erspective can make a world of difference. Just ask anyone who’s ever heard conflicting versions of a nasty breakup.
Because every storyteller brings a unique frame of reference, accounts of a single incident can be wildly different yet equally “true.” With this in mind, novelists have put a fresh spin on classics by changing the point of view (POV) in books ranging from Grendel, a reimagining of the epic poem Beowulf, to Wicked’s take on The Wizard of Oz.
Choosing the optimum POV for your fiction is a critical narrative decision. Before you do, consider the pros and cons of various options.
Inside Looking Out
Obviously, first-person POV is the most up-close and personal. The reader sees, hears, and feels right along with the character.
Strength: Both dialog and narration are in the character’s voice, creating the greatest immediacy. The reader is not only privy to the character’s desires, fears and attitudes, but also aware of the dissonance when the character’s thoughts don’t align with her words or actions.
First-person may be perfect for quirky or highly introspective characters. For example, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time brilliantly depicts the POV of a teenage math savant on the autism spectrum who solves a mystery and learns a family secret; no one outside of young Christopher’s head could possibly tell his story as he experiences it.
Additionally, an unreliable first-person narrator, whether ignorant or devious, can befuddle or deceive the reader, a useful conceit in anything from comedy to mystery to horror.
Weakness: Use of first-person puts readers inside a character but confines them there, so this POV limits readers’ knowledge to what one character can plausibly know. The element of danger is also diminished in a thriller, because readers feel confident the character will somehow survive even the most desperate peril. Otherwise, who’s going to complete those final pages?
Outside Looking In
At the opposite pole from first-person lies third-person omniscient. While it’s good to be king, it can also be good to be an all-seeing, all-knowing goddess.
Strength: See all, tell all that’s necessary. Writing in third person, you possess unlimited narrative freedom. This POV works well if your plot focuses more on what characters do than what they think or feel, when events require detailed description, if world-building requires significant explanation, or the story spans multiple lifetimes. The view from on high also allows for authorial attitude, the classic example being when Jane Austen opens Pride and Prejudice by stating, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Weakness: A skybox elevation above the fray can impose emotional distance. For the reader, that can make the difference between being told a story and living it.
Whose view is it anyway?
Questions to consider when you’re selecting a POV:
- Which character knows the most/least about the story’s events? A well-informed character may tell the story at a different pace than one who is learning along with the reader. How quickly do you want or need to meter out plot or expository information?
- Who has the most/least at stake? For maximum impact, choose a character who’ll react in the heat of the moment. If the emotional tenor of the story requires reflection, you might use a character at some remove.
- When characters have conflicting needs or desires, for whom do you want the reader to root?
- Does your story genre require a POV character who inspires trust? Admiration? Fear? Love? If so, who best fits the bill?
Breaking Out of the Box
Once you’ve selected a POV and recognized its limitations, you’re ready to overcome them.
Granted, a first-person narrator can only be in one place at a time, but you can devise outside sources that provide information beyond her immediate scope, anything from a newspaper report to a neighbor’s idle gossip. The narrator can also foreshadow or unwittingly pass along needed information to the reader by casual mention of things and events that she does not understand or see as significant, the equivalent of when the camera in a suspense movie pans over a clue or warning that the hero fails to note.
A character speaking in first person can also serve as a stand-in for the author/classic narrator, even—or perhaps especially—if he’s not the center of the fictive universe. In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway’s backstory as a native Midwesterner gives him The Outsider’s window on the lifestyles of the rich and careless. Imagine how different Gatsby would be if told from the POV of Tom or Daisy Buchanan.
When omniscience is functionally required but seems too cold, bridge the emotional distance by leaning into show, don’t tell. Rather than merely recounting a character’s sadness, fear or excitement, make sure readers see his tears, sweaty palms, or jubilant fist-pump.
If neither first- or third-person quite satisfies your needs, feel free to mix and match. While a short story traditionally stays anchored in one POV, longer works, including collections of linked stories, may take advantage of multiple close third-person narrators. Mark Haddon’s later novel, A Spot of Bother, highlights a different POV in almost every chapter, as it jumps among neurotic George, his unfaithful wife Jean, their adult children Katie and Jamie, and her fiancÚ and his boyfriend, all of whom have their own issues regarding Katie’s prospective wedding. By assembling the varied insights they each provide, the reader enjoys a wide-screen panorama.
Working at a less frenetic pace, Karen Joy Fowler’s novel Booth, a fictionalized account of the American family that produced both Edwin, the 19th century’s most famous Shakespearean actor, and his brother John Wilkes, its most notorious murderer. Fowler tells alternating sections from the POV of Edwin, older sister Rosalie, and middle sister Asia, thereby exploiting their different life experiences, as influenced by age and gender, to tell a richer, fuller tale of a highly idiosyncratic clan.
Thrillmaster James Patterson and Bill Clinton give the mixed POV technique an extra twist in The President is Missing. To heighten tension, President Jonathan Duncan tells much of the story himself. But wait! The situation is even more dire than he knows, which readers learn from the close third-person POV of a stalking assassin and a would-be terrorist; as a bonus, their revealed motives make them more than stick-figure villains. Visits inside the vice president’s head add another layer of suspense to the plot.
“Never be afraid to play around with different POVs, in your own head or on the page, until you find the angle that can best see and interpret the story you envision.”
So, which POV should you use? Intimate or omniscient? Some Goldilocks blend in between? All of the above? Only you can decide what is right for your story.
But remember, it’s not really your story at all, it’s your characters’ story, and the critical question is: Which voice(s) can tell it best? Will one character be center stage, or are you writing an ensemble piece? Will a single character have access to all essential information or at least be able to provide enough dots for the reader to connect and form the desired picture? Or will subplots or foreshadowing require input from others?
The appropriate POV may be obvious to you from the start, or you may discover it (or them) during revision, perhaps when you find a particular character hogging the spotlight, or your narrator smacks into the equivalent of a locked door that only another character can open.
That’s what revision is for. Never be afraid to play around with different POVs, in your own head or on the page, until you find the angle that can best see and interpret the story you envision. Then let the truth(s) be told.
Quick Tips for POV
- Stay true. To employ any POV effectively, develop each character’s unique viewpoint and vocabulary based on factors such as a gender, age, education, and experience. For instance, when a man pulls a weapon on President Duncan, a former Army Ranger, he recognizes it as a 9mm Glock; a character with a different background might simply think: Yikes, he’s pointing a gun at me!
- Practice serial monogamy. For clarity in a multiple POV novel, it may be best to stick with one viewpoint at a time. When you hop to a different head, start a new chapter or section; a notation as simple as an extra line space can signal: Hey, we’re switching perspective—stay with me.
- Show ID. In A Spot of Bother, virtually every scene starts with the POV character’s name or similar identifier in the opening sentence to orient the reader quickly. The pace may be brisk, with some episodes as brief as half a page, but readers never get left behind.
- No, you don’t. There’s been no mention here of the rarely used second-person option (“you enter a room and you see...”). It’s rare because it’s terribly difficult to pull off without being distractingly conspicuous. Like walking a tightrope between skyscrapers, it’s an intriguing stunt, but the fall is a long way down.
Barbara’s work has been collected in books including The Best Contemporary Women's Humor, The Bride of Funnyside, and This Sporting Life; appeared in publications such as The Writer, Writer's Digest, Author Magazine, and The Bloomsbury Review; and posted on the Higgs Weldon Comedy website.