Mastering Point of View: An In-depth Guide To Better Writing

Updated April 19, 2021 by Iulian Ionescu | Read Time min.

Becoming a master of using point of view is one thing that any writer should focus on from the start. It’s not the easiest concept to grasp, but it’s not rocket science either. However, if you disregard it, you could create some serious reader confusion. And a confused reader is a lost reader. By taking the time to understand and choose wisely the point of view for your story, you will not only create stronger stories, but you will accomplish your number one goal as a writer: get readers to love your characters and their adventures.

What Is Point of View?

So, what is Point of View (aka POV or viewpoint)?

The proper definition is, “The narrator’s position in relation to the story being told.” Basically, it’s who’s telling the story. And that doesn’t mean just purely who is telling it, but how they tell it, what feelings they bring into it, and how they interpret it.

It’s easy to understand if you think about having two friends who constantly call you and bicker about some common situations. When Frank tells you the story, it’s Frank’s point of view. When Mary tells you her version, it’s Mary’s point of view. You also have your own point of view about it based on your knowledge of them.

Later, when you read in the newspaper about how Frank and Mary flew up in an inflatable balloon and were never seen again, it’s a completely different point of view. None of these represent a different reality. The reality is what actually happened. The point of view is how the narrator interprets the events at hand, given his or her own biases, knowledge of facts, emotional reactions, and external stimuli.

It’s the proverbial “many sides” to every story. The trick in fiction is how to use point of view to tell your story as a whole and not confuse the reader but grab them with a hook that keeps them engaged through to the end of your story.

When you work on creating and developing your characters, you do so in a vacuum. You create them as they should be in the context of your story. The way you present these characters and their action to your readers can differ depending on the type of point of view you use in your story. Let’s look at each option you have and how they affect your readers’ way of perceiving your characters.

First Person Point of View

first person point of viewYou recognize a first-person POV story when you see the words “I” or “me.” The story feels like somebody is telling it as if they were talking directly to you and narrating what is happening or has happened to them.

Here’s an example of a paragraph from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.”

As you can see, as a reader, you are “inside” the narrator’s head. You are one with their eyes, ears, mouth, and all of their senses. You know everything that they know and nothing more. This allows for a potent bond between the reader and the character.

In the first person, the reader lives and breathes in the character’s shoes, so their connection is profound. Therefore, this type of point allows for very powerful emotional rapport, as the reader feels everything the character feels and will soon care profoundly about what happens to them.

There are some things to be aware of when writing in the first person: First of all, the character cannot know things they would not otherwise know. Slipping in the information they shouldn’t have will break the point of view and break the reader’s trust. This is a limitation of the first-person POV. You cannot tell the reader what the first-person character doesn’t know.

First Person Details

The reverse of that is also true. If your main character is the murderer, then he knows that he is the murderer. You cannot hide that from the reader because the reader is one with your character, so everything he knows, the reader knows. So, most likely, a murder-mystery novel written from the point of view of the murderer will not really be a mystery. The ploy would have to exist somewhere else—perhaps in how the detective figures it out. But you cannot hide what the character knows.

On the other hand, the character should not think about things they already know only because you need a shortcut to communicate them to the reader. This is the equivalent of “As you know, Bob,” in a dialog. Make sure that your character’s thoughts are justified and not simply used for info-dumping.

With this in mind, I really like the first-person point of view stories. When they are written in the present tense, an emergency about them makes them very compelling and really good for action-packed tales. But they don’t have to be action-packed. For example, one of my favorite first-person POV books is The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

Second-Person POV

The second-person point of view is rare, and honestly, not very interesting even when done really well. In the second person, the narrator is speaking to you, the reader. Here’s an example so that you can see what I mean. This is from Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney.

“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.”

Second-person, as you can see, uses the “you” pronoun to address, well, you directly. The book quoted above is one of the better ones written in the second person.

Frankly, I can’t say that I’ve read too many stories written in second-person that I really liked. Maybe a couple of cute short stories, but it gets to be a little contrived and quite annoying in anything beyond that.

Third Person POV (Limited)

third person POVThis one is definitely the preferred POV and the most popular in commercial fiction. This has the “he/she/they” addressing style where the narrator explains what somebody did or is doing.

This POV style is a little less emotionally connected than the first person. That’s because there is an independent narrator that tells us the story. Here’s an example from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

Third-Person Limited Details

As you can see, it is pretty clear that somebody is telling us the story or narrating it for us. This is why, as a reader of a third-person book, you do feel like there’s somebody else between you and the character, as if someone is filtering the story for you. You don’t get the same bond with your character as when the writing is in the first person.

But the third-person POV has its advantages. Remember how there was a bit of an issue in the first person with the character narrating things they already know? It was info-dumpy for the reader. With the third person, that is okay. Why? Because you have a narrator who is explaining the story to the reader.

Of course, info-dumping has to be done cautiously, but you can get away with a lot more in the third person.

Third Person POV (Omniscient)

omniscientThe third-person omniscient point of view is present when the narrator knows everything. Imagine that you read a book, and then you are tasked to tell the story to a group of people. You know everything. It’s clear who the murderer is, and you know what each character said or thought. You know it all.

A good example of third-person omniscient is George Elliott’s Middlemarch.

“Shall you wear them in company?” said Celia, who was watching her with real curiosity as to what she would do.

Dorothea glanced quickly at her sister. […] “Perhaps,” she said, rather haughtily. “I cannot tell to what level I may sink.”

Celia blushed, and was unhappy: she saw that she had offended her sister, and dared not say even anything pretty about the gift of the ornaments which she put back into the box and carried away. Dorothea too was unhappy […] questioning the purity of her own feeling and speech in the scene which had ended with that little explosion.”

Third Person Omniscient Details

It’s pretty clear that the narrator is aware of all details and can tell us what every character thinks, feels, or does at any point in the story. That presents some pros because you don’t have to use any tricks to communicate the information to the reader. If you establish the POV early enough, you can simply tell the reader.

The issue, though, is that the writing might appear slightly removed. It will be harder to connect with the reader and allow them to immerse themselves in one character or the other because of the constant hopping. I’m saying it’s harder, but not impossible.

Managing Point of View

Typically, when you start your story from one point of view, you will write the entire story from that perspective. However, this doesn’t mean that the point of view is stuck to any one character for good.

First-person and second-person POVs are special, though. In the first person, your main character will be the narrator. Most likely, the entire story will be from his or her perspective. Don’t get me wrong; there are some excellent books written with multiple first-person points of view. Personally, I don’t particularly enjoy them, but give them a shot to see how they read.

The third person gives you the most freedom. Because you are narrating the story from one character’s perspective, you do have the choice to “jump” from one character’s head into the other’s, but this has to be done with a lot of care. The reader will make an assumption—they are in character A’s head. If you move to character B, you should make it very clear; otherwise, the reader will be perplexed.

Playing With The Point of View

In George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, he uses a very clever technique. Each chapter’s name is the character’s name. In that chapter, the point of view is of that character. He doesn’t change it throughout the entire chapter. This gives the reader the ability to get a part of the story from that character’s POV before moving to the next. This technique allows the writer to build a complex story through different characters’ minds but in tiny, consistent blocks. If he were to mix the thoughts of many characters in the chapter, it would be challenging to communicate the story and almost impossible for the reader to bond with any character.

One sort of rule you could make for yourself is to keep a constant POV in each scene. Because the scene is the most basic fiction unit, and readers are savvy enough to understand that, keeping the POV constant throughout the scene is a good idea. Think of it as a series of movie scenes separated by beats.

Point of View Can Be Tricky

The omniscient POV is also tricky. Because you, the writer, the narrator, are like God, observing your world from the top, there is an extreme tendency to describe everything, tell everything, disclose everything. Resist that urge, or the story will feel info-dumpy and the characters disconnected.

If you want to read a well-done omniscient narration, read The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Even though most of the story, technically, comes from a book written by Bilbo and Frodo (the Red Book of Westmarch), Tolkien chose not to use their points of view in the story. Instead, he uses a neutral, omniscient view, which gives him a lot more possibilities and doesn’t limit the tone of the book to Bilbo or Frodo’s viewpoints. Tolkien is a master of this, and you should definitely study his writing.

At the end of the day, as with everything in fiction writing, don’t try to be too cute or force the point of view to prove a point. As described below, you can practice point of view, but when it comes to stories that you’d like to be in some reader’s hands one day, stick with one POV per story and make it the one that works best.

Changing the point of view and the tense of a story will make it sound like a completely different narrative. It will take time to establish the experience you need to know ahead of time which combo works best. In the meantime, keep working on it!

Practicing Point of View

Most writers will gravitate naturally toward one type of point of view or the other. I’d advise you to try them all at some point. Experiment. Here’s an exercise I like to do:

Hop on Google and search for “writing prompts.” Find one prompt that seems interesting to you and write the scene from the point of view that seems most natural to you at the moment. Then, flip to a different point of view. Write your story from all four points of view and then compare them. How does one stack against the other? How does one make you feel versus the other? Maybe ask somebody in your writing group to read them and give you feedback.

In the end, you will write from the point of view that makes the most sense for the story and that you are most comfortable with. But experimenting and trying out different points of view will broaden your horizon and open new possibilities for your writing.

I will leave you with this chart that gives you an idea of deciding between the first-person and third-person. I don’t know who made this, so I can’t give the credit. If you know, let me know so I can properly link it… By all means, this is not a rule but just a guideline.

point of view selection

Other POV Resources

Now, before you go, I have…

3 Questions For You

  1. What is your favorite point of view?
  2. Do you struggle with any of the types of points of view described?
  3. What is your favorite book that employs a rather unusual point of view?

Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!

iulian-ionescu


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