reader as “you,” which is merely breaking the fourth wall in a “dear reader” way.) Uncommon in fiction, but when used, the thoughts, emotions, and perceptions shared with the reader would be limited to what this character knows.
  • 3rd Person: Uses he or she for the characters. The emotions, thoughts, and perceptions shared with the reader depend on the type of 3rd person POV style used. (See Note #2 below.)

Note #1: Multiple Viewpoint Characters are Possible in One Story

Any one of those types could have multiple viewpoint characters over the course of the story. I’ve seen stories with multiple 1st person POV scenes, where the viewpoint character is named in the chapter title to make it clear who “I” is.

What's the "skin" — the way we present our story — holding the structure of our story idea together? Click To Tweet

There are so few 2nd person stories that, other than one example I’ll touch on below, I haven’t seen one with multiple POVs, but it’s theoretically possible. Many readers might find it confusing, however, as 2nd person is often confusing for readers as is, much less with the complexity of multiple viewpoint characters.

We’re probably all familiar with stories that follow multiple viewpoint characters around in 3rd person writing, each scene or chapter focusing on a different POV character. I’ve even seen some stories that combine multiple POV types, such as the main character’s POV scenes in 3rd person and the villain’s POV scenes in 1st person to hide their identity.

Just because we have multiple viewpoint characters does not mean we’re writing in omniscient or head-hopping. There are several ways to change the “ownership” of the story from one viewpoint character to another and avoid problems.

Note #2: 3rd Person POV Encompasses Many Styles

The confusion about POV often lies in the many different approaches to 3rd person POVs. All these styles use the he/she 3rd-person POV words, so it can be hard to tell which style applies to our writing—or to an example held up to “prove” that something is or isn’t allowed.

How can we decide on the best choice for the POV of our story? Click To Tweet

Yet it’s important to understand these differences because techniques that are acceptable in styles at one end of the range are less acceptable at the other end of the range.

Think of a range along a line, and what changes from one end of the line to the other is how close the reader’s “camera” is to the main characters. Within a story or scene, it’s possible to shift the writing along this line in certain ways, but it’s important to not confuse the reader, as that will take them out of the story.

At one end, we’re meant to feel very near to the characters—experiencing their story from the inside, as if we were them. At the other end, we’re meant to feel removed, like an audience member watching a story play out on the stage of the book’s pages.

Going from near to far, we can define the main points on the line:

  • Deep 3rd Person:
    Written at the same depth as well-done 1st person POV, just with different pronouns. Because the “camera” is deep inside the character’s head, hearing their thoughts and feeling their emotions, the writing cannot share perceptions that the viewpoint character isn’t aware of. It is 100% subjective, focused from the inside of the POV character.
    This style has become the new default for many genres, as it gives readers the immediacy of a “close up.”
    In this style, we…:
    • Avoid all filtering words (saw, heard, thought, knew, wondered, etc.).
    • Use showing most of the time to let the reader experience the story along with the viewpoint character.
    • Include the viewpoint character’s visceral reactions to make the reader feel as though they’re sharing the character’s body.
    • Use the character’s voice for all sentences, and share only their perceptions. (Would the POV character notice the chair’s fabric or know the name of that flower? Would they think about xyz at this point in time? If not, don’t include it.)
    • Italicize the character’s internal thoughts only when changing to I/me and present tense.
      I hate this. She kicked the rock across the driveway. If only Roger hadn’t been such an idiot.
      That last sentence could be her direct thoughts but wouldn’t need to be italicized because the tense and POV don’t change. In deep POV, most sentences would be near-direct thoughts (using their voice), so italics aren’t appropriate unless needed.
    • Thought tags such as “he thought” or “she wondered” should not be used for internal thoughts. They add distance, which undermines the goal of this style.
  • Limited 3rd Person:
    Sometimes called “close,” “subjective,” or even just “normal” 3rd person, this style is still deep enough that the writing can’t share perceptions the viewpoint character isn’t aware of. “Limited” means that the writing is limited to this one viewpoint character’s experience for this scene.
    However, some sentences (such as for action or descriptive narrative) might not be strictly in the character’s voice, more telling might be thrown in to provide context to the reader’s understanding, some filtering words might add distance, etc.
    A character’s internal thoughts might be italicized even when still in 3rd person and past tense, or they might be tagged with “he thought,” similar to dialogue.
  • Omniscient 3rd Person:
    This style can share perceptions beyond any character’s knowledge, as omniscient doesn’t have to focus (much less limit) the narrative on a viewpoint character at all. Other than certain genres (childrens’, middle grade, some fantasy, etc.), omniscient is less popular than it was during the time of the “classics.”
    This style can include lots of telling and a narrator character, but it would include few (if any) deep emotions, thoughts, or visceral reaction of any character. If subjective thoughts, emotions, or visceral reactions were included, the sentence would use filter words or add distance in some way. In other words, the reader’s “camera” is outside of the main character.
    The writing would be in either the author’s voice or a narrator’s voice. Insights into characters would be shared objectively (or subjectively from the author/narrator’s opinion).

There are several variations between those of course, but those are the main styles to understand for the basics.

Note #3: Sliding from One Style to Another Is Possible If…

We’ve probably all read stories that have most paragraphs in deep POV and then they throw in a telling phrase for a bit of backstory context. Other stories even go from a subjective POV to add in an objective sentence to increase reader tension. (If he only realized what was to happen next, he might have made a different choice.)

When a story makes a slide from deep to shallower in a way that improves the reader’s experience, there’s nothing wrong with this technique. However, too many of these shifts in depth are the result of authors who don’t know how to share information any other way, or they simply don’t think about what would be best for the reader.

As with all aspects of writing, we should make our choices deliberately. If we’re adding distance between the reader and the story, we should have a good reason.

Other Ways to Mix & Match POV Options

Now that we have those basics well understood, we can dig even deeper into other ways we can tweak the POV we use in our story to add variation or surprises with our POV choices.

Example #1: Use Multiple Viewpoint Characters

The most common way to add more variation is to include multiple viewpoint characters, as mentioned in Note #1 above. Each viewpoint character could have their own POV style (1st person, 3rd person, etc.), their own voice, tone, style, and so on.

As mentioned above, our main viewpoint character could use 3rd-person POV, while the villain’s viewpoint could use 1st-person POV to hide their identity. Or one viewpoint character’s scenes could be epistolary style, presenting their thoughts in the form of letters, while another viewpoint character is in deep 3rd.

N.K. Jemisin’s outstanding Fifth Season (The Broken Earth) series even mixes 3rd person and 2nd person POVs across the different viewpoints. So with enough skill, there’s no limit to the variations we can try.

Example #2: Use Unique Storytelling Styles

As alluded to above, certain styles of telling our story tie in with POV. One example is the epistolary style, where some scenes (or the whole story) are told in letters or text messages, etc. That style presents us with a very unique perspective on the story.

Another option is a book-ended style, where the opening and closing scenes “bookend” the heart of the story in a different style. For example, the whole story might essentially be a flashback with the exception of the opening and closing scenes, as a character presents an important event from their past. Or think of the Grandfather and Grandson scenes surrounding the fairytale of Princess Bride.

Example #3: Choice of Viewpoint Character

Of course, we also have the most basic option of choosing which of our story’s characters we want to use for presenting a scene (or the whole story). The Great Gatsby is a common example of using a viewpoint character that isn’t the protagonist.

The writing skill of point of view comes with many "rules" — but also many variations we can try. Click To Tweet

The viewpoint character just has to be a major-enough character to have the knowledge or insights about events to present the story in a compelling way. But they don’t need to be the “main” character or protagonist.

In a romance, which often presents the story from the POV of both protagonists (such as the hero and the heroine) in alternating scenes, authors need to decide which protagonist should tell each scene. Especially in a romance, where the protagonists are often together during events, either character could function as the viewpoint character, so authors have to weigh many different factors when making their choice.

Example #4: Choice of Omniscient Style

A 3rd-person POV choice can range from deep to omniscient. But even within the omniscient end of the spectrum, much variation can be found:

  • Narrative Voice:
    Some omniscient stories are told by a non-character narrator (such as Lemmony Snicket from A Series of Unfortunate Events) who give their perspective on events. Others use no narrator persona and just offer a glass window into everyone’s lives.
  • Character Focus:
    Some omniscient stories follow wherever the overarching story leads, no matter what characters are involved. Others follow a few select characters. And still others follow one main character most of the time. However, all can share perceptions, perspectives, and opinions beyond a single character’s knowledge.
  • Objectivity:
    Some omniscient stories show clear bias towards the main character, ensuring readers stay on their side. Others are more objective and share character insights without preference.
  • Emotional Insights:
    Some omniscient stories share emotions and thoughts of characters, adding to readers’ emotional experience throughout the story. Others stay distant to the characters, just reporting from the outside.
  • Break the Fourth Wall:
    Some omniscient stories include information from elsewhere in the story timeline or address the reader with “Dear Reader” or “You might be wondering why…” style of lines. Others avoid calling attention to the nature of the story itself.

What’s the “Right” Choice for Our Story?

In other words, the choice of POV is far less straightforward than we may think. So we may worry about making the “wrong” choice.

To help us understand our options and the “right” vs. “wrong” dilemma, I took the opportunity of a guest post invitation from September C. Fawkes to explore the topic. She recruited me to contribute to the late David Farland’s writing blog with a post:

Choosing A Point Of View: Understanding The Nuance

Join me at MyStoryDoctor.com at the link above, where I’m digging into the nuances we should understand about our choice:

  • Is there such a thing as the “right” POV choice?
  • What guidelines can help us choose a POV?
  • What differences between the options can help us choose a POV?
  • When do we have to be extra careful with headhopping or information dumps?
  • What’s my number one tip for making the most of our choice?

And if you want to know more, you’ll find several posts I’ve written here about POV, including:

Have you ever struggled to decide on a POV? Were you aware of all the variations we can choose from? Have you experimented with any unusual POV options? If you’ve read a story with unusual POV choices, did you enjoy the story, or would you have made a different choice? Do you have any other questions about POV? (David’s site isn’t set up for easy commenting, but feel free to comment here about the guest post as well.)

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P.I. Barrington
P.I. Barrington

Love, love, love this post!! Keep them coming! Patti

Bran
Bran

I have been struggling with this exact thing. I have an idea for a short story, but trying to pin down the POV character has eluded me. I’ll use this to help me narrow it down. Thank you so much for a fantastic post!

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks, Jami! Readers tend to complain it’s confusing if one character’s story is given in first person and this alternates with another in third person.
Also if there are two or more first-person characters and their voices sound too similar.

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Jessica Harper

Very well thought through article, thanks. I’m really over the multiple first person narrators of modern thrillers, I have to say. Like flashbacks, they jerk me backwards just as I felt I was getting somewhere.

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