Thoughts on Writing: Point of View

Have you ever looked at an object through different lenses? Let’s say you look at the blue sky while wearing red-tinted glasses. The sky is going to look purplish. Let’s say you look at a while wall with goggles that are splattered with mud. The wall you see is going to look dirty too. And let’s say you tie a thin, sheer piece of fabric over your eyes and then try to walk down a staircase. You’re not going to see much of anything then. And actually you might trip and fall down the stairs with your impaired vision. (Don’t try this at home, kids!)

So what I’m trying to say is that your viewpoint is important and it can change depending on how you look at something. When you are writing something, point of view is definitely something to consider. Should you tell this story through the eyes of your character or from an outside perspective? Choosing the right point of view can make your writing more effective.

So let’s talk a bit about the different point of views to choose from, what situations to use each one in, and then hear some other perspectives on the topic from other writers as well.

 

1st Person Point of View

When looking at point of view, First Person is probably at times both the easiest and the hardest one to use, depending on what genre you’re writing. First Person is simply using “I” to tell the story. It comes to all of us naturally. Whenever you tell a story about something to your friends or family, you use First Person because you’re describing what happened from how you experienced it or even how you heard the story from someone else. I’m writing this blog post in this perspective because my goal is to tell you, the reader, more about this topic and to share it from my own experience. Nonfiction is another genre that is often told from this point of view because, again, those writers are sharing their own stories.

Fiction writing is where I think First Person becomes a bit more complicated. You have to take care to separate “I,” the writer from “I,” the story’s narrator. I, myself, always have this problem writing fiction in First Person because the story always sounds like it’s coming from my own personal perspective instead of from a fictional character. The character’s thoughts reflect my thoughts. In the end, it ends up being a fictional story about me instead of a fictional character. And that’s not my intentions when writing fiction.

There are many writers out there, of course, who have mastered fiction writing in First Person, so it’s not impossible. Famous examples of this are F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn just to name a few. The narrators in these stories are varied. Huck Finn is a pretty traditional narrator, simply telling his experience as it happens. Nick Carraway, the narrator in The Great Gatsby, isn’t really the protagonist of the story, but more like an observer sharing events with the reader. The Catcher in the Rye’s narrator, Holden Caulfield, is an unreliable narrator and the reader can’t really trust everything he says. But all of these characters are well-developed and distinct from their authors. The narrators all make the stories a bit more personal by allowing the readers to experience things from their point of view.

If you want to tell a story in First Person, perhaps you should ask yourself first: is this a story that needs to be told through the eyes of a specific character? What will it add to the story if the reader experiences it through the eyes of a specific character? If this isn’t the right point of view for you, there are two others you can try.

 

2nd Person Point of View

Second Person is the least commonly used one, which is a shame because when used properly, this can be a fun point of view to explore. This is when a story is told from the “you” perspective. There is no “I” at all. The “you” is experiencing or telling the story. This can be used in both fiction and nonfiction, albeit much more rarely for the latter. A well-known example is the Choose Your Own Adventure books where you, the reader becomes “you,” the protagonist. It’s supposed to make for a more interactive story.

As another example, I’m going to link this blog post I wrote about visiting an anime convention. It’s meant to be a sort of parody, but I chose to use Second Person so anyone reading could go through the experience like they were an anime protagonist there. I could have written it in First Person, but then that would have narrowed the perspective down to just mine. Second Person broadens it out to include anyone. You can step into their shoes to experience the story as the protagonist instead of alongside them like in First or Third Person.

I think it’s important not to overuse this point of view. It’s probably most effective in shorter writings. If the story gets too specific, the reader cannot identify as the protagonist anymore. Imagine if you’re reading the story and then the protagonist looks into a mirror and describes what he (or she) sees. Odds are it’s not going to match up with you, the reader. And if the reader cannot identify as the “you” anymore, he or she might lose focus and lose interest in the story.

So just like with First Person, ask yourself when writing something: is this a story that will be more effective and interesting if told so that “you” are experiencing it? Do you want the reader to literally step into the protagonist’s shoes? If not, there’s still one other point of view to try out.

 

3rd Person Point of View

Third Person is used as commonly as First Person is. This is simply where the narrative is told from an outside perspective that’s not from any of the characters. It’s mostly used in fiction writing but something like newspaper and magazine articles are good examples of nonfictional usage. Third Person can vary depending on how you write it. An Omniscient Third Person is when the story includes details of everything, including what’s going on in several characters’ heads. This can be common in novels with a large ensemble cast where it’s necessary to check in on several different characters in order to progress the story.

In contrast, a Limited or Close Third is when only one character’s thoughts are included. The narrator, so to speak, only follows one character and the story unfolds from that perspective. The Harry Potter series is a good example of a Limited Third because the story only shares Harry’s thoughts and his experiences (a few chapters from other characters’ point of view are the exception to this).

This might be the easiest point of view to write, but there are still drawbacks. If you chose a Limited Third, you have to figure out how to get your main character to find out information that may not be readily available to him or her. It’s also important to be consistent while writing a Limited Third. It’s distracting if the narrative switches from inside one character’s head to another right in the middle of the action. The fun of a Limited Third is just like the fun of First Person. The challenge is that you only have one viewpoint to tell the story from.

So ask yourself when writing: does this story need an outside perspective and a little bit of distance from the main character? Does it need to follow several different characters? What is the most interesting way to convey your story to the reader?

 

Other points of view about Point of View

Of course, my thoughts on point of view are just my opinion, so I decided to ask a few of my writing friends to share their own ideas on the subject. They write a variety of things including poetry, fanfiction, children’s books, and chaptered novels. I asked them all two questions: 1.) What point of view do you prefer to read/write and why? and 2.) Do you have any writing tips pertaining to point of view, such as how to decide which to choose and how to stay consistent, etc? 

Here are their answers. (Note: Richard and Dale’s responses were from a verbal interview. Any transcription errors are my own)

Richard: I like third person because I grew up reading that a lot. But I write a lot of my children’s stories from first person. I think that makes it easier for the children to identify with because “I” and “me” are some of the first things you learn as a child.

When I have an idea, sometimes I just let the story tell itself. Things change while you’re writing it, so things like point of view just fall into place naturally.

 

Dale Rogers: My favorite is probably third person because that’s mainly what I read growing up. But sometimes I use first person too. I have a story I decided to write in first person because I needed to see it through the woman’s eyes.

When it comes to deciding which to use, it depends on the mood of the piece. If it’s a new experience, like for example, something frightening, then it’s good to see it through the character’s eyes so the reader can feel it more and experience it for the first time.

(You can check out some of Dale’s work on her website: A Slice of Life)

 

Ansa: It varies, according to what I’m writing, but lately I generally prefer writing third person single-focus as it allows me to describe a character’s thoughts but also their placement in the story; not everything is tinged with a personal reaction, and this suits my writing style. I’ll occasionally write first or second point of view but usually more for short experimental pieces. As for reading, I don’t care much for reading second person unless it’s no longer than a short story, but I’m happy to read both first person as well as any flavours of third person, as long as the story itself is well-written, and the point of view suits the plot.

If I choose to use third person, I decide right away whether it will be with omnipresent or single focus or anything along those lines, and do my best to stick to it.

 

t: I definitely prefer 2nd person! 2nd person POV feels less intrusive and just helps me see the whole picture. Sometimes I tell myself it helps me be less attached to my characters, but that’s definitely a lie.

I don’t think I’m the best person to be giving writing tips on this, but here are my likes and dislikes. I know some people absolutely hate it, but I’m quite comfortable with POV switches for different paragraphs, as long as it is hinted at and doesn’t disrupt the flow of the story. Multiple switching of POVs in a single paragraph is definitely not ok. I’m guilty of this too, but if you want to write about how the other characters feel, maybe you can try having your main character be aware or observant enough to notice those emotions? I would generally prefer to read a story with a consistent point of view, but if you’re writing multichapts, you definitely have the creative license 🙂

 

Katie: I usually write in limited 3rd pov, probably because it’s quite a common pov in fiction? For me, writing in 1st pov requires great empathy for the character (as in I really have to feel what they are feeling, etc.) so it’s a bit harder to write. I guess it also depends on the story and the character.

I don’t really have a preference when reading, as long as it flows well with the story! There is a lot of controversy regarding multiple pov’s, but I’ve read many stories that actually make use of this to add to the story (for example, to establish an unreliable narrator). (One of my favorite series that uses this is The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud, which I would recommend to everyone who likes fantasy.)

Usually I don’t choose the pov, it just comes along with the idea of the story itself xD But sometimes I turn the pov to another character to see if the story would be more interesting (I don’t think this has worked before for me, but in theory it makes sense :P). I think an unconventional pov done well really spices up the story (think Sherlock Holmes. whose pov, Watson, sometimes does not participate in the action). Proofreading definitely helps in staying consistent! I find returning to your story after a week of not touching it at all really helps, cause the time away sort of… disconnects you from the character and you can see the inconsistencies much more easily 🙂 Signaling the change of pov (like having a header showing name of character, etc.) would be a great help to readers as well!

 

Ren: To me, POV is not just a matter of taste, a building block of style that can be exchanged for another on a whim.  Like any other stylistic choice, POV is most effective when carefully chosen and worked into the story as a compelling narrative element.  With a fascinating voice or style, first person offers a chance for intense and intimate insights into a narrator’s particular viewpoint.  The trade-off of this style is that sticking to one character’s tone and POV can feel limiting.  I started out writing first person narratives almost exclusively, intrigued by the potential to play mind games on my audience by indulging in the unreliable narrator trope.  I soon became frustrated, however, by the intense focus needed to keep track of the internal logic, both as a reader and a writer.

Suspending disbelief and settling into an expertly constructed third person narrative feels like slipping on a comfortable sweater.  While there are no rules for setting the parameters of a POV, jumping between multiple thought processes (especially mid-scene) can be jarring and confusing to a reader.  My default POV is third person limited.  The fly-on-the-wall perspective allows me to comment on the action as a close yet invisible observer, tapping into the thoughts and sensory experiences of one main character.

While first and third person enjoy socialite status in literary circles, second person seems like a neglected cousin, languishing in the corner at the POV family reunion.  Is this because directing “you”s at a reader feels accusatory?  Too abstract?  Or is it an inexplicable, collective distaste for breaking the fourth wall that discourages the approach?  I’m not sure myself, though a litany of “you”s has made me squirm before.  Whatever the reason(s), second person remains associated with reflective genres like confessional poetry, and novels adopting it tend to be classed as “experimental fiction”.  There’s nothing wrong with experimenting of course, but imposing an unfamiliar style on a conventional genre for no apparent reason seems gimmicky.  My rule of thumb is as long as you have a compelling reason to use a certain POV, go for it: boldly, unapologetically, and craft it into an essential part of the storytelling.

When picking a POV (one of my pre-planning steps) I always consider the focus.  What will best convey my message in a compelling, palatable, and sensitive way?  I want my audience to get so wrapped up in the narrative that they won’t want to shed it until the very end, whether the effect is exotic like expensive silk or as familiar as a favorite flannel shirt.  Often when I sit down to write the first snippets of scenes I instinctively know my approach.

If I get halfway through a draft and I’m just not feeling it, I will rewrite with a different POV if it’s clear my narrative perspective is impeding clarity.  This process can provide priceless insight about what’s working stylistically and what’s not, though it’s an exhausting undertaking.  One time saving solution is to test-write a hinge scene in multiple POVs before deciding. If you have a default POV, why not switch it up in a pre-writing or creative exercise?  You never know what irresistible character or breathtaking vantage point you might stumble upon by taking a detour from your routine.

Another strategy I use is close reading other writers’ work.  I choose a quality piece of writing (or three) with a style similar to the one I aim to evoke.  I re-read the text, and take notes.  When does the perspective feel natural and unobtrusive?  How does it blend into the narrative flow?  When does it throw the pace off balance?  Are there points where ambiguity derails narrative clarity?  Deconstructing seemingly effortless examples of good writing can sharpen your instincts for engineering your own masterpieces.

 

So now that you’ve heard all of our thoughts on point of view, what’s yours? Feel free to share your own ideas in the comment section!

You can also check out my previous Thoughts on Writing post: Beginning with the Basics.

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4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Writing: Point of View

  1. This was really interesting! I love all of Ren’s advice especially in terms of a practical way to decide which pov to use, though unfortunately I don’t often have the luxury of time to be able to do something like that. This was a great read!

    • Yeah, I received a lot of good feedback from my questions! I definitely think I’m going to try out some of Ren’s advice. Thank you for reading and commenting (and contributing <3)

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