Point of view is a tricky thing. It’s simultaneously a small-picture issue that involves every word an author writes, and yet it shows up only when you view paragraphs, pages, or even chapters as a whole. This makes it easy to make minor slips and makes it hard to master point of view without writing years and years’ worth of books.
There are a lot of really good writers out there who don’t think in terms of grammar and plot structure. They have an instinctive gift for storytelling that allows them to draw readers in and create a plot that anyone would have a hard time putting down. I greatly admire these writers and thoroughly enjoy reading their books. But despite the incredible power of instinct and creativity, there also is a lot of power in the annoying structural details. These technical rules and patterns can do a lot to make a story understandable and believable.
Every scene, every line, every word is from a point of view. This is how you draw your readers in and make them connect emotionally with the story. Real life tends to happen from inside your own head at all times, which can get super boring. But books need to be able to balance the escape of being inside someone else’s head with the power of diving all the way into a moment and feeling what your characters are feeling. That’s what makes books so much cooler than movies. Readers like to be shown the world through the characters’ eyes. It makes them emotionally connected to the story, and emotion is really what fiction is all about.
The Types of Point of View
You probably know about first person, second person, and third person points of view, but I’m going to spend a little time on the basics here and leave some of the more advanced aspects for a different post.
In the fiction world, second person is basically irrelevant, so I’ll ignore that one.
First person is your “I am telling the story” POV.
As I was putting the milk onto the conveyor belt, the blonde cashier smiled at me. She had the cutest dimples, and I got so flustered that I dropped the milk. Of course the milk hit a metal corner on its way to the floor and burst everywhere, including all over me. I wanted to melt into the puddle and never come out.
First person POV tends to be more common in YA books than in the other age groups. It lends itself well to toward inner dialogue and YA books are often about big life decisions and discovering who you are. It also is relatable for teenagers.
First person makes it easy to find your narrator’s voice because the narrator, or the person telling the story, is the same as the main character. But it also is easy for the narrator (your main character) to come across as whiny. In first person books it can be hard to show a character going through something deeply emotional without getting stuck in never-ending, woe-is-me inner monologues. It also is hard to switch POV characters because it’s harder for your readers to remember who “I” is.
I recommend first person for stories with strong main characters, particularly sassy or funny ones (like the Percy Jackson series), or for people writing coming-of-age stories. I don’t recommend it for Lord of the Rings–style epic fantasy.
Third person is the most common and also the most flexible POV. This is where you use names and the pronouns “he,” “she,” and “they.”
Oliver went to the store and bought some milk. He handed his cash to the lady at the register, who winked at him with a dimply smile, and turned to leave.
While most people split third person POV into two categories (omniscient and limited), I’ve found that there really is more of a spectrum.
An omniscient POV can be anything from Lemony Snicket’s interactive narration to a distant, almost movie-like narration style (like Lord of the Rings). A long time ago, stories tended to be written in omniscient third person point of view, sometimes with a narrator and sometimes without. There’s nothing wrong with this style, but it is rare in modern-day writing, and most new authors who try to write omniscient style usually end up with a jarring head-hopping style instead. If you want to write a real omniscient POV, you’ll want to practice flowing naturally from each character’s head, picking your details very carefully, and providing someone or something for your readers to focus on so they don’t get overwhelmed.
Limited POVs can span just as big of a range as omniscient POV styles can. A limited POV style can be right inside the POV character’s head—very much like a first person POV—or it can follow the POV character like a shadow, seeing what they see without thinking what they think. As a vastly simplified generality, modern books tend to be written from a limited third person point of view. They stay close to one or a few main characters and have clear divides between one character’s POV and the next, usually thanks to scene or chapter breaks. This style is familiar to both readers and editors, which might sound boring, but familiar is a good thing if you’re trying to connect to new people. Third person limited style is sort of like a neutral common ground. It also happens to be my personal favorite, so there is admittedly a little bit of bias there.
Choosing Your Point of View
Any of these types of POV can be used to write a beautiful story. But, when you choose a POV for your book, you are creating a framework for yourself that will guide which parts of your story need to be shown. Your POV choice will also have a huge effect on the tone and voice of your book
Hopefully this post pointed out something that drew you to one style or another. If not, it’s probably time to try writing in a couple different styles and see which one flows the most naturally for you. Your personal instinct, though not infallible, is an awesome tool in the art of writing.
Go forth and write! And best of luck finding the perfect POV for your book.
About my Coauthor:
Ashlin Awerkamp is a student at Brigham Young University studying editing and publishing. She knew she had chosen the right career when she found a page from her diary showing her using professional editing marks at age ten. When she’s not editing, she’s reading (fantasy is her favorite) or even dabbling in writing books herself. In her free time (which she hopes to have more of after she graduates in April), she enjoys crocheting, cooking, watching movies, and playing lots of games with her husband.