Which Point of View is Right for You?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 😉
  3. 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.

  1. You’re restricted to only one person in a scene. You can’t see anything that the POV character doesn’t see.
  2. If your MC’s voice is grating, then you might alienate readers more than you attract them.
  3. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. You can have multiple POVs in a single scene.
  3. You can “get away” with long passages of setting, foreshadowing, backstory, etc. Don’t go overboard, of course.
  4. 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”.)
  5. 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!

  1. 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.
  2. It can be harder to attain “voice”. (See above.)
  3. It can be harder to really draw the reader into the character’s perspective. (Also see above.)
  4. 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!

a Rafflecopter giveaway


39 Responses to Which Point of View is Right for You?

  1. Laura Hughes Apr 3 2012 at 4:56 am #

    When I write, things tend to come out in first person. However, having read Sarah’s ASSASSIN AND THE DESERT over the weekend, I’m dying to try something in third. It totally sucked me in!

    • Sooz Apr 3 2012 at 10:07 am #

      Ha! Sarah was the reason I first wrote in third too! Because we were coauthoring a MG together, it really demanded third person for the alternating POVs. But, honestly: for the first two chapters, I wrote it in first and then switched it over. After that, I finally understood what I needed to write in 3rd, and from then on, it felt natural! 😀

  2. Freya Morris Apr 3 2012 at 5:32 am #

    Interesting – for a moment I doubted the voice I’d written my novel in, but by the end I think you helped confirm that it was alright.

    When I first starting thinking about POV – I felt that first person was a bit of a cop-out – too easy! But, I agree that in 3rd person, voice is very tricky. Voice is something I’m having to work especially hard on and will take your advice on writting in 1st to get in there.


    • Sooz Apr 3 2012 at 10:09 am #

      Good luck! Maybe the whole write-in1st-switch-to-3rd won’t help, but I find–for me at least–it really helps me latch on to the character’s voice. I like when voice shines through even in third person, and best of all, I like when alternating POVs in third still manage to have different feels/styles. Does that make sense?

      Anyway, happy writing, Freya!! 😀

  3. Cassie Apr 3 2012 at 6:23 am #

    You know, I always used to write in 3rd person, but I recently began trying out 1rst and I LOVE it. However, I think (as you pointed out) it really depends on the story. Thanks for this very insightful article!

    • Sooz Apr 3 2012 at 10:10 am #

      Crazy, isn’t it? How something so simple (or seemingly simple) as POV can totally change how you feel about your story! Happy writing, Cassie!! <3

  4. Julia Apr 3 2012 at 6:24 am #

    For me it is easiest to write in the first person. I love to feel a bond with my MC 🙂

    • Sooz Apr 3 2012 at 10:11 am #

      I agree that it’s easier to form a bond in first person. That’s why–if my third person isn’t feeling quite right–I write in first and then switch over. It really helps me latch onto the voice I need for third person. I actually had a hard time going BACK to first person when I wrote the SS&D sequel–funny, huh? 😉

  5. Jasmine Stairs Apr 3 2012 at 8:01 am #

    I write naturally in 3rd person, and actually I didn’t know I was supposed to write in first. Of course, I also have the accusations that none of my characters have emotions…

    I suppose I started writing in 3rd person because it’s my favourite to read, when it’s really well done.

    • Sooz Apr 3 2012 at 10:12 am #

      Well, as I say, the best remedy (that i’ve found) for infusing more emotion into 3rd person is to switch it to first, rewrite the scene, and then go back to third at the end. 😉

      Happy writing and reading!

  6. katherine s Apr 3 2012 at 8:21 am #

    I’m glad you brought this up. You are definitely right! My current WIP is in 3rd person, but as I continue to read and reread I’m finding it harder to attain the voice. I’m actually changing my WIP to 1st person. Great post!

    • Sooz Apr 3 2012 at 10:13 am #

      Awesome! I’m glad I’m not the only person who’s had that POV-epiphany! I actually wrote SS&D in third person originally…and it was TERRIBLE! I changed it to first person, and wow! The change was startling–and exactly what the book needed!

  7. Trinity Apr 3 2012 at 8:24 am #

    I love writing in 1st person but sometimes I do forget MC’s a person too not just this silent observer 😉

    • Sooz Apr 3 2012 at 10:14 am #

      Oh yes, if you’re in first person, you’ve GOT to have a ton of voice and interpretation of what’s going on. 😉

  8. Lisa Apr 3 2012 at 8:24 am #

    I love writing and reading first person. Especially present tense, as in The Hunger Games. It just keeps my attention easier. But I will really read anything, if it’s good.

    • Sooz Apr 3 2012 at 10:16 am #

      First person present is very popular in YA these days, and I think it can work really well for certain stories. HUNGER GAMES, for example, which is a very urgent, breathless read. But if HARRY POTTER would never have worked in first person present–it would have lost all the magic of the world, you know? Weird how something like that can have such a huge impact!

  9. Holly Apr 3 2012 at 8:40 am #

    What a *fantastic* post, Sooz! I’m going to pass this on to some friends of mine who are just getting started writing — it will be infinitely helpful to them, I think. You always explain things so well. 😉 And thanks for the link. <3

    • Sooz Apr 3 2012 at 10:18 am #

      Your post is the one that got me thinking! I’d had this epiphany about SCREECHERS, but I hadn’t sat down to really organize my thoughts on it. 🙂

      And yay for new writers!! Good luck to them!! 😀

  10. Rowenna Apr 3 2012 at 9:15 am #

    So true that POV is about what’s right for the story! I was never, ever a first-person writer until a project just sort of demanded it. Unlike you, Sooz, I was petrified of first and felt much more comfortable in third–I love close third where you can still experience what the character experiences, but aren’t *quite* in his or her head. And then going for another close third POV to illustrate all the biases and things the other character misses or sees differently–love it. First felt so limited! Until I started using it for this project…and it was so right that third would have botched the whole thing. Great post!

    • Sooz Apr 3 2012 at 10:20 am #

      Crazy, isn’t it? Like, my mind boggles at how much a POV can affect the story. I think many writers get sucked into a single way of doing it. You always wrote third; I always wrote first. It takes a certain story to finally kick some “sense” into us. 😉

  11. Crystal Schubert Apr 3 2012 at 10:28 am #

    I actually just read a book that was in third person, and I had a really hard time connecting with the characters. I have a soft spot for first person, dating back to my first reading of Catcher in the Rye. Holden’s voice hooked me.

    • Sooz Apr 3 2012 at 10:36 am #

      Ahh, the difficulty of 3rd person. I read a 3rd person book recently too that felt too distant for me, and I finally gave up since I just couldn’t connect to the story. Oddly enough, though, I’ve read some first person books that way too! They tend to be first person present, and I find I just can’t connect to the narrator. Writing–and reading–are such funny, subjective things.

  12. kate c-l Apr 3 2012 at 11:04 am #

    I tend to prefer (kind of/mostly) close third–I think it’s because I like world building, and it somehow feels easier to do that in 3rd, and I like occasional forays into the minds/actions of multiple characters distant from the action. It was actually only recently that I was able to read 1st person (especially 1st person present) without serious reservations–although I can get into it now and in fact love a lot of 1st person narratives, I sometimes feel that being *that* close to a narrator is in itself alienating, because it’s not at all how I experience the world/experience other people’s stories. This is exceptionally true for me if the narrator is way different from me–if I’m in their head, and experiencing events as though I were they, it can be mega-distracting for me.

  13. Ellen Apr 3 2012 at 11:29 am #

    I tend to write in 3rd person for YA, and 1st person for my adult work, which is kind of odd considering so much YA is in 1st person. That being said, I had alternating 1st person POVs for my currently-being-edited novel, and that wasn’t working at all. I switched it to third person, cut one of the POVs, and now have a single person POV in 3rd. I don’t know. Whenever I write in 1st, barring that one miraculous adult novella that’s being expanded into a longer work, I always sound like me. Not exactly what I’m going for. 🙂

  14. Marie Lu Apr 3 2012 at 11:35 am #

    Aah I love this post, Sooz! It was especially interesting for me because I’m in the throes of trying to figure out what my POV will be for New Book Idea. Such a complicated question. I’ve never been good at 3rd-person but I think the story may require it, so I’ll probably be referring back to the points you made in here to try to get it right!

  15. Carrie-Anne Apr 3 2012 at 12:51 pm #

    I’m third-person omniscient all the way, and sometimes use third-person limited (more or less) if there’s not such a large cast of characters and the storyline is focused on just one or two. Most of the books I’ve read through my life have been older, so I’m just used to reading and writing third-person omniscient. I also prefer to write long, sweeping sagas with many characters and storylines, and third-person omniscient is the only way to go for that. Even my (much-shorter) series books are generally interlocking instead of true standalones, and also feature an ensemble cast of characters.

    I can count on one hand the times I’ve used first-person, and only one of those times (which thank God didn’t last long) was a book-book, not a book told in journal format. While I enjoy using limited first-person sections in my books, like letters or journal entries, and getting a chance to write, for a little while, from the personal POV of certain characters, I wouldn’t want to do that for an entire book. It would get too limiting too fast. It would actually feel rather fake and forced, since it’s not my style at all, and I’d feel very unhappy and like I were trying to pretend to be someone I’m not, and never will be. I just feel more happy and comfortable in third-person.

    I feel more of a connection to my characters, and have come to see them as friends (and, with some of my characters, people I literally grew up with), precisely because I’ve always written them in third-person. I think of them by their names, which I couldn’t really do if those books were full of I-I-I-me-me-me-my-my-my-mine-mine-mine. It’s just a psychological leap I can’t make, to write in the first person and pretend I’m a fictional character. I hate how trendy it’s gotten to do first-person, esp. first-person present tense. I may be wrong, but it really seems like a lot of people now are writing first-person YA (particularly in the present tense) because it’s so popular, and they seem to think they should follow the trend instead of choosing the narrative style and tense that comes naturally to them, independent of whatever’s faddish. Off the top of my head, the only first-person present tense books I’ve enjoyed and not felt distracted by were Livia Bitton-Jackson’s four memoirs and Pearl Abraham’s The Romance Reader.

  16. Erin Bowman Apr 3 2012 at 1:00 pm #

    What a fantastic post, Sooz! My personal hard and fast rule (which comes down Voice vs World) matches up with a lot of what you’ve said here. I’ve always thought that if you have a killer voice and need to be IN the character’s head, it’s first person all the way. If you have a crazy big world, with crazy amounts of important characters, try out third. Of course, as you point out, there are so many subtleties to writing a novel that no hard and fast rule is guaranteed to always work.

    Funny enough, I’ve written in third almost exclusively up until TAKEN. How funny that my debut is written in the POV I’m least comfortable in! (Then again, Gray was all about voice, so maybe that’s all it comes down to!)

    Also: Love how you started Screechers and realized half-way through it that the POV was wrong. I recently had the same experience in my WIP, only I needed a dual POV instead of just one! Gosh, writing. What a trial by fire process. 😉

  17. Amber Apr 3 2012 at 2:03 pm #

    I loved a lot of points you made in this post. I used to only write in the first person past tense in a lot of my stories for years. Then one day I noticed I was writing in the present tense for this character and even when I tried fixing it, it didn’t sound like her anymore. Third person is definitely one I struggle with and I am always envious of other writing friends who can do it so easily. On one WIP that is kind of on the back burner now, I had tried writing it in first person but realized in the world I was trying to create it just wouldn’t do. There were too many things that the reader needed to know and my MC couldn’t give all those details. Plus I liked switching the characters without having to be completely inside the character’s head if that made sense. POV’s a very tricky for sure!

  18. KimberlyFDR Apr 3 2012 at 3:11 pm #

    For me, it depends on the story. I just automatically start writing in either 1st of 3rd person (never 2nd). I even surprised myself last week because I was writing a submission for an anthology and didn’t consciously realize I was doing 1st person until I was two pages in. It just felt natural, to get closer to the action, to choose that POV. For my first two novels, both were written in 3rd person because the story called for that sort of separation of not being all the way inside the narrator’s head. It just depends on what the story demands 🙂

  19. Ilana Apr 3 2012 at 3:39 pm #

    Ooh, this was such an interesting post! I’m exactly the opposite – I’m a third person addict, and while I can enjoy first person in some stories, it’s not my favorite. So it was so interesting seeing it from the opposite perspective!

    The thing for me is that I love third person *because* of that built in distance, and I like playing with that distance and zooming in and out in closeness, though not changing to omniscient. It’s still close third, since I can only access the thoughts of the main character. And it’s funny, because that distance for me lends itself to a greater closeness, and a greater ability to see the character. Sometimes cutting out all internal reflections portrays emotion ten times more effectively than going inside the character’s head, and that’s something third person really lends itself to. And you can also go in deep where the story calls for it.

    I do have some questions for you. I know in first person your character must be telling the story, but do you picture it that way in third person too? That the character is telling the story, and not an invisible narrator? I’m curious, because you seem to be a natural first person author, and I’m wondering if that’s the way stories come to you – from the character telling you what’s happened to them. And when you first meet your characters, do their voices and thought processes come through to you the clearest, rather than their movements and actions? And if you see scenes play out like a little movie in your head, do you see your main character walking around, or do you watch things play out as if you *were* the main character?

    I hope those questions weren’t too weird. I’m such a third person writer that naturally being drawn to first person feels really alien to me, and I love hearing about different writer’s processes. I think it’s so cool.

  20. Delancey Apr 3 2012 at 9:06 pm #

    Hmm… this might sound strange, but I have written in both without giving any initial thought to the why of it (at least not conscious thought.) My YA paranormal novel just seemed to demand a first person POV, and the historical fiction I’m writing seemed a better fit for third person (maybe because in that one I switch between characters and times?). Either I’m a natural (doubtful) or I need to pay FAR more attention at the outset! My short stories tend to be in third person. Again, for no particular reason. 🙂

  21. Jessica Silva Apr 3 2012 at 11:56 pm #

    I’ve written in first and third, and I’m pretty confident in both. although it’d kind of been awhile since I’ve worked in third. my MS right now is in first. Sometimes I wonder if I should move to third, but I haven’t had any strong feelings about it. I really feel my story is about my MC, even though the world is awesome, too, so I’ve stayed in first. still, I have an open mind 🙂

  22. Fabienne Apr 4 2012 at 5:47 am #

    It’s hard to say which POV I prefer. Years ago, I had only written in 3rd person then later only in 1st.
    Now I’m plotting and outlining on that “big and dearest story” and I can’t decide which POV would be the best. I would use 3rd person because then I could switch between the past my protagonist doesn’t know and the present of other people. Then again, I like to introduce the full capability of my heroine and that would only allow 1st person.
    I think it just depends on how well (or bad) the author conveys his characters’s voice to the reader and how well (or bad) the author wants the reader to experience his/her story in its full extent.

    I love to read and write both, 1st and 3rd person narrating. And now I think I will sit down and consider which POV would suit my story the best. Thanks for this great and animating post. 🙂

  23. Brandi Ziegler Apr 5 2012 at 3:42 pm #

    I’d def prefer to read and write in 3rd person. I’ve written in 1st person because that’s the way my second novel came out. Her voice was that good. 1st person POV is def in now, but 3rd will always be my strength. Unless I find another killer voice demanding their story gets told. Thanks for the giveaway, Susan!

  24. Dede Perkins Apr 5 2012 at 6:33 pm #

    I default to first person, but force myself to write in third when the story calls for it. Although writing in third used to feel strange, I now find it quite liberating!

    Thanks for the interesting post.

  25. Kaye M. Apr 5 2012 at 7:32 pm #

    Hm. Well, the current WIP is written in third-person, which is REALLY HARD because I find that expressing yourself from the first person is easier (because you’re in one person’s head, and you can’t get distracted from your main character by gallivanting off into someone ELSE’s head). I’m determined to try every experience, though. :p

  26. Tracey Neithercott Apr 9 2012 at 4:25 pm #

    Great post! I prefer reading first person, though I won’t skip a book just because it’s in third. The distance sometimes bothers me in third, but if it’s tight third I can usually forget about the POV after a chapter or two. Third person present feels really distant for me, and it takes me a lot longer to get into those stories.

    I started my first book in third because I’d heard the opposite you did, that first was too hard for beginning writers to do well but couldn’t get past the first page. I rewrote in first (and also changed my POV character) and the words just flowed. But I also think a lot of it depends on the story you’re telling, especially when deciding between present and past tense.

  27. Yuni (Crystiny) May 11 2013 at 9:48 am #

    I feel more natural when writing 3rd POV. I think it was because Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely book seeped into my writing style. A few years ago , my 3rd pov was normal and incomplete but now i can slowly inject the character feelings in but there are times where I want to switched to 1st POV but my stories dont allow it. Like you said the world I created have too many alien (not a teen story but a fantSy one) culture and complicated spiderwebs to be put in 1st POV. Thanks. This really help me make up my mind

  28. emily Jan 18 2017 at 10:07 am #

    I’m learning about P.O.V point of view and i’m having a good time

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