Amateur Writing Tips: POV (Point of View)

Plots and characters are undoubtedly important things to consider when writing a novel. I would argue, however, that POV is even more crucial. This is because if you screw up the POV, no one will even think about reading your book, regardless of how great the plot or characters are.

I’ll prove my point. Read the following paragraph:

You walk toward me, hips swaying as your silky black stilettos clack on the marble tiles. Bradley sits casually at the bar, considering what to say to the beautiful woman approaching him. She’s way too good for him, thinks the bartender. I eat up the luscious man lounging at the bar with my eyes. “What can I get you?” asks the bartender.

Has your brain exploded yet? That’s because of all the shifting POVs. For the record, the POVs in that paragraph went as follows: second-person → third-person → first-person → third-person. Ack, I say. Ack.

But there is a solution! I like to call it the “Know your POVs so you don’t explode your reader’s brain” solution. It’s my understanding that brain-explosion is frowned upon, so you might want to avoid doing that if at all possible.

Without any further ado …

Michelle’s Guide to POV

First Person

For first-person narration, you essentially write the story from the perspective of one of your characters. One of the best examples of this POV is in the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. The story is told from Katniss’ POV, meaning we only get her perspective. If something happens that she doesn’t know about, we don’t know about it either. First-person limits you to what a single character is experiencing, but it also allows you to delve deep into the mind of your protagonist, which can be a very powerful addition to your story.

Example:

I don’t know why, but there’s something about him that enthrals me. Maybe it’s his smooth skin and his tousled ebony hair. Maybe it’s the way he says my name, like smooth bourbon sliding over my lips. Maybe it’s because he’s a vampire who has literally enthralled me with his sinister vampiric powers. Whatever the reason, I know that I must have him. Right now. On the dirty concrete floor if necessary. Although a bed would be preferable. Pillows are probably more comfortable than concrete.

Second Person

Second-person narration is where you write like you’re talking to the reader–sort of like what I’m doing right now. You find second-person a lot in those Choose Your Own Adventure books, although Wikipedia claims that there are multiple famous authors who have used this POV. Clearly I need to read more, because I’ve only heard of one of those people. Anyway, second-person isn’t used very much in books, so you probably shouldn’t use it either. Unless you want to. In which case, go nuts. Just don’t expect me to read it.

Example:

You watch the wave flow gently up the beach. The cool water laps at your toes, making you shriek with delight and jump back. Then the wave retreats, and you scurry forward again, wondering how far you can get down the wet sand before the water returns to claim you. But you misjudged, and the wave rushes toward you, covering you up to your thighs. Your pants dissolve, and you are suddenly standing on the beach wearing nothing but your underwear. You probably shouldn’t have worn cotton candy pants to the beach, no matter how trendy the salesperson said they were.

Third Person

Third-person is the most common POV style. It’s told from an outside perspective, and all the characters are referred to by their name, or by “he”, “she”, or “it”. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series is written in third person, as is the Game of Thrones series by George RR Martin.

The two big types of third-person POV are third-person limited and third-person omniscient. Third-person limited is from the perspective of one character; the third-person omniscient narrator knows all and sees all.

Example:

Harmony bowed to the crowd, who applauded madly. Then she began the dance. First she twirled, then she flipped, then she did an acrobatic spin that nearly spun her right off the stage. The roaring of the crowd grew louder. Encouraged by their support, Harmony gathered her nerves for the final act. Balancing on her tail, Harmony built up the fire in her lungs and then let it shoot forth from her mouth in a multi-coloured inferno of flame and heat. But she overshot the target dummy. The flames splashed onto the flammable tent walls, igniting the fabric and inciting mass panic in the crowd. “Please, don’t panic!” Harmony pleaded, trying desperately to put the flames out. “I’ll fix it! Don’t leave!” But no one understood her, because Harmony was a dragon, and dragons can’t speak English.

There are pros and cons to each of these. I personally prefer third-person limited, because restricting the POV to one character leaves you room to do big reveals–e.g. that Harmony is a dragon. However, third-person omniscient lets you get into all the character’s heads, which can be great–except that if you reveal what everyone is thinking, it kind of takes away some of the mystery.

First-person is more like writing a diary, in that everything–descriptions of places, characters, interpretations of events–is from that character’s POV. I’m actually writing a book right now in first-person, the first time I’ve attempted this POV, and it’s going pretty well. I like being able to get into my character’s head and see the world through her eyes, but it also prevents me from showing the reader what the other characters are going through, which can be restrictive at times.

But as always with writing, the choice is ultimately up to you.

What do you think?

What’s the best POV? What POV are you writing in right now? Are there certain POVs that work better with different styles of writing? Is there any POV you hate?

Image cred: http://siennanorth.blogspot.ca/2012/05/point-of-view-demystified.html

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56 thoughts on “Amateur Writing Tips: POV (Point of View)

  1. I find it hard to do serious first person. I’ve been writing on and off a first-person story about a pirate who is essentially insane, and I’ve found it easier to write than, say, first person from a soldier. Just because it’s more fun! Lol.

    • Haha that sounds like an awesome story. Yeah, I think the problem with first-person is that to accurately portray that character, you kind of have to become them, at least in order to understand what they’re thinking. And how am I ever going to get in the head of a soldier when the most warlike thing I’ve ever done is get shot repeatedly in paintball?

  2. Candace Knoebel

    I definitely like first-person the best. That’s what I’ve used in my trilogy. It is a bit more challenging, but that’s what I like about it. You are forced to use your imagination and wit in order to get the point of the other characters across without stepping outside of what your character actually knows.

    • I never really considered first-person until I read the Hunger Games. I think it’s because most of the first-person stories I’d read before that were always in a diary style, and I don’t like that genre. But Hunger Games was so fantastic that I felt like I had to give it a go. And you’re right, it’s more challenging, but definitely in a good way!

      • Candace Knoebel

        I agree 100%! Hunger Games was an absolutely well written first-person point of view. I love the closeness you get with the character. You almost feel like you are them while lost in the story. 🙂

      • My favourite comparison is between Robin Hobb’s Assassin series (1st POV) and the Liveship Trader series (3rd POV). I sorely missed the intimacy that the former series delivered when I moved onto the latter, but I fully understand Hobb’s reasons for utilising the wider scope of 3rd person. However, the Assassin series left an indellible mark on my muse…thus my complete rewrite (see below).

  3. I completed my first novel late last year and have been trying to sell it ever since. It was conceived and written in 3rd person limited POV. However, during one of my big re-writes I wondered if it would feel better written in 1st person POV. I re-wrote the first chapter as an experiment and the whole tale sprang into life before me. The main character is uncertain, feels threatened and at times confused. This all became much more apparent in 1st person.

    So I rewrote the entire novel (not a simple matter of converting ‘she’ to ‘I’ and ‘her’ to ‘my’for anyone that attempts this too) and am thrilled that the story has gained another dimension.

    As you said, several aspects are lost doing this. The story can become ‘blinkered’ as the character’s focus narrows drastically. Other character’s feelings and motives can now only be guessed at and we can be 98% certain that our 1st person POV character will survive the experience – unless we are reading a ghost story.

    But to balance this, the protagonist’s emotions are intensified, as is any pain that is levied at her. Her motivations become transparent, even if the reader may not necessarily agree with them.

    You’ll have noticed that my character is female. I am not. So one of the most difficult aspects of this project has been trying to create a convincing female point of view. From the feedback I’ve received from my friendly readers, it’s turned out well.

    • Kudos for rewriting your entire book! I think I had someone suggest to me once that I try changing my novel to first-person, and I was like … um, do you have any idea how much work that would entail? But if a POV change makes the story better, well, we authors must do what we must 🙂

      Did you have to change the plot very much to deal with the POV switch?

      • I had to re-map two key scenes that took place when the protagonist and her ‘romantic interest’ became separated. The scenes had originally alternated between the two characters to cover simultaneous events. Luckily, as this was a supernatural novel, I was able to use an off-the-wall solution – that of one character being inside the head of another. Tricky – but an enjoyable challenge! 😀

  4. Interesting point! Especially if the first-person story is in present tense, then every little detail should be included. I guess first-person requires a little suspension of disbelief on the reader’s part 🙂

  5. Lol. Upload a picture of yourself. That should do the trick.

  6. Remember that a character can think about many aspects of their life without voicing those thoughts or revealing them to anyone but the reader. The character is, naturally, unaware of the reader and therefore has no fear about ‘revealing’ anything.
    “Look at the blood on that wall,” John muttered. “Looks like there’s been a massacre.”
    I nodded mutely as I pretended to appear shocked. If only he knew, I mused. He stood there, blissfully unaware that I was the one who’d swung the knife and decorated that brickwork with someone’s life…

    • Very true. That’s why Hollywood has trouble turning books into movies – even though the Hunger Games was great, we don’t get an insight into Katniss’ mind like we do in the book, so an important piece of the story is lost.

  7. There’s also past and present tense to contend with. I noticed that “The Hunger Games” was present tense, which is much less common than past tense. “Twilight” was also first person, but I think it was past tense. (Is it just me, or is first person popular for YA novels now?)

    I like playing with multiple characters a la Harry Turtledove, but I got called out on switching POVs too much in creative writing class, so I’ve been careful ever since then. My trilogy is told from third person limited, past tense. When I need to go to another character (because my MC isn’t around to see what’s happening), I either have a completely new chapter, or I make a new section (i.e. I skip down a line, so it’s clear there’s a break).

    Romance novels seem especially bad about switching back and forth between characters without making clear breaks. If you’re lucky, characters won’t share a paragraph.

    • Ha, you’re so right about romance novels. I get so confused reading them. Like, “Wait, she just stuck her what where? Oh no, wait, it’s from the guy’s POV now. That makes more sense…”

      I like POV hopping — but like you said, there has to be a clear delineation. Unless you’re writing in third person omniscient, but I never condone that tense unless there is no other choice.

      • “”Wait, she just stuck her what where?””

        o.O

        ROFL. Well, you never know there are these things….

        …Shut up, Keri.

  8. In general, I’ve hated first person. Then I read The P.U.R.E and thought it was brilliant. I’m giving it a try now. I have to admit, I am enjoying it. Don’t know it I’m doing a good job, though.

    • That’s how it always is, isn’t it? You think you hate something, until you see/read something that completely changes your mind. I can’t remember if I said it in the post or not, but my “Oh wait, first person is awesome” moment came when I read the Hunger Games.

      And I’m sure you’re doing a good job 🙂 Just remember to stay in character, lol.

      • Actually, I am finding it refreshingly easy. I don’t have the temptation to switch POVs to let the reader know what’s going on, becaue I can’t.

        It makes it easier to keep little secrets if you only know what the MC is thinking.

  9. What do you think? — I think POV is a challenge, especially for novice writers. Though I’ve been writing for many years now, I occasionally find myself slipping through the cracks of POV and losing track; it’s quite easy to do once you immerse yourself into the story.

    What’s the best POV? — Whichever one works best for telling the tale that you’re offering readers. Sometimes it’s first-person; others it’s third-person limited, etc.

    What POV are you writing in right now? — As usual, third-person limited or third-person omniscient. It really depends on what details should be shared, and how often such details need be offered as a reminder.

    Are there certain POVs that work better with different styles of writing? — I will purposely skip this one.

    Is there any POV you hate? — First-person, anything. The only reasons I feel a need to write in first-person are to update a personal journal, or write a note or letter to someone. Second-person stories come in a close second.

    You have such a way with asking questions, offering advice, and phrasing your thoughts in general… that you’re able to make even a tired brain think.

    I enjoyed all of the words of wisdom shared on this page, including those in the comments. As always, thank you for sharing.

  10. I love first-person narrative. My trilogy in four volumes is entirely in first-person, but there are five different narrators. First-person is the best way to make a character vivid and memorable. The downside, of course, is that you can’t present anyone else’s pov, except through rather awkward devices such as letters, diaries and mind-melds. (I have used all of these).

    • Hahaha I love how you call them “awkward” devices, and then explain how you’ve used all of them. I guess you have to try out everything to see what works and what doesn’t 🙂 I’m slowly becoming a fan of first-person, but I’m so used to reading third-person epic fantasies that it’s hard for me to make the switch.

  11. Oh my gosh, yes! POV is so important. In my writing classes in college, that was often one of my biggest critiques–know your POVs, and for goodness sake, stay in one! You wouldn’t think it is so hard to stick to one of the above, but apparently it is.
    It would have to add, though, that TENSE is also important, and as easily messed up as POV, if not more so. It may not have quite as big of an impact as POV, but it is important to decide on before you write–it can give a different over-all tone to your novel. I mean, writing about things as they happen or after they’ve happened must do something, right? And you definitely notice if they change halfway through!
    Either way, this is a very good thing to point out. ^^

  12. secondchancesnovel

    I really like this post. I’ve been thinking a lot about POV lately. I have only attempted to write in third person limited (although I think I slipped into omniscient a few times) eg. little did she know that … (to keep the suspense). Having read this post, I may try writing first person sometime, just for fun.

    I find first person a lot easier to read when it is someone recalling something in a diary – I like the way John Marsden did this in his Tomorrow series. Otherwise the past/present tense can get a bit confused.

    I agree with the comments about romance novels – I read one recently where there were around 10 viewpoint characters. At least there were section breaks when there was a change. The problem though is that you don’t get to know any of the characters as intimately as you do when there is only one or two viewpoint characters.

    All the best with your writing,
    Alison

    • Thanks 🙂

      I think when you have viewpoints from lots of characters, the only way you can really get to know them all is if you pull a George RR Martin and write thousands of pages. Of course, that requires writing thousands of pages, which is a fairly difficult task to pull off, lol.

      • That’s so true! I love first person narrator, but if you want to present different points of view, sometimes you just have to write more books. The middle book of my Herbert West Trilogy had to be split into two (hefty) volumes for exactly that reason. That’s another advantage of ebooks, though — huge books don’t take up any more physical space than slender ones.

        • Excellent point! I’ve always felt that the first book in a series should be short, to hook the reader in with something fairly easy to digest, and then get longer and longer once you’ve acquired devoted fans. I’m basing this off of Harry Potter, which used that formula really well.

          • Don’t forget that HP1 was written in a much simpler style than subsequent books. This probably helped to draw in the younger readers. The maturity of the following books increased steadily as Harry aged (as did the books’ size!).

  13. Awesome! Bravo. Fantastic job on those examples. Thanks for dropping by and liking my blog at http://www.deborahowen.wordpress.com. Deborah Owen

  14. I like third person omniscient, but often get accused of head hopping. I say there is nothing wrong with head hopping to a certain degree as long as no one gets confused. To me, it is reading like the book is a tv set. Many readers don’t even notice that you even are head hopping. Just a few people are super is sensitive to it. Still, I want to know what’s going on in everybody’s head, so, mindful head hopping doesn’t phase me, and I’m not looking to take it out of my writing any time soon.

    • I’m a fan of head hopping, so long as I know when it’s happening. I always try to stick a scene break in whenever I switch to a different viewpoint. But hey, each to their own, right? 🙂

  15. My first novel, that I’m handing over to the copy editor tomorrow, is in first person. It is written as a memoir would be. I will be writing a novella in third person soon which I’m heavily excited about. They both have their place.

    • Well, first of all, congrats and good luck with the copy edit! And I totally agree with first person as a memoir. A memoir in third person would just be … odd. Y’know?

  16. I love writing in both 1st and 3rd person and more recently have been using 1st person quite a bit more. Another thing I have been playing with is shifting the pov to introduce different time periods in a non-linear story and I find this works – in fact it’s quite fun.

    • Oooh, that does sound fun! Did you start delving into 1st person because of the Hunger Games? Because that’s definitely what inspired me to switch POVs, lol.

  17. Thanks – very detailed and informative – you taught me a few things… and sounds like I need to add the Hunger G to my reading list.

    • Hunger Games is fantastic. You’ll definitely enjoy. And if you don’t want to commit to 10+ hours of reading, check out the movie first and see if you like the story concept 🙂

  18. I love it. Good article. I’m editing a book now where the author drops from 3rd limited to 3rd omniscient and back again. I gots to tell ‘im, “Cain’t do dat.” Thanks for liking Writing Tips at http://www.DeborahOwen.wordpress.com. Appreciate it.

    • Hahaha. I hope you actually tell him “u cain’t do dat bro”. I wonder what he’d say. 😀 I’m reading a book right now that switches from first person to third person. It’s very confusing, but I’m slowly getting used to it.

  19. There definitely seems to be a movement toward first-person POV, probably due to the success of recent novels like The Hunger Games. It’s not easy to do well, but it certainly is powerful. I hope your commenters will check out JH Mae’s guest blog about this: http://wp.me/p2IvJd-jH; and C.B. Wentworth also guest blogged a few weeks ago: http://wp.me/p2IvJd-gm. Both writers make good points–as do you, Michelle.

  20. Reblogged this on Time to Write and commented:
    Another really great post about Point of View

  21. 3rd guy here – mostly – not exclusively, just mostly. All-purpose. When in doubt. Though I’m oft in doubt. And never will finish a long work. But still – when I begin them, usually grab the 3rd. Like looking down. Or sneaking in. Eavesdropping. Gathering.Or maybe an omniscient 1st.

    • Omniscient first? That could be fun. But if it’s omniscient first, wouldn’t the narrator be God?

      • Hung up the phone. Pinched my nose, or my eyes, or not my eyes but the bridge, because it had been one murderous day. But my pain was nothing compared to the other party, the party I’d just hung up on. Yeah you shoulda seen the look on that face. I might’ve had a murderous day. That face wore horror. Think my pinching my bridge meant big things? Heh. In that studio apartment in that sleazy section, the person I’d hung up on, well they’d already grabbed the bourbon. Didn’t bother with rocks. Fuck rocks. Hands shaking like they shook? Nah. No rocks tonight baby. Straight up. So those hands shook and splashed the bourbon so it spilled on the tablecloth, tablecloth long ago departed the worlds where purity prevailed; gulped it down, meaning the mouth gulped it, and began to remember how we’d got all wrapped up in this intrigue in the first place. Me? I just calmed my nerves, or let time calm them. Lurched over to the armchair.

  22. Reblogged this on Today's Literature: My Thoughts and commented:
    Point of View is important, and this is a great entry about it!

  23. Pingback: exercise in omniscience | come to timmy

  24. Great article, important reminder. Cheers Michelle. 🙂

    • Thanks 🙂 I write these things more for myself than anyone else. That why I have less chance of buying a book written in bizarre/shifting POVs, and I have less of a need to scream and rip my hair out in frustration.

  25. Hats off to you! I have always admired novel writers. Guess I’m not cut out for that. BTW, thanks for visiting my blog. Much appreciated! 🙂

  26. Pingback: Abort mission? | The creamy custard filling of literature

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