Choosing and Managing a Point of View in Narrative Fiction

Point of view (POV) is one of the most basic underlying features of story construction, as it determines what you can show the reader and how the content will be framed. While you may be able to change POV characters at different places in the story, you can’t just make random POV shifts merely because they’re convenient for you. And while there is nothing wrong with reconsidering the viewpoint partway through the writing process, changing the POV at a later stage can involve intense rewriting and may require you to add or delete significant amounts of content.

My goal is to help you understand the main POVs that are used in fiction: first person, third person limited/multiple, and third person omniscient. If you understand the advantages and disadvantages of each, it’s easier to choose the right one from the outset, especially if you’re a “pantser.”

First Person (FP)

In FP POV, the narrator is the POV character and speaks using “I” sentences. This POV is commonly used.

One of the great things about FP is that it brings the reader right into the story and keeps them close to the action. The reader knows what the POV character thinks, feels, and knows (or thinks they know), which informs how the reader perceives the events and other characters in the story. The reader forms a very intimate relationship with the POV character and a more distant relationship with the other characters.

This is a limited POV, as the reader cannot be informed of anything that the POV character does not know. This creates plenty of opportunities for surprises, because the reader is experiencing events as the POV character does. However, this also means that there may be information you want to give the reader but can’t because the POV character would not have it.

Controlling FP POV

First and foremost, you must decide how reliable your POV character (narrator) is. Since everything that happens will be filtered through this character’s perspective, the way they see the world will shape the story. You have to understand the POV character in detail, perhaps more so than any other character, and you need to be prepared to show the POV character’s internal conflicts and contradictions. The less reliable the narrator, the less introspective they will be and the harder the reader will have to work to piece together an objective understanding of the events.

If you’ve ever watched Memento, you realize that the POV character is an unreliable narrator. What you learn at the end of the movie completely overturns your understanding of the character and the events of his life. This is the sort of effect you can most easily achieve in FP, although third person limited (below) is another good choice to create this effect.

With FP, you also have to consider how to reveal information. The POV character will say what they think is relevant and true, and this requires you to withhold what may be valuable information. Even a reliable POV character will have gaps in their knowledge and they may receive misinformation that they believe, and this is where some of the greatest opportunities for suprises will appear. However, you may be prevented from sharing information you really want the reader to have for the simple fact that the POV character wouldn’t have it.

Sometimes you will struggle to find creative ways to handle a critical information gap, but do not give in to the temptation to construct flimsy plot devices to give readers the information. Try to build this information gap into the story in a way that heightens suspense. However, if this problem arises frequently or the problems created seem insurmountable, consider using the third person multiple viewpoint instead.

One thing you don’t have to worry so much about is creating a divide between objective and subjective truth. In FP, subjective truth comes first and objective truth is secondary. For example, if your main character thinks Jack is an idiot, then your main character can say Jack is an idiot — you don’t have to bend over backwards trying to qualify the POV character’s opinions as opinions the way you need to do with third person POVs. What your POV character reports about Jack’s actions may contradict their opinion that Jack is an idiot, but whether or not the POV character recognizes the contradiction depends on what kind of person they are. In any case, this opinion will clearly influence the way they think and behave, and the reader will get to watch the cognitive dissonance fireworks up close.

Choosing a POV Character

Consider the following:

  1. Which characters are most critical to the story?
  2. What do you want readers to see — and not see?
  3. What mood and tone do you want to set?
  4. How will your POV character’s feelings and beliefs warp their (and the reader’s) perspective on other characters and events?
  5. Are you prepared to create “sympathy for the devil” if you choose a cruel or criminal POV character?

Changing the POV Character

You can change between one POV character and another in first person, but do not make this move lightly or frequently. You have to find some way to signal POV changes, and in FP, that can get messy. When the narrator refers to the POV character as “I” rather than “Jane,” it can be tricky for readers to figure out when a new “I” is reporting the action.

The simplest way to keep things clean is to give each POV character their own chapters, perhaps even their own “parts” (clusters of chapters) so you can easily telegraph the switch. This gives readers time to grasp one character’s viewpoint before another character’s viewpoint turns the reader’s opinions on their heads. You can also intersperse brief FP sections into third person writing with short chapters or introductory sections at the beginnings of chapters (a la Frank Herbert’s Dune).

Second Person (SP)

In SP POV, the narrator speaks directly to the reader as though the reader were another character in the story. The narrator speaks using “you” and “we” sentences. This POV is very rarely used.

SP is a limited POV, much like FP, and it would be relatively easy to create an unreliable narrator. However, I have only ever seen it used successfully in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, and it was only used intermittently.

As I have considerably less experience with and insight into this POV, I suggest you read through What Does It Mean to Write from a Second Person Point of View? for more information about its strengths and weaknesses.

Third Person Limited (TPL) and Third Person Multiple (TPM)

In TPL or TPM POV, the narrator describes the world and events from a specific character’s POV, but the narrator is not identical with the POV character or any other character in the story. In TPL, the narrator follows only one character; in TPM, the narrator can follow several POV characters over the course of the book. The narrator speaks using he/she/they/it sentences. These POVs are very popular.

Like FP and SP, these POVs restrict what you can show the reader, but with a few critical differences.

First, the narrator is an objective reporter, whereas the FP and SP narrators are subjective reporters. In TPL and TPM you have to distinguish the POV character’s thoughts and feelings from objective descriptions. If the POV character thinks Jack is an idiot, the narrator must make it clear that this is what the POV character thinks and not that this is an objective truth about Jack.

The narrator can only report on the thoughts and feelings of the POV character, but here the narrator is likely to be dispassionate. You can give the narrator some character, but they must keep some emotional distance from the POV character. In general, write as though the narrator had a camera on the POV character’s shoulder and a microphone in their head, so to speak. The narrator may know the POV character’s thoughts and feelings, but they can’t see or hear anything that that the POV character doesn’t.

In TPM specifically, you can show the same situation from different perspectives. This allows you to show a broad view of a situation while developing multiple characters. For example, if Jack and Jane are at a party, you can show the party in very different ways by alternating between POV characters over the course of the party. This will allow you to highlight the different personalities of the characters as well as advancing the plot by introducing information that may come from various sources.

Controlling the TPL or TPM POV

One of the biggest problems with TPL and TPM is that it’s easy to slip and have the narrator report on the thoughts and feelings of a non-POV character. The narrator only “knows” the thoughts and feelings of the POV character in a given scene and can only report on the observable actions of any other character.

If Jane is the POV character in a scene, you can’t describe how Jack’s heart races when he hears that Jane is leaving; instead, you have to describe Jack’s facial expression, body language, and actions. However, you can report Jane’s assumptions and beliefs about what Jack is feeling, but you have to make it clear that those are her subjective thoughts.

In TPM, you also want to create some balance in the amount of time you spend with the different POV characters. As a general rule, if a character is important enough to use as a POV character, they are important enough to develop throughout the story. Granted, some characters will be more important than others, so naturally you will spend more time with them, but avoid using a POV character merely as a convenient device to give the reader information.

Additionally, now that you have broader powers to give the reader more information, you can’t easily withhold critical information. With FP, you will probably have only one POV character and the information you can reveal is tightly restricted by what that character knows; when the POV character is blindsided, the reader is blindsided. But here you may have a range of characters to choose from and an objective narrator reporting events. Simply withholding crucial information only to pull it out of your hat later is a con game. Don’t do it.

You may still find ways to hold back some details (perhaps none of your POV characters have this information), but in third person POVs in general, readers can see multiple facets of the story unfolding at the same time, so you need to use that knowledge to create tension and drive the story. One way to do this is to pick POV characters whose subjective opinions will color and perhaps misdirect readers by influencing the way the reader interprets the information. Additionally, showing conflicting viewpoints can be a great way to develop both the story and the characters.

Ideally, you want to give the reader what they need to know to figure things out while disguising the importance of these things. Perhaps the characters recognize the important details but give them too little weight, or perhaps they simply put too much emphasis on the wrong things, thereby downplaying the importance of crucial details.

In doing this, be very careful that you don’t encourage your characters to do stupid things in a desperate attempt to misdirect readers. The characters’ actions must be reasonable based on what the characters know, even if the readers have spotted what’s really important and can see what’s coming. Do not kill the credibility of your characters to advance the plot.

If you’re not sure you can dupe readers through misdirection, try creating dramatic irony instead. Readers will be accumulating information from various characters, so they may spot what’s coming before the characters do, thus creating tension.

Choosing a POV Character

Consider the following:

  1. Which character(s) can provide the information the reader should have?
  2. How will the character(s)’s perspectives influence the reader’s opinions, and how can that be used to create tension?
  3. In TPM, how will you create a unique voice for each POV character?

Changing the POV Character

Another thing that makes TPM different from FP is that it is relatively easy to change POV character throughout the book. When you change scenes, you can change POV character — or not — as the story requires. Treat each change of POV character as a scene change and insert some kind of visual divider (such as a line of asterisks), even if the action is technically one scene, such as Jack and Jane’s party. Remember to make POV changes reasonably obvious.

Third Person Omniscient (TPO)

In TPO POV, the narrator has a god’s-eye view of the world and can tell the story from a variety of perspectives. The narrator speaks using he/she/they/it sentences. Omniscient POVs are somewhat less common than the limited POVs and can be extremely difficult to use effectively.

When used well, an omniscient POV can tell a complex story very efficiently because you don’t need to set up a whole new scene (or “sub-scene”) to show a single event from different perspectives. The narrator can move around and follow different characters and events to show a broad view of the action as the story unfolds. You can (but don’t have to) go back and explain other perspectives at a later time. These POVs are great for creating fairy-tale-like atmospheres and for keeping extremely long stories moving forward.

Note that there are two variants of the omniscient viewpoint: subjective and objective.

Third Person Omniscient Subjective (TPO-S)

In TPO-S POV, the omniscient narrator can report what the characters think and feel as well as their actions. This POV is relatively common.

By sharing the characters’ subjective experiences, you can create greater intimacy between the reader and the characters. However, you have to work hard to resist the urge to “head hop” (see below).

Third Person Omniscient Objective (TPO-O)

In TPO-O POV, the narrator does not describe the thoughts and feelings of the characters and is limited to describing their actions only. This POV is relatively uncommon.

Since you can only show outward actions, you have to work much harder to show when a character is being secretive or duplicitous without being obvious. The lack of emotional connection will also create considerable distance between the reader and the characters, and may have a much colder, more clinical feel.

Controlling the TPO POV

The greatest advantage of an omniscient POV is precisely what makes it so hard to manage: the narrator’s ability to show all events and perspectives. On one hand, you can show everything, but that doesn’t mean you should; on the other hand, hiding information is generally not an option here. The author needs to exercise a great deal of care with an omniscient POV, because if you let it run wild, it will trample you.

Below are some of the most common problems writers face when trying to manage an omniscient POV.

Head Hopping

When the narrator shifts focus from the thoughts and feelings of one character to those of another character without signaling this shift, they are said to be “head hopping.” This is especially noticeable when it happens within a single paragraph.

While this is something that can happen accidentally in TPL or TPM POVs, it’s much more likely to happen in an omniscient POV when the author isn’t careful about when and how they shift the narrator’s focus. You have to be incredibly diligent about telegraphing these changes in a way that isn’t intrusive.

I like to think of the omniscient narrator like a movie camera. They can zoom in and focus on one character or zoom out and pan around. If you move around too quickly, you’ll confuse and frustrate your audience; if you only show long distance shots, you’ll get some great scenery but you’ll create too much distance between the audience and the characters. The trick is to find the right balance for each scene.  

  • Choose one POV character per paragraph. You may be able to pan around to see other character’s actions in that paragraph, but you should only reveal one character’s perspective. New POV character, new paragraph.
  • Make POV character changes subtle but obvious. You may be doing a lot of this in a short period of time, especially during busy scenes, and there’s a risk of either confusing or annoying the reader if POV changes are clumsy or unclear. In general, you’ll want to identify the new POV character in the first few words of the new paragraph. When possible, have the first POV character direct their attention to the new POV character right before the shift to create a more natural transition.
  • Try to avoid shifting around too much at one time. When you need to show a lot of things happening — and the characters’ responses — you may want to “zoom out” to create more distance between the narrator and the characters. Here, the narrator may get their own perspective, even though they are not actually part of the story. This is where the god’s-eye view really comes into play. See next section for more.

Narrator’s Distance

How close the narrator gets to the action will likely depend on whether you need to focus on physical action or the characters’ subjective experiences. You need to signal to the reader when you are zooming in and zooming out.

  • In the god’s-eye view, the narrator is looking down at the action from a distance. From this “zoomed out” position, it is possible to create a wide view of a physical scene or describe the overall mood of the characters in the scene.
  • It may be permissible to report on the subjective experiences of individual characters in the god’s-eye view, but in a detached and objective way. For example, instead of reporting their actual thoughts verbatim, report that they thought something. This can be done for multiple characters within a single paragraph, but exercise caution when doing so.
  • Once you begin to really focus on an individual character, that character quickly becomes the POV character and the narrator “zooms in.”
  • Once the narrator zooms in on a character, it’s generally best to follow that character for a bit so you’re not bouncing the reader around. Depending on what you need to show in the scene, this may mean they become the POV character for the rest of the scene, or it may mean you only follow them for a few paragraphs.

Revealing/Hiding Information

In the TPL and TPM POVs, you don’t have much leeway to withhold information, and here you have virtually none. The omniscient narrator knows all, so if you need to keep something under your hat, it’s even more important to choose a focus that will misdirect readers, even as you set up the conditions for them to figure things out on their own.

In my opinion, however, the best way forward with omniscient POVs is to show your hand and create tension through dramatic irony. Let the reader tear their hair out while the characters do things that seem reasonable from their own POVs but which the reader can see will lead to disaster.

Using TPO Consistently

One of the pitfalls of TPO is that it’s easy to start following one character and to forget that you have to continue developing other characters at the same time. Even when the narrator zooms in one on character for a while, you may need to show at least some of the perspectives of other characters in those scenes.

This does not mean that you should give all of the characters equal weight, either throughout the book or even throughout a scene. Some characters will be — and should be — given more attention than others.

However, If you’re going to choose an omniscient POV, you need to maintain that POV throughout the story. If you frequently focus on one character per scene, you should really consider whether TPL or TPM would be more appropriate.

In general, writing in an omniscient viewpoint requires tremendous focus and control. Done well, it can make a complicated story seem effortless; done poorly, it’s an ungodly mess. I typically recommend that novice writers choose limited viewpoints until they have developed a better understanding of how POV works and how to control it in their own writing.

Choosing a POV Character

Consider the following:

  1. Which character(s) can provide the information the reader should have?
  2. How will the characters’ perspectives influence the reader’s opinions, and how can that be used to create tension?
  3. At what point do you want to introduce information that may colour or contradict the reader’s knowledge of the characters and events? If you want to build up a certain view of the characters/events before you shake the reader, you may want to wait for a somewhat later scene, but consider introducing elements foreshadowing this turnaround.
  4. How close does the reader need to be to the action? If distance is called for, let the narrator talk for a while.

Changing the POV Character

Changing the POV character within a scene should always be done in a way that presents new information (or a new perspective on information) the reader already knows and/or presents an appropriate opportunity to develop other characters.

If you cave in to the temptation to show everything just because you can, the story will become bloated and directionless. Bouncing from one POV character to another for no apparent reason is likely to frustrate readers, so you must be ruthlessly efficient about what you choose to show and why.

Again, try to direct the reader’s attention to a new POV character by having the first POV character draw attention to them in some way. This creates a natural transition that doesn’t require the narrator’s intervention.

In busy scenes where you’re zooming in and out, be extra cautious about how (and how often) you change POV character. Where you can’t easily have the current POV character direct attention to the next thing/character you want to focus on, you may need to zoom out a bit and let the narrator do the work. You still need to find a way to transition that feels natural, and there are (in my opinion) two generally acceptable ways to do this:

  1. Complete the action/conversation underway to create a natural break, then zoom out and choose a new focus.
  2. Wait for a moment of high tension, then shift focus to a character who is somehow disrupted by this tension. For example, you may be focused on Jack and Jane at the party while they are having a private conversation about Jenny’s extramarital affair. John (who is friends with Jenny’s husband) overhears this conversation, giving you an opportunity to shift the focus onto him.

I know this is a lot of information to digest, but I hope it gives you a better idea of how point of view functions in narrative writing.

Next, I take a closer look at character development and voice.

Header images by Sharon McCutcheon and Sofie Zbořilová.

 

About quillsandqueries

My editing experience includes a wide variety of books, articles, and commentary in both fiction and non-fiction. I work with authors of novels and short stories, students preparing for their dissertations, and corporate clients who publish in the financial and education sectors.
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