For Beginners: How to Choose a Point of View

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by Kat Stiles

Point of View (POV) is one of the most important aspects to consider when writing a novel. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read a book and wished the author had chosen a different POV. Yet so many newer authors I’ve spoken with hardly give it a second thought. One of them even gave me a deer-in-the-headlights look. It was that look that prompted this article – a simple exploration of POV, from an author who rewrote an entire novel to get it in the correct POV.

There are two main types of POVs in most fiction: first person and third person. First person is told as if you yourself were the main character – “I murdered the helpless gnat.” Third person is with the character’s name or pronoun used – “Brad fell hopelessly in love with the toaster.” Easy enough right? Here’s where it gets complicated.

POV violations

The first time I read about POV violations from one of my fancy writing books, I panicked. What do you mean I can’t write the thoughts of every single character? Yes, my readers ARE dying to know what the nameless janitor on page 62 thinks about teenagers littering in the hallways! Just who makes up these silly rules anyway? I never did find the answer to that last question (I suspect a writing deity of some sort), but I did come to the realization that the writing is stronger without hearing everyone’s thoughts.

Regardless of POV, where thoughts are concerned, you can only reveal those of the main character. There’s always a main protagonist – even in third person – that one character you’re supposed to bond with and root for. This is the most common type of violation, seeing the thoughts of the love interest, for example. Adhering to this rule inherently makes writing more difficult. You have to come up with gestures, subtle motions, or dialogue to express thoughts, but this is where the writing gets refined. Don’t assume your readers need everything spelled out for them – a little non-verbal goes a long way to convey feelings.

Switching POVs

I think one of the more inexcusable offenses is switching POVs, especially if it’s only done once. I recently read a book that did this for a single chapter towards the end. It was told through the heroine’s perspective until she got kidnapped, then it switched to the love interest, only to go back to the heroine for the final showdown. What disappointed me was that nothing in the chapter with the love interest’s perspective was critical for the story to proceed. Of course there are situations when it’s warranted to switch POV. A very popular YA series switched perspective in the last chapters of the series, but the author had an excellent reason – the protagonist died.

Lately, I’ve been coming across a lot of indie fiction (particularly fantasy) which switches perspective back and forth, within chapters and sometimes within scenes as well. Even when it’s broken up into logical sections, this generally isn’t a good idea, for two reasons: It makes it confusing to the reader whose head she’s in, and it muddles who the protagonist really is. If the reader isn’t clear on who to root for, she may lose interest in the story.

What to choose?

So, which POV should you choose? In my other life as a database administrator, nine times out of ten the answer to an SQL question is, “it depends.” I think that’s the case here as well. First person is a wonderful way to have the reader develop a strong bond with the protagonist. But it’s also the most restrictive. If you need to show key scenes without the protagonist, third person is a better choice. It’s naturally more distant, but you can access a larger scope than with first person.

Certain genres lend themselves to particular points of view, like fantasy needing third person because there’s just so much going on, or romance in first person, to get the reader as close to the warm and fuzzy feelings as possible. If your manuscript could go either way, then write a chapter in both POVs and read them both aloud. One is bound to feel more right than the other.

Kat Stiles is the author of the insanely popular and totally fun YA Paranormal Romance novel, Connected. She lives a dual life as a database administrator/writer in sunny Texas with her husband, two children, and a ridiculous number of pets. You can learn more about Kat on her website and her Author Central page.

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18 thoughts on “For Beginners: How to Choose a Point of View”

  1. POV is one of the most difficult aspects of writing to wrap our heads around. I’ve written in both multiple third person and in first person. As you say “it depends”. The bottom line for me is always that it must be clear to the reader who’s head we are in. Personally I try not to switch in the middle of any given scene to avoid that confusion.

    Thanks for a great post on an important topic.

  2. Good reminder. I’m third person all the way. Never could get on with first person – I found it too difficult to inhabit a fictional character if I kept referring to ‘my’ actions!
    And then of course there’s second person. Rare, but it can happen – Mohsin Hamid is one of the best exponents of this weird POV. Not to be recommended, but interesting to read just to see how it’s done!

    1. Thanks for your comments. I agree, second person is very strange. I’m actually writing a story in it, and I find myself switching to first inadvertently!

  3. I think it’s critical to add that Third Person is usually a choice between Third Limited (which is what Kat described, and is — for good reason — the most popular POV in use today) and Third Omniscient.

    Kat alluded to Third Omniscient when she said beginning writers often feel the need to tell us what every character is thinking or feeling. That head hopping, BTW, isn’t truly Third Omniscient. The key thing to remember about Omniscient is you’re never in any character’s pov — you’re always in the narrator’s pov.

    Both First Person and Third Limited are told from a character’s pov, and that brings us closer to them.

    1. Thanks for the clarification. Unfortunately, I rarely see it done correctly – sticking to the narrator. When it is done right, it can be spectacular.

  4. I’m with you all the way on this, Kat. My approach has always been, “If you don’t think POV matters, then you don’t know enough about it.”
    The important point that I always consider is emotional involvement. The moment you switch to someone else’s POV, the reader loses just a tiny bit of attachment with the MC. In a Romance, this is okay, because perhaps we want to feel the emotions of both characters. But even there, a balanced POV doesn’t allow the reader to immerse in the feelings of one person.
    Bottom line: if you’re looking at a problem from two different directions, you cannot become completely immersed in it.
    And shame on you! That poor, helpless, gnat!

    1. Thanks for your comments, Gordon. I agree, the bond is diminished when switching. As far as the gnats go, I have no regrets. We’re all serial killers of something. 🙂

  5. POV is definitely important to consider when writing your book. I started a book in first person once, then realized third person worked better and rewrote. I’ve also done the reverse.

    As long as the POV is well thought out, I think it will work.

    I do take issue with your contention that alternating POVs is generally a bad idea. First, I think it depends on the genre and the story. Some genres regularly alternate POV (romance, for example), with female MC (main character) getting a chapter, followed by the male MC. Other times, alternating POVs is just the best way to tell a story. I’m talking about very clearly delineated changes, though. Headhopping–where you alternate POVs from sentence to sentence or paragraph to paragraph–is almost always a bad idea. It’s very confusing for the reader. Though, there is something called an omnipotent POV, which would allow an author to do that. Only, it’s very rarely done.

    1. RJ, I’ve read a few romances that do that – I know it helps the reader grow close to both characters and I can see why some authors do it, but it always feels like a cheat to me. As you mentioned, though, nothing is one size fits all, and I’m sure there are stories better told in this fashion.

  6. As the author of a novel you are God. You can make people do whatever you want. You can read everyone’s thoughts, make outrageous assumptions, create mayhem and the most tender emotions. You can travel beyond what current physics tells us is possible and even murder a microbe with impunity – provided you make it all hang together and deliver it from a stance your reader can identify with and relate to. A lot of that depends on your use of POV, the novelist’s most dangerous minefield.
    It’s the same writing narrative non-fiction, but in this case one has a certain obligation to stick to the facts and only illustrate, not embellish, and using other POVs than first person requires some justification and supportive evidence.
    An interesting and tricky topic. Good post. 🙂

    1. Thank you! Great comment and the narrative non-fiction – I’ve never explored that genre, so it’s interesting to learn the considerations with it. I love being able to bend the rules with the storyline, that’s so much fun!

  7. What I have noticed over the years is that whilst we writers tut over switching POVs – head hopping – most readers don’t seem to notice or actually like to have his and her thoughts during the argument or whatever.

    Perhaps this is a ‘If it adds to the scene let it be’ rules!

    1. I think most authors notice, and we are the greatest readers ever! 😉 I get your point though, some readers won’t notice, but I think it’s still important to give POV careful consideration, to make it the best book you can. Even if it does make it four times harder to write in the process.

  8. This is a clear, concise introduction to point of view and why it isn’t a good idea to go “head-hopping.” Thank you, Kat! The question I always ask myself is “Whose story is this?” because that generally should be the POV character. The others are simply observers.

    By the way, are you the Kat Stiles who won my LEGO Frankenstein Rocker in the YA Scavenger Hunt? If so, I hope he’s behaving himself!

    1. Lyn – yes, that’s the perfect question to ask. It helps to keep it all in the right perspective from the start. Thanks for your comments.

      And yes, I am the winner of the Lego figure! I’ve since acquired a few more, so Frankie is regularly exchanging heads and torsos with a cat lady and mad scientist. If he’s not having fun, he hasn’t said anything to me. 🙂

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