Out of Their Minds: The basics of point-of-view

Ever been reading a novel, cooking along with the character, when you realize you’re not seeing things through that character’s eyes any longer? Somewhere along the way, something shifted and you’re inside a different character’s head. Jarring, huh? Probably jolted you out of the story, if only for a few seconds while you figured out what happened.

That, my friends, is what you want to avoid at all costs: Bumping your reader out of the story. Because once they’re out, any number of things can pull them away before they get back in.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at Point of view. First, what is POV (point of view)? Anyone? Yes! That’s exactly right. (Hey, I’m a novelist too, remember? If I want to hear my imaginary class answering me, I can.”) Point of view is the “eyes” through which we’re seeing the story.

There are three common POVs:

  • Omniscient
  • First person
  • Third person

Omniscient POV. Know the most famous example of this? Simple, Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. . . .

Omniscient POV means you’re writing from inside everyone’s head, and from the outside. You hop into whomever’s head you choose, or you speak as a disconnected narrator. This form of POV is more archaic. It worked way back when, but not so much nowadays. Why? Because you lose connection and intimacy with the characters. Readers don’t get as invested in what they’re reading because it’s being reported more than experienced.

Are there benefits to Omniscient POV? Sure:

  • It’s an easy way to introduce information
  • Unlike first person, you can see everything that’s happening.

But the limits outweigh the benefits:

  • Lack of intimacy. Fiction is all about making a connection. You don’t do that with Omniscient POV.
  • You get the information, but not the emotions. Actually, you can tell what the emotions are, but the reader doesn’t really feel them.

Next, comes First Person. First person is the most intimate of the POVs. In first person, the narrator is one character, speaking in terms of I. Here are two great examples of First Person POV:

The first is from Francine Rivers’s marvelous books, which is also a movie now, The Last Sineater.

The first time I saw the sin eater was the night Granny Forbes was carried to her grave. I was very young and Granny my dearest companion, and I was greatly troubled in my mind.

“Dunna look at the sin eater, Cadi,” I’d been told by my pa. “And no be asking why.”

Being so greviously forewarned, I tried to obey. Mama said I was acurst with curiosity. Papa said it was pure, cussed nosiness. Only Granny, with her tender spot for me, had understood.

The second is one of my all-time favorite beginnings for a novel, from Andrew Greely’s The God Game:

It was Nathan’s fault that I became God.

It is, as I would learn, hell to be God.

Nathan, to begin with, is as close to a genius as anyone I expect to know. If this story has any moral at all, it is that you should stay away from geniuses.

Both of these drew me in right away. But why? Why does first person work?

The benefits are evident. First person POV is:

  • Emotive
  • Immediate, and
  • Appealing. It really gets you into the character and the story. You’re inside the character’s mind, under his/her skin, right from the get-go.

But there are limits to First Person POV:

  • You can only tell what that one person sees, thinks, feels. Everything must go through the filter of that character’s understanding and perspective. Think about it. Look at the room around you. If you’re the POV character, you can only see what…well, you can see. You can’t see what’s behind you, or what’s happening outside. And if someone comes in the room, you can guess what he or she is thinking or feeling, but can’t know for certain. That smile could mask anger or sorrow. Those wrinkles on the forehead could be confusion or brewing rage. You can only know what you know. Period.
  • Your character must be strong enough to carry the story. Readers have to be willing to stay inside that head for the entire book.
  • Writing first person POV is far more difficult to pull off than writing third person. You have to maintain that character’s voice pitch-perfect, and that’s tough.

Which brings us to Third Person POV, which could be viewed as kind of a compromise on the previous two. It gives you both intimacy and perspective. Third Person speaks in terms of he or she, and allows the writer to go into several characters’ heads (preferably in separate scenes. Please don’t head-hop…). How many heads, you ask? As many as the story needs, but be sure the story really needs them. Usually you see anywhere from two to four or five. Sure, you lose a bit of the intimacy of First Person, but you still feel a great deal.

An up-and-coming technique is to have the best of both POV worlds: to combine first person with third person. Generally, this is done by choosing one character to write using first person POV. Everyone else is written using third person. One scene is written in first person, then several in third person. I wasn’t sure about this first time I saw it, but you know what? It works, as long as it’s written well. I’m editing a book right now that does that, and I’ve been trying it in the book I’m writing, too. It’s a lot of fun. There’s something exciting about writing first person, but it’s less restrictive when you also use third person.

So what POV works best for you? That will depend on the character and the story. Even the genre can be a determining factor. But whatever POV you use, be sure you avoid the common pitfalls. Which we’ll explore next week!






18 Responses to Out of Their Minds: The basics of point-of-view

  1. Avatar
    Susie Finkbeiner July 21, 2011 at 5:12 am #

    Great post! I love writing in first person because that’s a more natural voice for me. However, I’m interested in experimenting with third a little more.

  2. Avatar
    V.V. Denman July 21, 2011 at 6:12 am #

    I’m so glad to read your reasons against omniscient POV. I’ve always read “Don’t do it!” It’s nice to have some valid reasons.

  3. Avatar
    A J Hawke July 21, 2011 at 6:33 am #

    Good clear explanation of POV. I’m interested to see some novels written with both 1st and 3rd POV as I am presently experimenting with it.

  4. Avatar
    Robin Patchen July 21, 2011 at 7:22 am #

    Great post. The novel I’m currently working on is written in 3rd person, but from only one POV. I did that because I don’t want the reader knowing what the POV character doesn’t know–I want the reader to walk the path with my character. I thought about writing it in 1st person, but since I’m a new novelist, I was told that 1st person might be a disadvantage. Would an editor be less likely to look at a first person novel from a newbie?

  5. Avatar
    Aaron McCarver July 21, 2011 at 8:02 am #

    I usually prefer third person as it usually keeps me in the story better. I enjoy first person when it is executed very well as it is so intimate. But the key is in the execution with first person. I remember an Agatha Christie novel in first person, “Crooked House” I believe, that really packed a punch. And I also enjoyed some titles by Christine Lynxwiler in first. Omniscient is my least favorite to read. Interesting as I grew up reading so many of the classics written this way and still can enjoy a good story told narratively from time to time, but I do find myself feeling outside of the story most of the time. I also find that Christian fiction has a higher standard in this area than secular fiction does, which should be as we have the BEST writers and the most important story to tell. Thanks for the post, Karen. I finally got it!

  6. Avatar
    Brad Huebert July 21, 2011 at 8:29 am #

    O: There is something wonderful going on with this blog post.
    FP: I am enjoying it immensely.
    3P: He typed his reply, amused with himself.

  7. Avatar
    Juliette July 21, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    There’s also third person but mostly from one character’s POV, rather than jumping between two or three characters – which gives the writer the option to go into different POVs very occasionally for effect, but stick mostly to the protagonist, so you get some of the intimacy of first person – as in the Harry Potter books, which are almost entirely from Harry’s POV, but with a few key scenes stepping back, like Voldemort’s return at the beginning of Book 4.

  8. Avatar
    Laura Page July 21, 2011 at 11:59 am #

    I tend to gravitate toward the last two POV’s you discussed in this post. I actually think I prefer 1st person, but because I’m limited to only my main character’s thoughts and feelings, I get antsy, sometimes. What can I say? I have writer’s ADD!

    What I like about 1st person is that it requires the author to have a real relationship with the character in question. 1st person narration fails if you as the author fail to understand your character utterly and, like you said, intimately.

  9. Avatar
    Kathryn July 21, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    Great post. I like reading novels with different POV’s.Thanks for the good info.

  10. Avatar
    JoAnne Potter July 21, 2011 at 7:46 pm #

    Perfect timing! I’m just getting ready to do a mini writers’ workshop for my granddaughter and needed a POV segment. Thanks!

  11. Avatar
    Marji Laine July 21, 2011 at 9:10 pm #

    I love the idea of using a first person for a primary POV and then third person as several secondary POVs. What a cool notion. Thanks for the education!

  12. Avatar
    Marlene Bagnull July 22, 2011 at 5:37 am #

    Thanks, Karen. I’ve been wondering if first and third person could work. Excellent article.

  13. Avatar
    Sharon A Lavy July 26, 2011 at 3:31 am #

    I like to write third person deep pov.

  14. Avatar
    Eeleen Lee July 30, 2011 at 12:32 pm #

    What about second person? I use it a lot for short stories and I think it offers a myriad of narrative possibilities. It is akin to talking to yourself, which is useful for stories with unreliable narrators. The only full length novel written in second person is JAy McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City” (1986)

  15. Avatar
    Rachel Hauck August 4, 2011 at 5:34 pm #

    GREAT post! Excellent.

    Karen, do you think the first and third combo is going to catch on. I remember when first was popular with the chick lit phase and everyone was trying it. I saw a few mixed first and third but that seemed to be the worst of both worlds! LOL.

    Then there was kind of a first person backlash and all of us first person writers were asked to change to third. (I’m generalizing, of course.)

    Why do you think first and third mix is up and coming?

    Love your insights. I miss writing in first person.


  16. Avatar
    Dena Netherton November 9, 2011 at 7:03 am #

    I recently read a Debbie Macomber novel in which the main character (a guy) is in first person, but his three potential loves are in third person. Kind of threw me for a few chapters until I got used to it. But, you know? it worked.


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