Ever read something where you’re not sure who’s telling the story? Unless you’re an English professor or have been to a writing workshop with new writers, probably not. Experienced writers know that choosing a POV is an important part of writing a story. But what is “point of view,” besides who is telling the story?
The POV is how close or how distant the author wants the reader to know the character’s mind. It’s all about where the figurative camera is shooting the scenes. Perspective.
Choosing your POV for your story is about making the decision whether you want all the character’s thoughts and feelings upfront and why you do or don’t want that. Also, POV can be used as a tool to insert the readers in that character’s shoes, by going through the growing pains of the character arc with them closely.
Here’s a breakdown of point of view or perspective choices:
First Person: This is when the story is narrated by the main character. You’ll easily identify first person perspective by the predominant pronoun “I”. This POV gives the reader an in-depth view of the main character’s head, but a limited view of the world around the MC. The story is being shot from the perspective of the MC’s eyes.
Experienced authors play with this, especially if they want to surprise the reader with an unreliable narrator. Since the writer entrenches the reader in the MC’s worldview with first person perspective, that worldview could be wrong. An unreliable narrator allows the reader to be astonished along with the MC when they discover their view is wrong.
I love first person POV and used it with Eastside Hedge Witch and Eastside Faerie because I wanted Miriam to be the lens of her world and bias the reader to her perspective. I wanted to play with people remembering the past one way and then discover it’s not exactly what they thought.
Second Person: Second person is told with the pronoun “you”.
An example of second person perspective:
A dead body lays on the ground in the alley. Blood is on your hands. You don’t remember doing it. Sirens blare. You cast your gaze about. Breath comes in short bursts, a metallic scent filling your nostrils with each inhale. Should you run or should you stay?
I hate reading and writing this perspective. Second person takes me out of the story because it feels like the narrator is breaking the fourth wall. I don’t know who ‘you’ is. The second person makes me feel like Robert Dinero in Taxi Driver. I want to ask the writer, “You talkin’ to me?”
On the first read, I put down The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin because my brain couldn’t adjust to reading the second person. However, I’d read Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy. In the first book of that series, A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Jemisin used first person to represent the juxtaposition of two joined minds/souls. It made for a lovely twist in towards the end.
Her established reputation as an author who plays with perspective made me pick up The Fifth Season again despite my personal dislike for the second person. In the novel, the second person, third person, and first are interwoven and again used for storycraft reasons. The second person perspective made for a delightful twist when the reader finds out who is using ‘you’ and why.
Third Person Close/Limited: This perspective is told with the pronouns “he”, “she”, or “they”.
Third person limited is almost like first person, because the focus of the lens is narrower. The reader gets a lot of the MC’s thoughts, too. Many of today’s books are written in third person limited. I used third person limited to tell Tom’s tale in Tam Lin: A Modern, Queer Retelling. I wanted to get close to Tom, but not too close. He’s a bittersweet hero, and I didn’t want the readers to love him too much.
Third person limited allows some glimpses into the MC’s mind thus helps the reader relate, but isn’t so close that you know all their thoughts and feelings. Third person limited works well when the writer wants to tell stories from more than one narrator’s perspective. Using ‘I’ would only create confusion about who is telling the story. Whereas using “she,” “he”, or “they” interchangeable with the MC’s name would delineate clearly who is speaking.
Third Person Omniscient: This perspective is also told with the pronouns “he” or “she”. However, the difference is you’re getting into more than one head.
Unfortunately, the omniscient perspective flirts with “head hopping”. Head hopping is confusing because the reader doesn’t know who is telling the story and doesn’t have a character to latch on to.
Outside of her stories featuring Detective Poirot, Agatha Christie didn’t want her readers attaching to one character because she wanted the reader to suspect everyone and not get too attached to a singular character, who might get offed in the next chapter.
Go ahead. Play with perspective. Look up books that teach you how to use point of view as a story craft device. Your writing will improve as you learn, and you’ll find the perfect fit for your story.
T.J. Deschamps is the author of Tam Lin: A Modern, Queer Retelling and the upcoming novel Eastside Hedge Witch. She lives in the pacific northwest with her three children and spouse.