Recently, a writer friend of mine wrote a wonderful post about which point of view (POV) she prefers to use in her manuscripts. This got me thinking about what I prefer because lately, I’ve had some epiphanies about POV.
Specifically this: the POV you use in your story actually matters.
It seems like such an obvious statement. I’m certain you’re thinking, Duh, Sooz! Of course POV matters! But now I’m going to ask you a tough question: why?
Now, let’s start by making sure you know the basics about POV. I’ll direct you to a fabulous post by our very own Julie Eshbaugh that lays it all out for you.
Up to speed on POV? Good. Let’s get back to the question of why does POV matter?
The simplest answer is, I think, twofold because ultimately, there are two ways in which POV matters and two ways in which POV is selected.
Let’s start with the obvious.
Who Is Telling Your Story?
Who is narrating this darn book?
In a single POV story, then the answer is simple: the main character is the narrator…
Oh wait! No! Pardon me, there are lots of examples of books in which the narrator ≠ the main character. The Great Gatsby, Sherlock Holmes, Moby-Dick–each of these novels is told by someone other than the main character. Complicated, eh?
That’s only the start. If you’ve got a multiple POV story, things can get quite complicated quite fast. Just look at Game of Thrones. I can’t even count how many characters we follow around or how many views we wind up seeing in that series. It’s a LOT. But they’re all well-done, so we can forgive ol’ George.
Oh, and lest we forget: the omniscient narrator is also an option. This is, admittedly, a great deal less common in modern storytelling. You’re more likely to find it amongst the pages of Alcott, Austin, or Dickens (who will even go so far as to directly address their readers), but you’ll see it from time to time these days as well. Harry Potter has some moments that are arguably omniscient. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is absolutely omniscient (and wonderful. You must read it. ASAP), and Howl’s Moving Castle is certainly omniscient as well.
So, the critical question for you is: Who do you want to tell YOUR story?
Think about it. Think about it HARD. Imagine your story from different POVs. Is it best told by the main character? In his/her voice? Or would it work better from a secondary character who can add his/her own interpretations to the main character’s actions? Or perhaps an omniscient narrator who knows everything and can add his/her own voice to the events happening in the story? Or maybe there’s not just one person who should be featured–maybe the story can’t be accurately told without several characters’ POVs provided.
Like I said: think about it, and then think about it some more. If you’re like me, you might find one morning that the way you wrote your book really isn’t the best way to share that particular story.
Now, let’s move onto the next component of why POV matters.
Is it 1st, 2nd, or 3rd Person?
He said, she said, I said…who said?
Some readers feel very strongly about POV. As odd as it sound to you, I know plenty of people who refuse to read any books in 1st person…and conversely, I know loads of people who avoid 3rd person at all costs.
2nd person…well, it’s just done so rarely, I don’t know how people feel about it. I know that I, personally, was incredibly frustrated with the opening of The Night Circus (which is in 2nd person). In fact, I was so put off, to I didn’t read more than a few pages past that introduction. Again–it’s all about reader preference.
You cannot calculate what people will want. But you can calculate what will work best for your story.
Now, I’m going to make some rather broad generalizations. I apologize in advance, for I know there will be MANY examples that contradict what I’m going to say. But–disclaimers aside–I think there are some truths here that are especially helpful to beginner writers.
Let’s start with first person.
In many of the books I’ve read on writing, the consensus seems to be: write your first novel/stories in first person. It’s easier. I can already hear the outraged cries from here, but please bear with me. There ARE reasons people say this.
- There’s a natural depth to 1st person POV–something that can be harder to achieve in 3rd person. You don’t need a whole lot of introspective passages to give the reader the “feel” of being in the story. Of watching the events unfold. It’s an accessible POV for the writer and the reader.
- If your main character has a unique voice, then this is your chance to SHINE with that voice. Heck, just pick up our own Mandy Hubbard’s You Wish–that book oozes with Kayla’s voice. And–since it’s a fun voice–we want to be directly in her head and hear all her snarky comments.
- A lot of people prefer to read 1st person (YA is especially full of it!).
Plus, a fun thing I’ve seen more and more of lately, is alternating first person POVs. That sort of thing used to be all “NO! AGAINST THE RULES!”, yet I see it more and more (especially in YA) and I see it done exceptionally well. Our own Marie Lu’s Legend has alternating first person, and another fantastic example is Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles.
But–that said–there are some disadvantages to 1st person. Disadvantages I didn’t even realize until I was confronted with them in my WIP, Screechers.
- You’re restricted to only one person in a scene. You can’t see anything that the POV character doesn’t see.
- If your MC’s voice is grating, then you might alienate readers more than you attract them.
- Readers have less patience for long passages of exposition. Infodumps, setting, backstory–that stuff really stands out in 1st person and needs to be woven into the story.
Honestly, those restrictions never seemed that “restricting” to me…until Screechers. I talk about this more here, but the general idea was that I had created this HUGE, sweeping world, a complicated network of politics and power plays, and a colorful cast of characters that each had their own heaps of growing to do.
I had written the book in 1st person, so while the world, politics, and characters were all there, they were only seen from my main character’s perspective. Plus, there wasn’t much time for world-building or delving into the other character’s arcs.
In hindsight, it all seems so OBVIOUS, but I was so stuck on writing in 1st person at the time–so afraid to branch out–that I simply couldn’t see the added dimensions a multiple POV, 3rd person book would bring me.
I know the full range of third person now, so let’s move to third person.
3rd person is undeniably a more demanding POV when it comes to skill. Not to suggest that beginners can’t do it (I know many who start with it! They are also better writers than I. ;)) or that people who prefer to write in 1st aren’t skilled craftsmen. There are advantages and disadvantages to both POVs, and at the end of the day, which POV you choose depends on your STORY and not your writing abilities.
I will admit that I used to be terrified of 3rd person. Sounds absurd, I know, but I didn’t even try it until ~ 6 months ago. And even then, I wrote in 1st person first and then changed it to 3rd. That’s how scared I was!
Why was I so nervous? Because, to really draw the reader in–if that reader seeks a deep POV, that is– you really need to have a grasp on what the character feels, thinks, plans… Then you have to decide what, from all that info, is worth sharing. It’s easy to wind up with 3rd person passages where there’s simply not enough introspection. (Whenever I critique a story like that, I always suggest the writer redo the scene in first person and FEEL for those thoughts. You’ll quickly notice all those internal details that are missing.)
Another tricky thing with 3rd person is infusing it with voice. Something what can happen so naturally in 1st person can come as a real challenge in 3rd–dry, textbooks voices abound. (And again: if this is an issue for you, I suggest writing the passage in 1st and then changing it back to 3rd later.)
But, let’s say you have a handle on 3rd person. Let’s say you’re comfortable with it–then there are some definite advantages to it.
- In theory, you can zoom in and out. Some argue against this, but Rowling does it deftly in Harry Potter, and no one complains. As long as you do it well and not often, you can move from omniscience to deep POV.
- You can have multiple POVs in a single scene.
- You can “get away” with long passages of setting, foreshadowing, backstory, etc. Don’t go overboard, of course.
- You can easily hide things from the reader. From who the villain is to a secret past, you can keep all that under wraps until the perfect moment. (Yes, you can do this with first person, but then you risk the “unreliable narrator”.)
- There’s a built-in distance that automatically gives a “wider lens” feel to the story. (This can be a disadvantage too!)
Of course, 3rd person has some major disadvantages–and not just that some people don’t enjoy it!
- There’s a built-in distance! If you want your readers to be completely in the character’s head, then it’s almost impossible to achieve that with third person.
- It can be harder to attain “voice”. (See above.)
- It can be harder to really draw the reader into the character’s perspective. (Also see above.)
- Head-hopping! If you change POVs mid-scene, you risk confusing your reader.
Okay, so now I’ve laid out the basic advantages and disadvantages for the main two POVs–first and third–as well as the different options for narrator. Do you have any advantage/disadvantages to add? I’d LOVE to read them in the comments!!
Or are you–like me–finding that perhaps you chose the wrong POV for your story? Or, are you getting some confirmation you chose right?
Well, if you’re not sure, then maybe you’ll be interested in my giveaway! One lucky winner will get a 5-page manuscript critique. I’ll focus on POV, but I’ll also touch on other areas. Just leave a comment telling me what POV you prefer to read or write in, and I’ll contact the winner in a week!
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Susan Dennard is reader, writer, animal-lover, occasional animal-rescuing-superhero, and cookie-monster. Her debut, Something Strange & Deadly, will be available from HarperTeen on July 24th, and you can learn more about her on blog or twitter.