Point of view is probably the largest single area of novel writing that aspiring writers have problems with.
More specifically, they can’t decide whether to write in the first person or the third person. Both viewpoints seem so tempting in their different ways, and choosing one over the other can feel like closing the door on a whole world of exciting possibilities.
Just about everything in literature boils down to the writer having to make choices. And you could argue that the whole “1st person vs. 3rd person” debate isn’t going to make one heck of a lot of difference at the end of the day…
Sure you’re going to end up with a completely different novel choosing one point of view over another.
On the other hand, you’re still going to write a pretty darn good story (assuming you’ve learnt your craft and you use your skills well). It’s merely going to be different to the story you might have told if you’d made a different viewpoint choice.
Don’t get too hung-up on the possibility of making a “wrong” choice – there’s really no such thing. But do take the trouble to really understand point of view. Handling it badly is one of the clearest signs there is that a story is being written by an amateur and not a professional.
Why Point of View Matters
Without mastering viewpoint, your chances of succeeding in novel writing take a nosedive. And no, I’m not exaggerating.
Is point of view the most important thing to get right? Probably not – that prize is shared equally between…
- The ability to create well-rounded characters that readers care about.
- The ability to write a compelling plot that keeps readers turning the pages.
But even if you do those things to a high-enough standard, you can still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by screwing up on the viewpoint.
Far too many beginners (and even a few published writers) have little sense of how to handle viewpoint correctly in their novels. They make the decision to write in either first person or third person and away they go, never giving viewpoint another thought.
And it shows!
The good news is that there is nothing especially difficult about achieving this mastery of point of view. It really boils down to logic…
- Which character’s eyes (if any) are we looking through at any given moment?
- Do we also have access to their thoughts?
- If so, how closely should the words on the page resemble the character’s own way of speaking?
And so on and so forth…
Once you take on board the logic, it’s simple to apply to your writing. But you need to really take it on board.
Settling for an incomplete understanding of point of view is like settling for mediocrity, not greatness, for your novel as a whole. And who would want to do that?
Okay, now for the details (as well as links to the more in-depth articles. They cover both how to choose a point of view and, crucially, how to then go on and use it like the professional you intend to be.
First Decision: Whose Eyes Are We Looking Through?
The character whose eyes we see the events of the novel through (and whose thoughts we have access to) is known as the viewpoint character.
In most cases, this will be the leading man or woman (or the protagonist), but not always…
Stories can be told from the point of view of a more minor character. The Sherlock Holmes novels, for example, are narrated by Doctor Watson. And the narrator of The Great Gatsby is Nick Carraway, not Gatsby himself. In both cases, using an observer to tell the story increases the mysteriousness of the central character.
Can novels be written from several viewpoints?
Absolutely. Having two or three viewpoint characters in a third person novel is common, and there’s nothing to stop you using as many as you like. First person novels almost always stick to just one point of view (the “I” of the story). But there are exceptions to that.
Which is best – one viewpoint or many? As with most things in storytelling, it’s a trade-off…
- Witnessing the events through many pairs of eyes gives the story breadth.
- Sticking to just the one viewpoint has the advantage of depth.
So it boils down to the demands of your particular story and the effect you are trying to achieve.
This article discusses the pros and cons of writing a “multiple viewpoint novel,” including the thorny question of when and how to switch viewpoints.
Next Choice: First Person or Third Person?
Trying to decide which viewpoint to use is often one of the biggest problems newcomers to novel writing face.
They set off on their journey, full of confidence and excitement, but they are barely a mile down the road when they come across a fork: first person to the left, third person to the right…
- Which way should they go?
- Is there a wrong choice and a right choice?
- Could either road lead them to success?
- What information should they consider before making a decision?
The fact is that neither point of view is inherently “better” than the other. It all depends on the particular novel you have in mind – and since only you know that, only you will be able to make the right decision.
All I can do is run the respective arguments past you…
Third Person Point of View
Like I said above, understanding the theory (or the logic) of point of view is critical if you want to write like a pro and not make any howlers.
Like I also said, the theory is simple! You just need to understand that there are four crucial people in a third person narrative…
- The Author. Yup, that’s you!
- The Narrator. That’s kind of you… but not precisely. The article below explains all!
- The Viewpoint Character. We’ve already covered this above. It’s the person whose eyes we’re looking through at any given moment.
- The Protagonist. The leading man or woman, in other words.
#2 is the most tricky to wrap your head around. But trust me, understanding the role of the narrator in a third person work of fiction (and then applying what you’ve learnt to your prose) will take your writing to a whole new level. So…
Don’t skip this article on Understanding Third Person Narratives.
And in case all that theory leaves you feeling a little dry, I’ve also written a detailed worked example of How to Write in the Third Person.
I’ll see you back here when you’re done!
All clear on the theoretical stuff? Great! You have the necessary knowledge to grasp the pros and cons of using third person.
What are the advantages in a nutshell? Here are a couple of the biggies…
- It’s more immediate. With first person, the events generally took place some time ago. But with third person, even if the novel is written in past tense, it still feels like it’s happening in the “here and now.”
- It gives the writer more freedom. In a first person narrative, the “camera” is effectively fixed behind the viewpoint character’s eyes the whole way through. In third person, you can position the camera wherever you choose!
And if you’re keen, here are a couple more articles which move beyond “traditional” third person…
- Omniscient Point of View. This was the predominant voice in nineteenth century literature but has since fallen out of favor. You can still give it a modern twist, though!
- Third Person in Two Varieties. Here we look at “cinematic” and “character” modes. The standard way of telling a story is to mix the two. But there’s nothing to stop you making an either/or choice.
First Person Point of View
The arguments in favor of using first person for your novel are pretty much the flip side of all the third person arguments above.
For example, I said above that third person gives a storyteller the greatest freedom, due to this ability to move the “camera” from behind the viewpoint character’s eyes and point it in any direction he or she chooses.
But sometimes a lack of options is a good thing (not to mention much simpler). Seeing all of the events through one set of eyes, rather than being monotonous, can actually be an incredibly focused way to tell a story.
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Start by reading this article on first person theory. Again, it runs through the same four people as above…
- viewpoint character
… but this time their roles are a little different (and, unsurprisingly, far less complicated).
I’ve also written a companion article to that: a worked example of how to write first person prose.
Okay, with the theory under your belt, it’s time to look at the advantages of first person point of view. Here they are in a nutshell…
- First person is easier to write. Because handling viewpoint is not easy (at least when you don’t understand the theory), keeping things as simple as possible makes sense for the beginner. Just bear in mind that the opposite (third person is difficult) is not necessarily true.
- First person is more intimate. Novels like Huckleberry Finn would be very different written in third person. The use of first person feels like the storyteller is sitting right there in the room with you. Again, though, it doesn’t follow that third person is cold and distant.
And if you really want to push the boundaries of your knowledge, this article covers a less common way to write in the first person: Using an Unreliable Narrator.
Hopefully, everything above has been enough to steer you in one direction or the other. If you’re still unsure, this neat summary of the arguments will settle the matter in your mind…
Oh, and in case you think I forgot, there’s also this…
Second person would be a brave choice for a novel. But, hey, brave choices aren’t necessarily stupid ones!
The final point to make about choosing one viewpoint over another is that you don’t have to stick to just the one choice. So…
- If you want to use first person and third person points of view in your novel, there is nothing to stop you.
- Or if you think you could tell a great tale written half in the omniscient point of view and half in, I don’t know, first person future, go for it!
If it works, it works. And if it doesn’t, you can easily reshape it into a more traditional form later.
Of course, I wouldn’t recommend such extreme choices – in fact, I’d strongly advise against them – but it is your creation, and mixing different viewpoint options is at least worth considering.
A more sensible way to combine viewpoints than the extreme examples above is to stick with one traditional viewpoint for the bulk of the novel, and then to introduce a more avant garde choice in small doses. For example…
- You could write what is ostensibly a third person novel but write the odd chapter in the epistolary viewpoint – that is, an exchange of letters (or perhaps e-mails) between one character and another.
- Or you could write a more or less “standard” first person novel, but then write a couple of chapters – fantasy sequences, perhaps, in which the narrator imagines life not as it is, but as he would like it to be – in the third person.
As always, though, you should never do these things just for the sake of doing something different.
Point of view, at the end of the day, is simply a way of telling a story in the most effective way possible. If your story doesn’t call for anything out of the ordinary, don’t do anything out of the ordinary. If it does, be brave and go for it.
One Final Decision to Make…
Whichever point of view you’ve decided to use, you also need to choose between past and present tense (or even one of the more offbeat alternatives).
This really is a matter of personal choice. The tense you go with should be the one that feels right for the story you want to tell. But if you want to see me get down off the fence and make a recommendation, check out this article.
And that’s it: your not-so-brief guide to choosing and using point of view.
Of course, you could skip this entire section and just go with your instincts. And you could do well.
On the other hand, you could make one of those fundamental viewpoint slip-ups that mark you as an amateur. And if you plan to make novel writing your career, why risk doing that for the sake of a little hard work up front?
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