At some point in the process of working on your novel, point of view is going to come up. It’s an important aspect of how you present your story to your readers. It influences tone and style, and works hand in hand with tense.
But until you stop and think about it, POV doesn’t mean much. You might not plan ahead, just wander where the story takes you, or even forget the plan and end up weaving a confusing mess of points of view that the reader can’t parse out. The wrong POV can wreck a story that is otherwise excellent.
So now that I’ve scared you, what should you do? Do a little research, become aware of POV and how it works, and start noticing POV in things you read.
You can start your research right here.
First person is where you story is narrated by “I.” The main character narrates the story directly to the reader. Sometimes this means actually narrating, like Dr. John Watson narrates all of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories. He writes the stories as though communicating directly. Other times the main character just narrates—to themselves, to the reader, to the gods.
First person is immediate, sinking you straight into the head of the main character. There is only one other POV that can get so far into the character’s head. First person can also be limiting, allowing you to only explore the world from that one, contained, perspective. If you ever switch people, you have to throw in extra clues to make it clear who “I” is now. Keep this all in mind whenever considering first person for your story.
Second person is almost never used in novels. This is the POV where the narrator talks to “you.” The reader is the main character. Most people find reading second person very jarring. Occasionally someone will create something experimental that uses second person, usually something short. The only major series I can think of that ever used it was the Choose Your Own Adventure novels popular with kids in the 1980s.
On the whole, you’re best off knowing what second person is and never using it.
Third person is the most popular point of view for fiction. This is the POV that uses “he” and “she” for all characters. Third person is unique in that it has multiple levels. There is third person omniscient, which is narrated by someone outside the story, above the story, who sees everything and knows everything. Third person limited sinks into the head of one person at a time, getting as immediate as first person at times.
The tricky part with third person is how you switch POV. Are you going to go omniscient and dip into any head you want to? Or are you going to write limited and dig deep into a character, but have to be careful about slipping into the perspective of other characters? Some authors even slip from head to head at will, digging in here, going lighter there. These are all options. The trick is to know what you’re doing, and to do it well and consistently.There’s more to say about POV, especially how it ties to tense choice, but let’s save that for another article. For now, you have the basics of POV. Play with them and see what suits your story and your voice as an author.