Stick to the Point (of View, that is)

If you were a middle school student sitting in my class discussing literary terms, I would start off with a question like: “What is ‘point of view’ in a story?” You would probably then say something like, “how the story is told” or “who tells the story.” And you wouldn’t be quite right, but you’d be better than the kid who, when asked what a ‘protagonist’ was, said, “Ooh, ooh! I know! That’s the character who waits until the last minute to do everything!” (No, sweetie, that’s a procrastinator. But good try.) We would then seek to better define the concept together in our notes and I’d go with this one…

Point of View – the perspective from which a story is told

I’m assuming that those of you reading this already know the different points of view a story can be told in; however, please humor me as the teacher in me needs to make sure I’m clear. Though there are many subcategories of POV, I’ll stick with our major ones being 1stperson (participant point of view, using first person pronouns—I, me, my, etc.), 3rd person limited (non-participant point of view, using third person pronouns—he, she, they, etc.—limiting the inner thoughts and experiences to one or a few main characters), and 3rd person omniscient (entering the minds and experiences of all characters). I never formally teach 2ndperson POV in class, but am rethinking that now that I recently met Charles Benoit, author of You, a YA novel told completely and uniquely in 2nd person…all because his wife dared him to do it. (Check it out! He’s fabulous.)

But, really…choosing the right point of view for the novel you’re writing is an important first step. I’ve noticed that writers (myself included) tend to classify themselves into one category of POV writing. I think of myself as a 1st person POV writer—and my Phantom Island series is told in 1st person through Whitnee’s eyes. To be honest, I found that writing Whitnee was almost like writing myself. So 1st person in her voice (which is often like MY voice) came very easily. I never imagined I’d want to write in any other point of view…until I got the Shiny New Novel Idea. And as I considered the dynamics of writing the Shiny New Novel, I knew I wanted some secrets revealed to my readers before one of my main characters knew about them. I wanted to cast light and shadows in the plot in such a way that I would have to be free to leave characters at specific times. Not only that, but in Shiny New Novel, my characters have less of ME in them. Maybe that accounted for this need to tell the story from an outside narration. Whatever the case, if I stayed in 1st person POV, I’d be confined to one character’s experiences and perceptions OR have to try switching 1stperson POV constantly among characters. Nope. The Shiny New Novel Idea is so enticing to me that I have now forsaken my comfort zone and am attempting a novel in 3rd person. EEK.

I’ve heard nightmare stories of writers who went back and rewrote an ENTIRE NOVEL in a new point of view, because they realized what they started with didn’t work for the story they wanted to tell. So how can we avoid that? My advanced students and I threw around some thoughts in our class discussion that you might consider (especially if you write YA)…

1st Person POV
–The art of writing suspense is really easy with 1stPOV, because the character is limited to what they can know or observe. This means Unknown Plot Forces can be brewing and more easily surprise the character, and thus the reader too.
–You can have a LOT of fun with voice in 1stperson. Your MC is telling the story, so they get their own unique voice and tone. (Or you can lean at times on your OWN voice, which some of us unknowingly do in our first projects.)
–Your reader gets to really know and understand your MC and we all know that when a reader makes a connection with a character, the story will resonate strongly with them.
–You are limited to only tell what your MC can observe and experience. This makes it super important to write a main character that can carry an entire story. That MC has to be where the action is and the world of the story must usually revolve in some way around them.
–You have to be careful not to have your MC “notice” too many obvious things without connecting the dots with the reader. This is when MCs lose credibility with their readers because the reader saw something in the plot that the MC should have seen too, but didn’t… even though the MC narrated the observations.
–You have to write in a voice that will not “get old” or annoying in the telling. I’ve heard the complaint that 1st person narrators can come across arrogant or self-centered. Well… this is somewhat true…in a way. They are the MC because they ARE in the center of what’s happening. But if they’re not really a self-centered person, be careful how you write their voice.

What My Students Say- “I like 1st person POV books because…
“…it gives me a point of reference for what’s happening. I don’t have to get confused by character names or who’s talking in the scene.”

“…it lets me see other characters through a real person’s eyes-the same way I might see them in my own mind. It makes the minor characters seem more real. Not the way an objective narrator wants me to see them.”

“…I always feel closer to the main character when they tell me their story. It’s like making a friend and hearing about their life.”

3rd Person POV
–You definitely have more freedom to explore other places, people, and circumstances that your MC does not get to see.
–You can have multiple MCs that open up new perspectives throughout the plot.
–It’s a lot easier to jump through, in, and around time as you please. The sequence of events can be told in any order you think will benefit the storytelling.
–Sometimes you sacrifice suspense in order to tell a bigger story – this is usually seen more in 3rd person omniscient POVs.
–The story can feel more about the plot than the characters, sacrificing someone’s ability to get truly close to one or two characters.
–If not written carefully, sometimes readers can feel as disconnected from the story as the fly on the wall who is narrating it.

What My Students Say- “I like 3rd person POV books because…”
“…I like getting points of view from different characters and seeing the conflicts from all angles.”

“…I like experiencing what’s happening through the person it’s happening to, not through a main character who is trying to describe to me what other characters are going through.”

Overall, in YA fiction, my students are openly more drawn to 1st person POV right now. That being said, I say choose the POV that will make for the best storytelling. You know your story, you know your characters, and hopefully you know at least a general structure of the plot outline you’re following. Use those details, along with a self-assessment of your writing strengths, and then go with the POV that you think will work best. However, don’t be afraid to branch out and try a new POV style than just what you’ve “always” done. I’m finding it strangely freeing to try 3rdperson POV in the Shiny New Novel Idea… Maybe one day I’ll even venture out into different tenses…Ha. One step at a time, Dallas.

Now it’s your turn. If you’re a reader or a writer, what point of view do you prefer and why? What positives or warnings would you add to these lists? 

**This topic was originally written as a Krissi Dallas guest post at author Christine Fonseca’s Blog

Winners, Winter Wonders, & Watercrossing!! WINDFALL Takes Second Place in American Design Awards!
Winners, Winter Wonders, & Watercrossing!!
WINDFALL Takes Second Place in American Design Awards!

Comments to “Stick to the Point (of View, that is)”

  1. And by the way, when I was teaching a fundamental writing class at a local career college a couple of years ago, I used a sequence from the movie Jackie Brown as a quick way to demonstrate point of view in storytelling. About 2/3 into the movie, there is a major scene in a shopping mall department store. We see the scene once through the Pam Grier character's point of view. Then we go back in time and see the scene from the bail bondsman's POV (same events, just different camera angles because we're now following a different character). We then go back again and see the scene again from the Bridget Fonda character's POV. And then, for good measure, we're taken back again and see it from Robert DeNiro's POV.

    Of course, this wouldn't work with middle school students since the movie is R-rated, but with the college students, it helped get my point across that the same events can be described differently from different points of view.

  2. I am more comfortable with 3rd pov.

  3. Good point about the advantages of first person in THG. Thanks Dan.

    What about 3rd omniscient? I can't think of any examples of YA novels from this point of view. And 2nd person! I haven't read ANY novels from 2nd person. I had to look it up to see how that would even work. It seems a fascinating idea. I really want to read something from that viewpoint now.

    By the way, Krissi, I talk about voice and narration in my upcoming review of Watercrossing and how you use each to accomplish really cool things! Be on the watch for it next week! 🙂

  4. I'm reading The Hunger Games right now, which is written in first person and in present tense. If it were done in any variation of third person, it would just be a story about fighting to the death for others' entertainment. But since it's written in that stream-of-consciousness 1st person manner, it puts you as the reader into that horrible situation. It becomes more than just a story; it's an experience.

  5. Great post, Krissi. Could you give some popular YA novels that exemplify each POV?

    As a reader, I often enjoy 3rd person limited. It can be the best of both, the happy medium between 1st and 3rd omniscient. If I remember correctly, the Harry Potter novels are 3rd limited, but the narration focuses so heavily on Harry, it feels like 1st person. But it isn't Harry's voice, so it feels less self-centered.

  6. The thriller I wrote in 2005 was in third person limited. I stuck with four major POV characters, and I alternated one POV per section or chapter. One of those POV characters was the main antagonist, which I found to be advantageous. Readers could see his thought processes and motivations as he went around causing mayhem. Looking back, I've always thought that my strongest writing in that novel came when I was writing from the point of view of the 13-year-old daughter of the main protagonist. I don't know why it took me so long to put two and two together and try writing a Young Adult novel, but that's what I'm doing now.

    This new project will be written in first person as journal entries. While I never had a question about doing it in first person, I debated on whether I should write it as a person looking back on the whole range of events (and could therefore drop hints of foreshadowing, etc.) or whether to do it as semi-weekly journal entries where the hero doesn't know what will happen after the current chapter. I decided on the journal format for several reasons. The events of the story are on such a massive, global scale that I felt I needed to tell it from the point of view of one character as things happen before the whole thing just got too big.

    • Sounds like you have a good plan!! I like how you approach your POV choice intentionally – journal entries sound like fun. 🙂 Good luck with it and thanks for sharing your thoughts!!

  7. I had the exact opposite experience, Krissi. I was always a 3rd person POV gal. Then, BAM shiny new idea. Insists on being 1st person. On top of that, I always wrote in past tense and the new story is insisting on present. Why me?

    • I have yet to tackle present tense – good luck to you!!! Haha. But I love that you're challenging yourself to do something different too — maybe you could share some of your best 3rd person POV tips with me?? 🙂

    • Yes, present tense scares the heck out of me, but it is, what it is. Hmm…best tips for 3rd person POV…make sure they have very different voices. 😀

  8. I actually feel comfortable writing in both 1st and 3rd. Choosing one or the other depends on what I want to do with the story and the characters, like whether I want to tell the story or let the characters do it.

    • I like how you put that… you tell the story or the characters do… Hmmm. I've started picking up books off my shelf in 3rd person to refresh myself on the best ways to write it…

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