BY: Carla Trueheart
In the planning stages of story writing, one element you want to consider is the POV, or point of view, of your writing project. The POV, in short, is defined by who is telling the story—what is their position in the story or their vantage point? If you’re new to POV, here is a quick breakdown:
First-person POV: Story is told from the “I” perspective
Second-person POV: Story is told from the “you” perspective
Third-person POV: Story is told from the “he or she” perspective
There are also different types of third-person narration, including third-person objective (distant witness, neutral narrator), third-person subjective/limited (stays with one character), and third-person omniscient (god-like narrator who knows all). There are a few points to consider when choosing a POV, including how close you’d like your reader to be to the protagonist, what you would like your reader to know or understand about the story, and how much factual information you’ll be providing them. In other words, if you choose a first-person narrator, your readers are limited to only what your protagonist knows and feels. Each POV has its own strengths and weaknesses, so let’s break them down.
First-person POV: If you choose this POV for your story, you’ll no doubt have a character with whom your reader can identify with and really know, as the reader will be seeing the world strictly through this narrator’s eyes and know every thought process. Your reader will be super close to this narrator, and in most cases, start to trust them (unless you’re working with an unreliable narrator or a narrator who suffers from delusions, etc.). In short, the strength of the first-person narrator is the closeness. On the flip side, the reader is restricted to only what the narrator tells them, or what the narrator knows from their experiences. An example of first-person POV in a popular novel is The Hunger Games, with Katniss Everdeen as the narrator. Readers experience everything with Katniss and know her well, forming a bond. But we cannot fully know Peeta, for example, because we are not aware of his thought processes or motives. We see Peeta only as Katniss sees him.
Second-person POV: This POV is rarely used. If you do see it in stories, it is often used in shorter works or just used experimentally. It can have a great impact on the story, as it puts the reader in the “you” position—that’s the strength of this POV. The weak point, however, is that it’s difficult to keep up this POV for any length of time, which is why it’s most often seen in snippets or short pieces, sometimes in poetry. Jennifer Egan uses second-person POV in one chapter of her Pulitzer Award Winner A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Third-person POV: As mentioned, there a few forms of this POV. The most common in modern literature is subjective, limited to one character, as in the Harry Potter series. While Harry Potter is written using an outside narrator, the narrator sticks close to Harry throughout most of the story. This is useful as it can be interchangeable with first-person POV, meaning the reader knows the thoughts and experiences of one particular character. The weakness of this POV lies in the closeness of one character at the expense of others. What, for example, was Hermione Granger thinking throughout her struggles at Hogwarts?
Also used quite often is the omniscient third-person, in which the narrator is god-like and knows the thoughts and feelings of all characters. This is a useful POV as the writer can comment on many characters, including their perceptions, fears, thoughts, and experiences. This POV is often used in romance novels, where it’s important to know both protagonists. The weakness of this POV is that writers often tend to head-hop, or switch back and forth too quickly between characters. This confuses the reader and gives them less of a focal point in the story as far as characterization.
So how do you know which POV to choose? This is the tricky part, but also the fun part. Let’s break this down as well, to help you make a decision.
1. What do you want the reader to take away from the story? Is it more important that they connect with a main character as the narrator (first-person) or that they are told a story from an outside narrator (third-person)?
2. How much distance do you want in the story? It might help here to think of POV as a camera. In first-person narration, the camera is right on the character’s shoulder, all the time, recording everything they see and do. In third-person, the camera pulls back from that character, allowing commentary and visuals from another source, but still staying close by. And if you choose third-person omniscient, the camera pulls back further still, taking snapshots of everyone in the scene. Consider this when choosing POV.
3. How much fun do you want to have with character voice? While your outside narrator in third-person should have an interesting and unique voice while telling the story, you can’t deny that the voice of a first-person narrator is oftentimes the most memorable element of a story. In first-person, you can be quirky in prose, emotional, silly, edgy, or serious. You probably have a little more room to play with your wording, too. In choosing a more “storyteller” type of narrator (third-person), you might not have a chance to really narrow in on a protagonist's voice, but you also have a chance to assume a “once upon a time” vibe. All of these points should be considered in making your decision.
One final tip: Do not be afraid to re-write! If your story is not working or you just want to see how it would move along with a different POV, then by all means change it. The story is yours to play with until it’s published and out there, so don’t hesitate to experiment. You never know what will work best!
Advanced Tip (FYI): It might surprise you to learn that there are also two types of first-person narrators: first-person central and first-person peripheral. In first-person central, the narrator is the protagonist (example: The Catcher in the Rye). In first-person peripheral, the narrator is a secondary character, sometimes commenting on another main character (example: The Great Gatsby).
Let us know if you have any questions. We’re here to help you as you work toward publication!